Are Christmas Traditions Paganistic?

11 Nov

One of many arguments against the celebration of Christmas as it has been done for years, is the claim that many of the traditions found in the celebration of it were brought over into Christianity from pagan practices. These include the yule log, the tree, special feasts or meals, and mistletoe. How can we justify these things? Isn’t it just like celebrating Halloween?

Here are some historical facts about our traditions. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible says: Gradually a number of prevailing practices of the nations into which Christianity came were assimilated and were combined with the religious ceremonies surrounding Christmas. The assimilation of such practices generally represented efforts by Christians to transform or absorb otherwise pagan practices.

The Feast of Saturnalia in early Rome, for example, was celebrated for 7 days from the 17th to the 24th of December and was marked by a spirit of merriment, gift giving to children and other forms of entertainment. Gradually, early Christians replaced the pagan feast with the celebration of Christmas; but many of the traditions of this observance were assimilated and remain to this day a part of the observance of Christmas. Other nations, the Scandinavians, Germans, French, English and others, have left their mark . . .

Concerning these ancient elements, The Christian Encyclopedia says: Various symbolic elements of the pagan celebration, such as the lighting of candles, evergreen decorations, and the giving of gifts, were adapted to Christian signification. Later as Christianity spread into northern Europe, the Celtic, Teutonic, and Slavic winter festivals contributed holly, mistletoe, the Christmas tree, bonfires, and similar items.

Finally, Unger’s Bible Dictionary adds: The giving of presents was a Roman custom; while the yule tree and yule log are remnants of old Teutonic nature worship. Gradually the festival sank into mere revelry . . . The custom was forbidden by an act of parliament in 1555; And the reformation brought in a refinement in the celebration of Christmas by emphasizing its Christian elements.

But what about passages like Jeremiah 10? Some believe this condemns the celebration of Christmas and especially the use of the Christmas tree. Is Jeremiah telling us to avoid the customs of the nations? No. Jeremiah 10 is a denunciation of the making and worship of idols and not the decoration of evergreen trees in the home. Furthermore, this passage is not a categorical denial of all the customs of the nations. It is only a command to avoid those customs that are contrary to the revelation of God to Israel. There were many customs that Israel and the nations had in common that were not wrong.

This passage in Jeremiah and others like it in Isaiah had to do with idolatry. First, Jeremiah warns against astrological worship–the worship of the sun, moon, and the stars. Second, he warns against going into the forest to cut down trees to be carved into an idol in some form whether human or animal, and then worshipped and prayed to for guidance, for protection, and blessing. Some have tried to tie the reference to the green tree in Jeremiah, to the reference in 10:3 to further justify condemnation of the Christmas tree, but this refers to the idolatrous groves of trees used as a place for idol worship and revelry.

Some issues Facing Us Today: The pagan associations were lost long ago at least from a Christian perspective. The names of the days of our week also had their origin in pagan beliefs. Thursday originally stood for the Germanic god of the sky or of thunder. Tuesday stood for Tiw, the god of war. And Wednesday is derived from Woden, the chief god in Germanic mythology. Sunday and Monday were related somehow to the worship of the sun and the moon. Saturday is from Saturnus, or Saturn, and Friday comes from Fria, the goddess of love.

When Friday rolls around we don’t think about Fria, the goddess of love. On Saturday we don’t think about it as Saturn’s day, but as our day off! The same applies to the traditions of Christmas. If one observed the days of the week or the Christmas season with their ancient associations in mind, certainly it would be wrong. But many of these things, as with our Sunday, have been given Christian connotations.

The Evergreen tree is a symbol of the eternal life which Christ, the Son of God, offers to man via another tree, the cross in the Book of Revelation. The presents under the tree can remind us of God’s gift and our need to give of ourselves to others as those who have received God’s Gift of Life through Christ. Even without seeking special significance in the traditions of Christmas, you could still celebrate this season for the joy and family fun the season can bring.

I would like to suggest that believers can capitalize on the Christmas season as a family tradition and as a learning experience much like the Old Testament Passover was to be used by Israel. It all depends on the spirit and attitude in which it is done.We can be very negative and critical, or we can be positive and use the season as a time to remember and commemorate The Birth of the Savior.

We can use it as a time to demonstrate Love for others in a special way, and to be together as a family like we do on Independence Day, or New Year’s. We can make something evil out of it, or something good.

Here are some facts of Scripture, Concerning the Celebration of Christmas In view of what we have seen, the Bible appears to be silent from the standpoint of our Christmas traditions. However, because of our freedom in Christ under Grace, we are at liberty to celebrate Christmas. The important point is that the Bible simply does not condemn the celebration of Christmas, even in the traditional form and, we have liberty in Christ to choose to do so.

Scripture does, however, set down principles which should affect the way we celebrate it. These principles warn and protect us from the distortions we find in the world. Today in many companies and offices, Christmas is celebrated with wild, drunken parties where there is no regard for the reason for the season–The Birth of the Savior of the World. It becomes just a time of merriment and a time to tie one on.

Today people often spend lavishly on gifts and go deeply in debt. They buy things they can’t afford, which nobody needs, and sometimes can’t even identify. The response is: “Hey, thanks. What is it?” Children get caught up with the gifts and the toys and lose sight of the Savior–or never hear about the Lord as God’s Gift of His Son that we might have Life.

Through the Christmas message, Parents often fail to teach the spirit of giving as an outworking of one’s relationship with God through faith in Christ, God’s gift to the world. Finally, some may observe the season as they would observe lent, as areligious holy day that must be observed to gain points with God, or to become more spiritual.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Even the gift aspect can be done in such a way that it is instructive, meaningful, in keeping with one’s budget, and in keeping with Biblical teaching concerning Christian stewardship.

Today, our Christmas traditions have lost their original pagan significance or connotations. In some cases, the distortions were corrected by the reformers over two hundred years ago, but they did not see fit to condemn the celebration of Christmas.

There is nothing inherently evil in the traditional Christmas with the tree, presents, carols, and decorations. Such things become what people make them, by their attitudes and beliefs (Romans). The ultimate issue is our attitude, the reasons, and how if one decides to celebrate the Christmas season in some fashion.

Here are some Options to Consider: If you have doubts or misgivings, do away with any observance of the Christmas season all together. But do not become a Scrooge and look down on those who do celebrate it (Rom. 14:-5). Cut out some or all of the traditional elements like the tree, presents, etc., but spend the season reflecting on The Birth of the Savior through the Word and the singing of carols. Use this part of the season simply as a family tradition for fun and family togetherness. But remember the birth of Christ through carols, reading the Christmas story, and times with other members of the Body of Christ.

The Santa Claus idea originated with a man by the name of St. Nicholas who was the Bishop of Myra in Lycia in the area of present day Turkey. He went about, often at night, giving gifts to poor and needy children. He later became the patron saint of children in the Roman Catholic Church. From here the story grew and became legend in country after country with various details were deleted and added as the legend of St. Nick grew.


So, how should believers handle it? Santa may be taken as a fairy tale idea like “Alice in Wonderland”, or “Jack and the Bean Stalk”… Children normally understand that Alice in Wonderland is only make believe–a fairy tale. However, for many children, Santa is real. In many ways it is probably harmless. But because of the confusion between Santa and Christ, parents need to be careful in their use of this part of Christmas tradition.

Some Christians could be marginal in their spiritual life and they get caught up in the rat race and secularization of the season. People spend far more than they can afford. They seek relief from their burdens and seek happiness in the glitter and merry making of the holidays, rather than in the person of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. They look for the season to give joy, rather than the Person of the season. They expect from the season what only God can give. As a result, depression and suicide reaches its peak during the Christmas season and immediately following it.

We also need to remember that Scripture does promise rewards for godly behavior or faithfulness for believers in Christ. Salvation is a gift through faith alone in Christ alone, but crowns, metonomy for rewards, are promised for faithful and obedient living.

The mistletoe speaks of the Gift of God’s Righteous Branch, and the kiss or hug stands for kissing the Son in faith–an expression of faith in Christ as God’s means of salvation and reconciliation.

As with all of these things discussed here, each family needs to make up their own minds. In my opinion parents can explain the traditions and have fun with them,but make sure your children understand the historical roots and use these things to teach the truth behind the traditions.

Keep the Christmas traditions and use them to illustrate and focus on the truth of Jesus Christ. The tree speaks of the Lord and the Eternal Life which He gives; The presents speak of God’s Love and Gift to us of His Son and of our Love for one another. Make the emphasis more on giving rather than receiving. Remember: God gave His Son.

Joy to the world, the Lord IS come! Let Earth receive her King!

Christian-Charles de Plicque
(Article also available in French)

Angel House International Missions Ministries Association
Karleby Finland
November 2003

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