Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

Christmastime is a season of contrasts, is it not? It is a celebration of peace, surrounded by hectic bustle. It is a time devoted to joy, but is so often accompanied by feelings of depression. The purpose of the holiday is to commemorate the birth of the Savior of the world, and yet more energy is devoted to service at the altar of consumerism. It can be a real struggle to make sense of this time of the year.

There is one further level of contrast, however, which is a source of some conflict. A reader asks, “How do you respond to people who insist Christmas is a pagan holiday?” Christmas is often compared with pagan festivals that once occurred near the same spot on the calendar. The motives vary. Some are deeply devoted Christians who want nothing to do with the idolatrous practices they see as infecting the festivities. A few are neo-pagans complaining about “cultural appropriation.” And there are also groups of atheists and agnostics who point to it as hypocrisy. But in each claim, the case is the same. So, are they right? Is Christmas really no more than a pagan holiday early Christians stole in order to undermine the religion of others?

The Time of Jesus’ Birth

Answering that question would seem to depend on finding out precisely when Jesus Christ was born. There are some interesting theories there. Having gone through a few of them, I am left with little more clarity than I started with. I will include links to a few of the more helpful articles at the bottom of this post, for those who want to look further. However, allow me to briefly describe the best explanations for and against a December birth for the Messiah.

Announcement of John’s Birth

Either way you go, the real sticking point is the timing of the visit of the angel Gabriel to promise the birth of John the Baptist to John’s father, the priest Zacharias. This episode appears in Luke 1:5–25. The birth of John was miraculous and deserving of such announcement because Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, were too old to have children.

John had a great destiny as the prophet sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, and that ministry began even before he was born. In Luke 1:26-38, Gabriel made another visit to announce another birth. This time, it was to Mary to tell her she would give birth to Jesus even though she was a virgin. In verses 36, 37, Gabriel tells her that Elizabeth is already six months pregnant in spite of the fact that she was barren. If Elizabeth could have a baby, then so could Mary, since “with God nothing will be impossible.” The unborn John was the sign that Jesus was coming.

But it also offers our only chance at a timeline. If we could find out when Zacharias served in the Temple, then we could know about when John was conceived. Then, knowing that, we could just add 15 months to get to the birth of Jesus.

Unfortunately, we cannot be absolutely certain of when that was. Zacharias’ branch of the priestly family would have served twice a year. We do know when those times were, actually. One was in late May/early June, while the other was in late September/early October. In the first case, Jesus would have been conceived around December and born near September. In the second, Gabriel would have visited Mary in March and Jesus was born in December.

Now, that’s interesting, isn’t it? The December date actually is viable, as it turns out. But still, it is not verifiable. Our best piece of evidence does not give absolute proof one way or another.

Shepherds in the Fields

Some guesses are also made from the next biggest piece of biblical detail. Luke 2:8–20 tells us that angels appeared to announce the birth of Jesus to “shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Does that tell us anything? Maybe, but again, it is used by both sides of the debate. Some say it would have been too cold for shepherds to be out in the fields in late December, so Jesus could not have been born then. On the other hand, the defenders of Christmas say Decembers in Israel are not brutal enough to keep anyone indoors. Besides that, they may not have had a choice.

December is the lamb-birthing season. At that time of year, shepherds have to be near their sheep in order to take care of the newborn lambs. Not only does this potentially explain why they were in the fields late in the year, but it also fits with the purpose of Christ’s coming, since He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Lambs were the Passover sacrifice, and Jesus was crucified for the sins of mankind at Passover. There is therefore a certain poetry to His being born at the same time of year as they were.

Again, though this might lend credence to Christmas, it doesn’t prove it. The Bible itself does not actually draw this parallel, so even if we go by it we are still only guessing. A guess is all anyone can make. For what it is worth, church history is on the side of December. There is evidence that we have celebrated Jesus’ birth then from almost the beginning. But that is really not worth much, after all. Maybe they had it wrong, too.

The Purpose of Christmas

As interesting as all of this is, then, none of it really answers the question. Is Christmas just a pagan holiday dressed up in Christian imagery? Of course not! The question is only asked because it focuses on the wrong details and assumes what cannot be proven.

There are decent grounds for and against saying Jesus was born in December, but they are incidental. The real challenge is to the idea of commemorating the birth of Jesus at all. So the real question is, did that happen? Yes? Then Christmas isn’t a pagan holiday.

The reason we mark it is far more important than the day. Matthew 1:23 tells us that Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” He came to us, to live as one of us, to die as the sacrifice for our sins, and to rise to life again to prove His deity beyond dispute and open the way for us to spend eternity with God. Certainly that is worth celebrating!

Jesus may just have been born in December. It is a position that can be defended, so if you feel like you can only enjoy Christmas if it is accurate, hopefully the evidence helps. That is why the early Christians picked the date, after all, and not merely to compete with pagan festivals. I find it interesting, but it hardly matters to me. Nor do any similarities to anything else. What matters is that Jesus was born, and I am really, really happy about that. It is worth taking the time to commemorate, and I see nothing wrong with doing so at the same time of year we have always done it. It is at least as good as any other, if not better, so long as we remember its true purpose. This holiday is ultimately about acknowledging that only Jesus Christ is worth worshipping. Everything else pales in contrast to Him. So celebrate the coming of the Light of the World without any shadow of doubt.


Further Reading:

Christmas–Was Jesus Born on December 25th?

Thanks for checking out the Quest Forums blog! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me here, on Twitter (@Quest_Forums), or on Facebook (“Quest Forums”). Links are in the sidebar. I am always looking for new questions and comments, so submit yours on any of these sites or by emailing And please, spread the word! The share buttons below are a great way to do that. I want to connect with as many people as possible, so if you know anyone with questions about the Bible, send them my way.

No comments:

Post a Comment