Is Christmas Christian?
Good News Magazine
December 1976
Volume: Vol XXV, No. 12
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Is Christmas Christian?
Scott G Rockhold  

In the minds of many, Christmas is the most important Christian holiday. Yet the facts of history show that this day and the celebrations which surround it are little more than a perpetuation of ancient Roman paganism!

   Until the fourth century A.D., Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ. The early church recognized that the most important days of Christ's life were those of His death and resurrection, hence they placed little or no emphasis on the day of His birth. The New Testament nowhere commands Christians to observe Christ's birthday, nor is there any example of the apostles observing it. The Gospel accounts do not provide enough information to be certain of the time of year (much less the day) when Jesus Christ was actually born, and the early church did not have the information.
   Nevertheless, many Christian writers, early and late, have tried to determine the day on which Christ was born. Unfortunately, however, their dates must be regarded as pure speculation: one writer came up with March 28 as the day, others decided on April 19 or May 20. Most preferred the spring because they believed that since Christ died in the spring He had to be born in the spring. But others selected dates in the fall or winter.
   Perhaps needless to say, the church as a whole paid little attention to these various dates. Among others, Origen of Alexandria (circa A.D. 200), one of the most famous' of early Christian writers, objected to the celebration of any birthday at all, pointing out that in the Bible only the heathen celebrated birthdays. Others ridiculed the idea of even trying to find out the time of Christ's birth.
Birth or Baptism? In some areas, the church did celebrate an event of Jesus' life besides His death and resurrection. This was His baptism. Some Christian groups decided on January 6 as the day for this observance. Why did they select this date? Historians point out that a pagan feast of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, was celebrated on January 6, and was associated with the lengthening of the day. Also, in Egypt, January 6 was observed as the birth of the pagan god Aeon as well as being the special day of Osiris. It is virtually certain that the date of January 6 was originally selected because of the pagan worship connected with it. Perhaps some Christians hoped that pagan converts would be more attracted to the church if it could offer them a festival honoring Christ at the same time as their previous pagan celebrations.
   At any event, the date of January 6 spread through the eastern part of the early church as the celebration of Christ's baptism, Eventually the day became associated also with Christ's birth — the night of the 5th-6th honoring His birth, and the day of the 6th honoring His baptism. Thus long before December 25 was celebrated as Christ's birthday, that event was commemorated on January 6.
Constantine the Pagan. For the first two centuries of its existence, the church had grown slowly. Christianity in many areas of the Roman Empire was an illegal religion, and persecution of Christians was common.
   The reign of the emperor Constantine (A.D. 311-337) changed the situation. Constantine recognized that continued persecution would serve no purpose, and in his Edict of Milan (313) proclaimed freedom of worship for Christians. Later, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, Constantine himself long remained a pagan, a sun worshiper, and sought to perpetuate a blend of Christianity and sun worship by designating the "day of the Sun" (Sunday), on which most' Christians commemorated the death of Christ by a "communion" or "Eucharist," as the official weekly day of rest of the Roman Empire.
   Constantine's legislation led many thousands of people to convert to Christianity — people who had previously been involved in Roman sun worship, especially the worship of the god Mithras, a sun god of Persian origin. Interestingly, the chief day of the year honoring the sun (sol invictus, "the unconquered sun") was December 25!
On to Rome. The Christian church at Rome was now experiencing a dramatic influx of people newly converted from pagan sun worship and Mithraism. Doubtless many of these converts wished to continue their celebrations around the end of December. Besides December 25, the preceding week, December 17- 24, was the time of the Roman Saturnalia, a time of jubilant celebration, of" eating and drinking, partying and lovemaking. Such popular celebrations die hard.
   At the same time, because of various theological disputes, certain parts of the church no longer wished to continue celebrating the baptism and birth of Christ at the same time their opponents did, January 6th. A new date had to be found on which to celebrate the birth of Christ. What better time than December 25, already the date of Mithraic sun worship celebrations and immediately following Saturnalia? The selection of December 25 as a major "Christian" festival would bring in many more converts to the church. So, sometime in the middle. of the fourth century A.D., probably in 354, Christmas was first celebrated in Rome on December 25.
   To be sure, no Christian churchman of the day went so far as to admit that December 25 was deliberately chosen because of the pagan celebrations surrounding that date! Yet from their comments we can be sure the matter of sun worship was one of the motivations on their minds. Ambrose (circa A.D. 340-397), bishop of Milan, said in one of his sermons in which he contrasted paganism and Christianity, "Christ is our new sun!" However, it seems the ordinary worshiper had some difficulty making the transition. Thus Pope Leo the Great (A.D. 440-461) had to rebuke those who celebrated Christmas as the birth of the sun Instead of that of Christ. And even a considerable time later Augustine (flourished c. 600) still found it necessary to urge "Christians" not to worship the sun on that day, but rather Him who created the sun. Clearly, the observance of December 25 had been strongly influenced by sun worship.
   This type of evidence, as well as other facts, has led many scholars to conclude that the adoption by the church of December 25 as a celebration of the birth of Christ was a deliberate borrowing from paganism. One scholar concluded: "... The festival of Christ's birth was changed over to December 25th, the great festival of the sun. Christ's birth was now linked up with the sun on December 25th in the same way as his resurrection with Sunday [the day of the sun]" (Cullman, The Early Church, p. 32).
ST. NICHOLAS presides over rites of December Saturnalia rebaptized under the name of Christmas.
   Furthermore, not only just the day of worship became part of Christian observance, but the manner of observance as well. The pagan Roman practices of the Saturnalia (December 17-24), as well as the day of the " unconquered sun" (December 25), were perpetuated in the church, doubtless by the new converts from paganism. (Later, Germanic customs were blended with Roman practice.)
   The same scholar noted: "Admonitions like those of Augustine and Pope Leo had now clearly become necessary, for this deeply rooted pagan festival of the 'unconquered sun god' did not, in fact, simply disappear, but persisted in many practices which passed over into the Christian festival" (ibid.). Thus a pagan celebration became a "Christian" observance. Some churches in the East, however, continued for many years to observe January 6; the Armenian church to this day continues to observe that date.
Meaning for Today. What does this often dry history mean for the modern Christian? Is Christmas a truly Christian observance honoring the Son of God? From the evidence presented here it is apparent that the selection of the date of December 25 by the church in the fourth century was heavily influenced by pagan Roman sun worship. Furthermore, many of the customs surrounding the modern celebration of Christmas derive from pagan Germanic or Roman practices. Christmas as observed by most does not, in reality, honor the Son of God, but rather the customs and the celebrators themselves: partying, revelry, the exchange of gifts.
   Since the earliest church did not even deem the birth of Christ of enough importance to preserve its date (assuming it was even known) one should ask how relevant any such observance could really be in a Christian's life today. Rather than honoring Christ, one would also have to ask if Christmas, as it is presently celebrated and given its pagan origins, does not in fact dishonor Him.
   For more evidence that Christmas is not Christian, read our free booklet The Plain Truth About CHRISTMAS.

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Good News MagazineDecember 1976Vol XXV, No. 12