As the year comes to an end and seasonal decorations appear on front lawns and in store windows, many choirs are already warming up to sing carols. “Hark! The herald angels sing,” they’ll declare, “glory to the newborn king.”
Truly the angels did give such honor at Jesus’ birth. But does Christmas do the same?
While a shopping frenzy ensues, from many a pulpit will come the cry to “put Christ back into Christmas,” as in earlier days. But was Jesus Christ ever really in Christmas? U.S. News & World Report explains that the historical record shows “the earliest Christians simply weren’t interested in celebrating the Nativity . . . They ‘viewed birthday celebrations as heathen.’ The third-century [Catholic] church father Origen had declared it a sin to even think of keeping Christ’s birthday ‘as though he were a king pharaoh’” (Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58).
In reality, Jesus Christ was not born anywhere near December 25 (see our study guide offered at the end to learn more). The U.S. News & World Report article continues: “How the church [later] arrived at December 25 . . . is a matter of conjecture. Most widely held is the view that the holiday was an intentional ‘Christianization’ of Saturnalia and other pagan festivals . . . in the third and fourth centuries . . . marking the winter solstice, when days began to lengthen . . . December 25—the solstice on the Julian calendar—[was the] natalis solis invicti (‘birth of the invincible sun’), a festival honoring the sun god Mithras” (p. 59, emphasis added throughout).
Source after reputable source attests to the idolatrous origin of Christmas and its customs. For instance: “The Christmas tree is believed to have its origin in the ceremonial use of the palm tree in the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis . . . at the winter solstice . . . In northern climates . . . the celebration of December 25 was modified by the substitution of a fir tree” (Clyde Parke, The Lincoln Library of Essential Information, 1959, p. 2070).
Most people aren’t too bothered by all this. But in light of the facts, we should at least ask, “How does Christmas bring glory to the newborn King”?
“Christmas” before Christ
Christmas today is often a joyous family occasion, but we must look at where it came from. In significant part it derived from the Roman Saturnalia, a hedonistic harvest festival dedicated to the god Saturn with exchanging gifts. Saturn was worshipped all around the Mediterranean under different names, and often with sexual immorality and horrible atrocities. The Phoenicians sacrificed their children to this god identified in the Bible as Molech and the sun god Baal, the birth of which was later declared to be Dec. 25.
While no one celebrates Christmas in these ways today, they form the roots of the Christmas holiday. Tragically, even the ancient Israelites were swayed to adopt these heinous practices.
The winter solstice period was viewed as the birth of the sun god because it marked the time when the days began to lengthen. This was cause for great celebration, pointing toward the hope of returning life in the spring. Many degenerate idolatrous rites developed around these celebrations.
Evergreen trees, because they stayed green year-round, were often decorated and incorporated into these celebrations. The ancient Israelites adopted such practices in spite of God’s stern warning against the gentile custom of cutting down trees to prop up and decorate (Jeremiah 10:2-4, King James Version). Some view this as describing carved wooden idols, but we should realize that decorated trees were also themselves idols, which God forbade at His altar (Deuteronomy 16:21).
Sadly, the Israelites fell into terrible idolatry, and it only got worse. Besides such decoration, the Israelites appallingly engaged in the sexually licentious rites attached to the Baal/Molech festivals, including sacrificing their children(Jeremiah 32:35).
These are the ancient origins of what would later come to be known as Christmas—depraved idolatry, decorated trees, exchanging gifts in honor of the birth of pagan gods, sexual licentiousness and even human sacrifice. No wonder God hated such practices!
And in the case of the Israelites, they actually thought they were honoring and pleasing God. Their worship was syncretistic—meaning they claimed to worship God but blended pagan idolatrous practices with that worship. Yet God is clear that He absolutely forbids any practice originating in pagan worship (see Deuteronomy 12:28-32; 28:9-14; 20:16-18).
If you can’t beat ’em . . .
So what was the rationale for attaching Christ’s name to the supposed birthday of ancient gods and continuing in the same pagan customs as before?
A Reader’s Digest Association publication tells us: “The early missionaries faced an uphill task. The pagans were reluctant to give up their false gods and ancient practices. So the missionaries, unable to convert them easily to an entirely new code of worship, did the next best thing. They took the pagan festivals as they were and gradually grafted the observances of the new faith onto these festivals and the rites and customs surrounding them” (Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, 1976, p. 283).
Many today assume this was acceptable to God, believing that relabeling idolatrous practices to be about Christ is okay with Him. Some even argue that since God can convert a pagan person to Christianity, He can transform pagan holidays into Christian Holy Days. But that’s faulty reasoning.
The fact is, the early Church of Jesus and the apostles did not observe Christmas. Instead, faithful Christians continued to celebrate the biblical festivals of God (listed in Leviticus 23) not only because God commanded them to do so, but also because they came to realize that they picture Jesus Christ’s role in God’s plan of salvation for mankind as King and Savior of all humanity (to learn more, be sure to download or request our free study guide God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind).
Christmas, in contrast, obscures this vision by constantly portraying Jesus as a helpless little infant “away in a manger,” rather than the all-powerful, glorified divine Being He now is—blazing in infinite majesty at the right hand of the Father!
Can you imagine the early apostles attaching pagan religious customs to the worship they had learned from Jesus Christ Himself? Especially in light of what the apostle Paul told the Corinthians about not blending idolatrous gentile customs from demons with the true faith? (See 1 Corinthians 10:14-16, 19-22.)
Recall that Origen, the early Catholic church father, declared it a sin to celebrate Christ’s birthday. We find similar pronouncements from other Catholic church fathers. And even after Dec. 25 was declared Christ’s birthday (in the fourth century!), “the use of evergreens was so closely associated with the garlands of pagan days that in many of the early [Catholic] church celebrations they were forbidden . . . It was therefore not until the sixteenth century that Christian houses were commonly decorated” (Alfred Hottes, 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies, 1944).
Later still, “England’s Puritans inveighed against keeping the holiday at all and succeeded for a while in having it banned. The Puritans . . . ‘were correct when they pointed out—and they pointed it out often—that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer’” (U.S. News & World Report, p. 60).
Honoring God today?
Of course, some readers will be thinking at this point: “Okay, Christmas comes from paganism. So what? I’m not honoring some pagan god with any of these practices. I’m enjoying beautiful family time and honoring Jesus Christ.” Let’s analyze this attitude in light of some plain biblical statements and simple common sense.
Jesus Christ was the One the Israelites knew as God in the Old Testament (compare Deuteronomy 32:4; 1 Corinthians 10:4; John 1:1-3, 14; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:1-2 and read our free study guide Who Is God?). He was married to ancient Israel by covenant (Jeremiah 3:14; 31:32). As we’ve seen, however, Israel was unfaithful to her Husband and “played the harlot” (see Ezekiel 23:16) by having countless “affairs” with other gods! And remember, the wayward Israelites even celebrated the winter solstice as the birthday of the unconquered sun—from which Christmas has arisen.
Some will claim that the command in Deuteronomy 12:28-32 to not worship Him with pagan customs was talking only about horrible practices like child sacrifice and not milder traditions such as decorations and pagan holidays. But that’s just not true. For instance, not only did He tell His people not to raise up decorated trees, but He had earlier told them to get rid of all pagan worship sites, altars, sacred pillars, images, etc. (verses 2-3). “You shall not worship the Lord your God with such things” (verse 4).
Why didn’t God want to be worshipped in this way? He knows what all the customs represent. He saw it firsthand! And He hates to be reminded of it, much less associated with it.
Let’s look at this another way. Consider once again the Old Covenant marriage between Christ and Israel. He “put her away” or divorced her, and later died at His crucifixion. Now resurrected, Jesus is in the process of making a New Covenant with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31), of which the New Testament Church, the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), is the forerunner. This spiritual Israel is being cleansed of false religion and sin to once more marry Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 5:22-32; Revelation 19:6-9). Only this time, she will never again turn aside from her Husband!
With all this in mind, think what it would be like for God if His true Church were to celebrate Christmas. Imagine that you are a kind, giving man married to a woman who’s been having an on-again, off-again affair with an evil guy we’ll call Nick. She has engaged in all kinds of perverted sexual experimentation with him in celebration of his birthday. After many failed attempts to change her conduct, you finally divorce her.
Years later, the wounds have begun to heal. Your wife returns and seems to be truly repentant. She begs your forgiveness and asks if the two of you can start all over. Your heart relents and you take her back. Yet no sooner have you done so than your wife says: “Honey, I know you haven’t asked me to celebrate your birthday, but I’d really like to. And since I don’t know when it is, I’ll just pick the day myself. Ah, I know—I’ll keep it on Nick’s birthday! I’ll go find all the decorations I used to put up for him. It’ll be wonderful—just wait and see!”
Yes, it sounds ludicrous—it’s supposed to. Yet isn’t this essentially how it is? Of course, the woman here knew what the decorations and the birthdate represented in the past—just as did those religious leaders who intentionally “Christianized” the Saturnalia celebration. But today, many professing Christians don’t know about the true origin of Christmas and its customs—at least not its more heinous aspects. This, however, cannot be used to support or excuse Christmas celebrations. For, as mentioned earlier, God does know where these practices came from. He remembers it all!
Elevating tradition over God’s will!
Yet most people fail to understand what God plainly says in His Word and assume that He gives His approval. For many, it’s about what they want rather than what God explicitly states. And what they want is to continue with their traditions.
Jesus similarly described the religious leaders of His day: “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” (Mark 7:7-8). Most people today do not see the need to observe God’s commanded festivals listed in the Bible and persist in traditions rooted in ancient idolatry. If you’ve been a part of this, it’s not too late to change!
God will honor a humble and worshipful attitude—but it must be accompanied by a willingness to look into His Word and obey it (Isaiah 66:2).
Don’t be misled any longer. Christ can’t be “put back” into Christmas—because He was never there to begin with! This holiday does not bring glory to Jesus Christ. In fact, He abhors it because it is rooted in the repulsive worship of pagan gods. Will you ignore what you’ve just read from history and the Bible and insist on celebrating Dec. 25 as always?
Or will you instead humble yourself before your Creator and truly honor His wishes, cleansing yourself and your household of all traces of this pagan festival once and for all? Will you love Him and worship Him in the way He tells us to? He is waiting to see what you’ll do and whether you’ll follow His clear instructions on how to truly give glory to the King of kings!