Consider whether Christmas is un-Christian. If its origins adopted pagan customs and traditions, does that matter to God? Did Jesus say, "That’s okay—as long as you have good intentions"? Find out the Bible's answers in this episode of Tomorrow's World.
[The text below represents an edited transcript of this Tomorrow’s World program.]
So many find so much joy in the sights and sounds of December—especially, the arrival of Christmas. Along with green and red decorations, signs and posters featuring a certain jolly, red-robed gentleman, and music you just can not get out of your head, comes the perennial question: Is Christmas a pagan holiday?
Most don’t even care about the answer, but for those who take biblical faith seriously, it is a serious question—and a question in need of an answer. And we will answer that question here on Tomorrow’s World, straight from the pages of your Bible, right now.
Greetings, and welcome to Tomorrow’s World where we help you make sense of your world through the pages of the Bible! Today we’re going to tackle a question that seems to arise every December: “Is Christmas a pagan holiday?”
We’ll be examining the question honestly and openly, with a desire to orient our hearts and minds according to the advice of Jesus Christ as He taught us in Matthew 6 and verse 33 to
“seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
And the question is important. How we choose to honor the Father and His Son matters. As we will see in the inspired words of Scripture, our practices have a profound effect on our relationship with God and on the character we are forming for His use and purposes.
For literally hundreds of thousands of people who consider themselves sincere Christians, the Christmas season is among the most sacred.
It is a time for calling to mind the birth of Jesus Christ, the promised Savior of the world. Many attend religious services in December, devoted to remembering popular narratives of the birth of Jesus, whose birth is ostensibly celebrated on Christmas Day itself.
And many of us have many pleasant memories associated with the Christmas season. In fact, celebrated as it is all over the world, it would be impossible for me to cover in a program such as this one ALL the many customs that individuals across the globe use to make the season special. So, permit me to focus a bit on those customs I, as an American, am more familiar with.
Our cities and even individual homes are often decorated with special reminders of the season—such as nativity scenes, branches or wreaths of holly, and Christmas trees decorated with tinsel of silver and gold. Many will have bought or personally crafted presents for their friends and family members, who will sometimes travel long distances to reunite for a few evenings, enjoy Christmas dinner together, and exchange presents and pleasantries. And many will seek to sneak a kiss from someone while catching them standing under mistletoe.
Of course, 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 to each other with a knowing eye.
In the morning, the children enjoy tearing into their presents to see what “Santa” brought them, and some families will head to religious services to hear a message related to the birth of Jesus—especially those who are concerned that commercialism is crowding out what they believe to be the real meaning of Christmas: The message that God sent His Son into the world on Christmas Day, born of the Virgin Mary to be the Savior of mankind.
There’s more that I could say, but hopefully this captures the popular spirit of the Christmas season. Yes, it is a stressful time for many. Sometimes family gatherings are a source of anxiety, and buying gifts for one another can seem a burdensome obligation—especially when the credit card bill begins to reveal the damage of our attempts at merrymaking.
However, I want to acknowledge that many joyous memories tend to be associated with Christmas and the Christmas season. I, myself, as a child and young man participated in these things. I remember the joys of receiving gifts and buying gifts for others. I don’t know if you can see it very well, but these old, blurry pictures are of me as a small child, enjoying his brand new Christmas presents.
You know, I remember seeing once, as a teenager, a small statue depicting Santa kneeling at the cradle of what was, ostensibly, the “Baby Jesus.” And I was moved—I felt at the time that it was a nice way of trying to point out what I thought was the more important aspect of the Christmas season. I’ve even played the part of Joseph once in a Christmas choral performance.
In other words, I’ve been there; I’ve done that.
I mention these things at the beginning of our discussion to highlight a crucial fact. As we tackle our question today—“Is Christmas a pagan holiday?”—we must keep in mind: None of this is relevant.
We may have years’ worth of positive memories associated with Christmas. We may love the music, the atmosphere, the traditions, and the focus on Jesus and the message of His birth.
Yet literally none of that is relevant to the question “Is Christmas a pagan holiday?”
After all, many religions have their joyous festivals, their times of family gathering, their fondly remembered songs, and traditions that warm the hearts of their adherents.
If we are going to address this question head on, we have to be willing to distance ourselves from our emotional responses and our happy memories and seek to answer the question from the perspective of facts, sound mindedness, and God’s revealed truth.
Actually, that is the easy part, as we’ll see. But what we do with that truth—that’s the hard part. Following Jesus Christ isn’t for cowards.
We want to understand the truth, and we want to seek that truth with an open mind—because truth is important.
John 4 relates a famous account of Jesus’ discussion with a Samaritan woman. She spoke to Him of the Samaritans’ traditions concerning worshiping the God of the Bible, which differed in many ways from the ways actually discussed in the Bible—even though their traditions were sincerely believed. In a sense, they worshipped God in spirit, meaning that their heart was in it, but they didn’t worship Him in truth, meaning that their sincere acts were based on falsehoods and half-truths. What did Jesus say? Did He say to her, “Well, that’s OK. As long as your intent is good, your worship is acceptable before God”?
No, He didn’t.
We read His response in John 4, beginning in verse 23:
“But 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).
That’s our goal today—to enable ourselves to understand how to worship God not just in spirit and intent, but in truth. Truth matters.
So, let’s look at the question with honest eyes: Is Christmas a pagan holiday?
If we’re answering this question based on the origins of the day, then the answer is very clearly “yes.” Because the origins of Christmas as a holiday—its timing, its traditions, its ancient practices—are very clearly pagan.
Now, what does it mean to be “pagan”? After all, the word is thrown about a bit carelessly these days—in fact, there is a growing movement of “neo-paganism” today, which we have covered in detail in Tomorrow’s World magazine—the very same magazine you will get a free subscription to when you request today’s free resource, Is Christmas Christian?
Let’s make sure we’re clear, then. As Merriam-Webster defines it, “pagan” 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 religions and cultic practices that have their origins outside of the religions traditionally associated with the patriarch Abraham: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
And if that is the definition of “pagan,” there is no doubt that the Christmas holiday and most of its traditions originated in pagan customs and worship traditions, many of which pre-date Christianity by centuries or even millennia.
Mistletoe is associated with Roman fertility rituals and Frigga, the Norse goddess of love and lust. The timing of Christmas corresponds not to Jesus’ birth—which was likely in the fall—but to the observance of the pagan Roman Saturnalia and sun worship. That is S-U-N. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes:
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).
The Christmas tree, too, is a tradition with an ancient pagan precedent. In fact, we can see that precedent condemned in Scripture. Look at Jeremiah 10 and read it with your favorite Christmas tree 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 10:1–5).
The list of these ancient, pagan origins to various Christmas practices is long and clear. In fact, many popular, conservative authorities in modern Christianity readily admit that the pagan origin of many of the most common and honored Christmas traditions is a fact of history. Any historical resource of repute will confirm that fact.
For instance, consider this brief summary from the widely respected “Christian” resource Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity:
The Christian church took over many pagan ideas and images. From sun-worship, for example, came the celebration of Christ’s birth on the twenty-fifth of December, the birthday of the Sun. Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival of 17–21 of December, provided the merriment, gift-giving and candles typical of later Christmas holidays…. Some pagan customs which were later Christianized, for example the use of candles, incense and garlands, were at first avoided by the church because they symbolized paganism (1977, pp. 131–132).
And in his famous work A Classical Dictionary, scholar John Lemprière summarized some of the ancient, pre-Christian practices of the pagan holiday 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.
If we are honest, surely we will admit that all of this sounds very familiar.
Christmas and its traditions and customs are deeply rooted in pagan origins. In that sense, yes, Christmas is a pagan holiday.
But still, is it really? Many argue that pagan activities, celebrations, traditions, and symbols have—in a sense—been “baptized” by Christianity. The holly branches and its red berries once had pagan meanings, true, but maybe now they can be used to symbolize Christ’s crown of thorns and the red blood He shed for our sins.
Perhaps the real answer is that Christmas was a pagan holiday, but it is no longer. People can certainly be baptized and have their lives transformed. Can pagan worship practices?
Sinners can repent and change. Can’t ancient pagan practices or traditions be sort of “baptized” and kept? After all, those who keep Christmas don’t believe they are worshiping the sun god or Saturn or Mithras or Baal or Frigga or any of those pagan gods. They are often trying to sincerely worship God and Jesus as they understand Them. Do the pagan origins of Christmas really matter?
The answer is a simple one: If we desire to worship God and Jesus Christ in a manner that is pleasing to them, not just pleasing to us, then yes—they matter very much.
Again, the issue is not one of opinion or feelings. It is a matter of truth. And if we want to know the truth about how God the Father and Jesus Christ think about these things, then we must go to the Bible They have given us to help us learn to think like them. And when we do go to the Scriptures, the answer is absolutely clear.
For instance, speaking of pagan peoples and pagan traditions and customs, God commanded ancient Israel very clearly in Deuteronomy 12:30:
“[D]o 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).
This is crucial: Notice, the Bible doesn’t just say, “Don’t worship idols” or “Don’t worship foreign gods.” It says: “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.” 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 or whomever—God says plainly to us “do not worship me using pagan traditions.”
We saw a very similar command earlier when we read Jeremiah 10, in which God said clearly, “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles….” And here by “Gentiles,” God means those pagans outside the nation of Israel.
The commands in the Bible simply leave no room at all to conclude that God accepts worship using pagan 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 our own Bibles—we find that this is not how He thinks at all about these things.
In fact, Jesus addresses this very scenario with His disciples and the Jewish leaders of His day. In Mark chapter 7, Jesus challenges the unbiblical traditions of the first-century Pharisees. They claimed to serve God with those traditions, but Jesus told them that their pious traditions actually violated God’s commands and were to be condemned. We can read His response in Mark 7, beginning in verse 6:
“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… All too well you REJECT THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD, that you may KEEP YOUR TRADITION’” (Mark 7:6–9).
To observe Christmas, you would have to lay aside the commandment of God, who says plainly He does not want to be worshipped using heathen customs, so that you could hold on to your tradition. You would have to reject that commandment of God to keep that tradition. And Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the very founder of Christianity condemns doing that in no uncertain terms.
I can’t speak for you, but the idea of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, calling me a hypocrite sends chills down my spine. Almost 2,000 years ago, Jesus condemned those who would dare to call Him “Lord” while ignoring His commands, asking,
“Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
The evidence is clear:
So, with our original question answered, the next question is clear: What do we do now?
We have only a brief time left on today’s program, but let me take a moment to say that—for those whose hearts are willing to follow God wherever He and His word lead us, following His lead and obeying His commands never leads us to a worse place. Only a better place.
For instance, I know of thousands of individuals, all over the world, who have left Christmas behind and have embraced, instead, the Holy Days actually revealed in the Bible—designed by God and recorded in His word as days set apart by Him for worship, praise, and instruction.
Those individuals—the members and attendees of the Living Church of God, who sponsor the Tomorrow’s World program—would say to you as plainly as I can now from here in this studio: As Christians and followers of Jesus Christ, they would not trade observing the biblical Holy Days for keeping Christmas for all the money in the world.
Moving past Christmas does not have to mean giving up joy and meaning and warmth and fellowship. Quite the opposite. When one turns away from deceptively attractive traditions and customs that fundamentally contradict the Bible to follow Jesus Christ—the real Jesus Christ—we have the opportunity to discover exactly what Jesus meant when He spoke to the woman by the well, almost 2,000 years ago, and spoke of worshiping God not only in spirit, but in spirit and in truth.
Thank you for watching our program, and we hope that it was helpful. All of us here at Tomorrow’s World produce these videos; people in front of the camera, behind the camera, in the control room, the fellow standing right next to me holding a light. We all work hard to help you understand your world through the pages of the Bible. If you like these videos, please click on the subscribe button as well as the little bell to be notified whenever we make more, and if you want today’s offer, just go down to the description and you’ll find the link.
We see the scene every year… decorated trees, evergreen wreaths and bright multi-colored lights. Sometimes there is a little crèche in the corner, depicting an infant child receiving lavish gifts. Yet most of the gift-giving these days is done by debt-laden adults, trying to outdo each other in gifting children, family members and friends with the latest style or fad.
Is this what Jesus Christ had in mind for His followers? For that matter, what do these traditions have to do at all with the birth of Jesus Christ? People often say, "Let's put Christ back in Christmas"—but was He ever there? Where did we get our many traditions? The answers may surprise you!