For decades I have believed that present-day Christmas originated as a pagan holiday that was Christianized. I never researched this popular belief because, since our family has used the season to focus on Christ, I didn’t really care about its origins. To me, just as my past pagan false worship of God does not blight my present worship as a believer, so also a possible pagan past to Christmas is irrelevant to a Christ-glorifying present celebration.
Has the culture secularized much of the holiday? Boy howdy! I can understand why some Christians might abstain from the festivities.
Actually, Christians ought to expect secularization, or attempts to that end, of Christmas and any event honored by Christians. Hearts that do not follow Christ will follow the world and cannot help expressing it. Secularization is simply unbelievers being who they are. So when they say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” they are staying true to their theology and Christians ought not expect them to do otherwise. Resurrection Day has also been secularized. So also every holiday. And every non-holiday. No surprise there. Holiday or not, it is up to Christians to keep their own hearts pure and seek to glorify and serve Christ by what they do with any particular day (1 John 2:15-17).
That said, this year I’ve read information from a church history professor that contradicts what I have believed about the pagan root of Christmas. Doing a bit of research to check on what I read, I learned that there is strong evidence that the choice of December 25 for the birth of Christ does not originate in the Roman pagan holiday. None of the various Roman gods was worshipped on December 25 prior to the Christian choice of that day.
By the second century, some Christians were trying to calculate the date of Christ’s birth. They arrived at December 25 (western church) and January 6 (eastern church). Though it is doubtful that Christ was actually born on either of these dates, the documented fact is that Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome both wrote about it. They lived in AD 150-215 and 170-236, respectively.
It wasn’t until 274 that Emperor Aurelian made December 25 an official pagan holiday in Rome. That is 70-80 years after when Clement wrote about that day. So the Christians had the day pegged first. When I learned this, I wondered if Aurelian was trying to offer a pagan alternative to counter Christianity, then discovered that others believe that may be the case Touchstone Archives: Calculating Christmas. If this information is correct, then the Romans paganized the day, not vice versa.
The first record of an actual celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 is at about 336. That would have been on the heels of over 230 years of persecution which ended in 313, when Constantine instituted tolerance for Christianity. To me, it seems highly unlikely that Christians persecuted for their faith would so quickly adopt a pagan holiday as an occasion to celebrate the Lord for whom they had been suffering and dying.
Whatever the actual date of Christ’s birth, the fact is, Christ was born. We can know that because God’s infallible Word says so.
And, whatever the history of a holiday called Christmas, this holiday intensifies my thoughts about Christ. Nativity songs stir joyful meditation upon Christ. Many traditions that accompany it, like time with family, are wholesomely delightful. So in thankfulness for these gifts from God, I intend to enjoy sharing fun with my family and friends, catching the latest news on friends through their cards and letters (even though mine will be sent late), and even delighting in the beauty of an extra piece of lighted, prickly decor in my living room. I will delight in manger scenes, Christmas carols about Christ, reading the Christmas story, and remembering again and again what Christ has done for us.
Likewise, I wish you good times with your families and friends. I hope that you, too, know the joy of a relationship with the Son of God who took on human flesh, lived sinlessly, died to pay for sins, rose victorious over death, ascended to the Father, and promises eternal life to those who repent from their sins to follow Him by faith.
If you’re interested in a bit of investigation for yourself, here are some sources to get you started:
Loosing the Riddle of Clement Alexandria’s Date for the Nativity, Baptism, Passion, and Epiphany of Christ
(This one has original sources cited.)
The Origins of Christmas
(This one has links to other sources, some of which have original sources cited.)