Many have asked the question, but few are sincerely interested in the answer.
Hundreds of millions around the world consider Christmas among the most sacred days—a time when they call to mind the birth of Jesus Christ, the promised Savior of the world. Many attend religious services in December where they hear and remember popular narratives of the birth of Jesus, which they celebrate on Christmas Day.
Indeed, many of us have pleasant memories associated with the Christmas season. Our cities and even individual homes are often decorated with reminders of the holiday—such as nativity scenes, Christmas trees decorated with tinsel of silver and gold, and branches or wreaths of holly—all while homes burn their Yule logs, keeping everyone warm against the cold weather outside, at least in the Northern Hemisphere.
Many will have bought or made presents for their friends and family members, who will sometimes travel long distances just to reunite for a few evenings, enjoy Christmas dinner together, and exchange gifts and pleasantries. Many will sneak a kiss from someone standing under a sprig of mistletoe. Some children will be told the night before that their presents are being brought to them from the North Pole by Santa Claus or “St. Nick,” as the adults wink at each other. In the morning, children will enjoy unwrapping their presents to see what “Santa” brought them, and some families will head to religious services to hear a message related to Jesus’ birth.
And it is also a stressful time of year for many. Family gatherings may become a source of stress, not joy. Buying gifts can seem a burdensome chore or obligation—especially when the credit card bill reveals the damage of our attempts at merrymaking. Many lament the commercialism that has come to dominate so much of the Christmas season, feeling it is crowding out what they believe is the “real” meaning of Christmas—that God sent His Son to be the Savior of mankind. Despite this, most who call themselves “Christian” take comfort in the many positive feelings and memories they associate with Christmas.
In the end, too many are unwilling to face the truth and explore whether Christmas is un-Christian. Is it actually a pagan holiday? We know that many religions have their happy occasions, full of family, music, song, and tradition. So, will we have the courage to look honestly at our own cherished season? Jesus taught us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). That’s true even when our search brings us to difficult conclusions—after all, Christianity is not for cowards.
If we seek truth with an open mind, we must acknowledge that even our warmest memories don’t turn untruth into truth. And truth is important.
John 4 relates a famous account of Jesus’ discussion with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. She spoke to Him of the Samaritans’ traditions concerning worshiping the God of the Bible—traditions that differed from the commands God gave in the Bible concerning how He wanted to be worshiped. Their acts of sincere devotion were based on falsehoods and half-truths. What did Jesus say to this? Did He say, “Well, that’s okay—as long as you are sincere, your worship is equally acceptable before God”?
No, He didn’t. Rather, Jesus emphasized the need for worship to be grounded in the truth, not just our intent, telling her that “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24).
We must desire not only to worship God sincerely—not only with good intentions—but also to worship Him in truth. Because truth matters.
So, with fresh and honest eyes, let’s ask: Is Christmas a pagan holiday?
If we answer this question based on the origins of the day, the answer is very clearly “Yes,” because the origins of Christmas as a holiday—its timing, its traditions, and its ancient practices—are unmistakably pagan.
Let’s take a moment to consider: What does it mean to be pagan? After all, people today use that word rather carelessly. In fact, there is a growing movement of “neo-paganism,” which Dr. Douglas S. Winnail discussed in detail in his Tomorrow’s World magazine article “The Rise of Modern Paganism” (November–December 2019); you can read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org.
As Merriam-Webster.com defines it, “pagan” in our context means “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of pagans”—which, we are told, are “follower[s] of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome).” Essentially, paganism represents those religions and cultic practices whose origins are outside of the three religions traditionally associated with the patriarch Abraham, which are Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
By that definition of “pagan,” there can be no doubt that Christmas and most of its traditions bear thoroughly pagan origins. Decorating a Christmas tree, hanging holly, singing carols, strategically placing a sprig of mistletoe—even gathering together for the purpose of exchanging gifts—all of these practices originated in pagan customs and worship traditions, many of which predate Christianity by centuries or millennia.
For instance, mistletoe is associated with Roman fertility rituals and Frigga, the Norse goddess of love and lust. The timing of Christmas corresponds not to the actual timing of Jesus’ birth—which was likely in the fall, not in the winter, as our free study guide Is Christmas Christian? explains in detail—but to the observance of the pagan Roman Saturnalia and sun worship. Britannica notes the following:
In the 3rd century, the Roman Empire, which at the time had not adopted Christianity, celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25th. This holiday not only marked the return of longer days after the winter solstice but also followed the popular Roman festival called the Saturnalia (during which people feasted and exchanged gifts). It was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, a god of light and loyalty whose cult was at the time growing popular among Roman soldiers (“Why Is Christmas in December?,” Britannica.com).
As for the popular Christmas tree, this, too, is a tradition of extra-biblical origin—and one with an ancient pagan precedent. In fact, we can see that precedent condemned in Scripture—look at this passage from Jeremiah with this favorite Christmas tradition in mind:
Thus says the Lord: “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good (Jeremiah 10:2–5).
Our commentary on page 21 explains many more details about this popular tradition. But whether fashioning an image of Baal for pagan worship or decorating a “Christmas tree” on the pretext of honoring God, the principle is the same. The list of connections between these ancient, pagan practices and various Christmas traditions is long and clear. In fact, the pagan origins of nearly all of the most common and honored Christmas traditions are acknowledged as facts of history. Even most mainstream Christians don’t dispute the pagan origins of Christmas’ practices and timing. You don’t need to take our word for that—any encyclopedia or reputable historical resource will confirm it as fact.
For instance, in his famous 1788 work A Classical Dictionary, scholar John Lemprière summarized some of the ancient, pre-Christian practices of the pagan holiday called Saturnalia: “The celebration was remarkable for the liberty which universally prevailed. The slaves were permitted to ridicule their masters…. It was usual for friends to make presents one to another, all animosity ceased, no criminals were executed, schools were shut, war was never declared, but all was mirth, riot, and debauchery” (“Saturnalia”).
Does any of that sound familiar? If we are honest with ourselves, surely we will agree that it does—perhaps uncomfortably so.
Clearly, Christmas and its traditions and customs are not simply related to pagan practices—they are deeply rooted in pagan origins. In that sense, Christmas is indeed a pagan holiday.
Still, some may wonder, is it really? Many assume that while various activities, celebrations, traditions, and symbols originated in paganism, they have, in a sense, been “baptized” by Christianity. While the holly branch and its red berries once held pagan meaning—a meaning too vulgar to describe in a family magazine—can we now use them to symbolize Christ’s crown of thorns and the red blood He shed for our sins? Can we conclude that Christmas was a pagan holiday, but is no longer?
People can certainly be baptized and have their lives transformed. Can pagan worship practices undergo the same conversion? After all, those who keep Christmas don’t believe they are worshiping the sun god, or Saturn, or Mithras, or Baal, or Frigga. Most are trying sincerely to worship the God of the Bible—specifically, the Jesus Christ of the Bible. They might ask, Aren’t Christians free to worship God and Jesus however we want to? Do the pagan origins of Christmas really matter?
Sentiment aside, the answer is simple: If we desire to worship in a manner that is pleasing to God the Father and Jesus Christ—not just pleasing to us—then, yes, the pagan origins of Christmas matter very much.
Again, it is not a matter of opinion, happy memories, or personal feelings, but a matter of truth. And if we want to know the truth about how God the Father and Jesus Christ consider these things, we must go to the Bible, where they have revealed for us exactly what they think. In fact, They gave us that Bible to help us learn to think like Them.
When we do go to the Scriptures, they reveal the truth of this matter in a way that is absolutely clear.
For instance, speaking of pagan peoples and pagan traditions and customs, God commanded the Israelites very clearly that they must “not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (Deuteronomy 12:30–31).
Crucially, we see that the Bible does not just forbid worship of idols or foreign gods. God makes it plain that He does not want His followers to worship Him in pagan ways. It doesn’t make a difference if we say we’re not worshiping Mithras, or Saturn, or the sun. God says plainly that we are not to worship Him “in that way”—using pagan traditions.
You may have noticed a very similar command in Jeremiah 10, in which God says clearly, “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles” (v. 2). By “Gentiles,” God simply refers to peoples outside the nation of Israel. The biblical commands of God simply leave no room at all to conclude that He accepts worship using other peoples’ customs—even if it is directed at Him.
Still, that’s the Old Testament, and some might argue that Jesus came to change all of that. Yet, once again, if we go to His actual teachings—recorded for all time in my Bible and in yours—we find that this is not how He thinks about these things at all.
In fact, Jesus addressed this very point in front of His disciples and the Jewish leaders of His day. The first-century Pharisees believed their traditions were rooted in Scripture, and that these traditions served God. Yet Jesus told them that their supposedly pious traditions actually violated God’s commands and were to be condemned:
He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6–9).
To hold on to the tradition of observing Christmas—the tree, the gifts, even the date itself—one must reject the commandment of God, who says plainly that He does not want to be worshiped using heathen customs. Keeping Christmas requires us to lay aside God’s desires and explicit commands—and Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the very founder of Christianity, condemns this in no uncertain terms.
The Bible says that God does not want to be worshiped using pagan traditions, and Jesus calls us hypocrites if we set aside God’s commands in order to worship Him in our own ways. The idea of being labeled a hypocrite by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, should send chills down the spines of any who call themselves Christians. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus condemned those who would dare to call Him “Lord” while ignoring His commands, challenging them by asking, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
The evidence is clear: Christmas is a pagan holiday, God does not want to be worshiped using pagan traditions, and Jesus Christ condemns as hypocrites those who ignore God’s commands in order to keep traditions of any kind.
So, where does that leave us? Are you one of the few whose hearts are willing to follow God wherever He and His word lead them? If so, you know that following His lead and obeying His commands never leads to a worse place—only to a better one.
In fact, many thousands of individuals all around the world have left Christmas behind and have instead embraced the true Holy Days in the Bible, which are clearly revealed as designed and inspired by God for all of His people to observe. These are recorded in His word as days set apart by Him for worship, praise, and instruction. Those who attend Sabbath and Holy Day services with the Living Church of God, which sponsors the Tomorrow’s World magazine, would never—not for all the money or comfort in the world—give up the observance of those days in exchange for the false traditions of pagan, man-made Christmas.
Giving up Christmas does not mean letting go of joy, meaning, warmth, and fellowship. Quite the opposite—when we turn away from deceptively attractive traditions and customs that fundamentally contradict the Bible to follow the real Jesus Christ, we can experience the great joy, deep meaning, and Christian fellowship of those who worship as He said to the woman at the well almost 2,000 years ago—not only in spirit, but in spirit and in truth.