I write this section on the heels of the Christmas holiday season. My wife and kids do a great job of decorating our house in preparation for Christmas. There is an evergreen tree by the fireplace filled with ornaments. We don’t have a Yule log in the fireplace, but we’ve consumed Yule log desserts in the past. The fireplace is adorned with green garland and bright red holly. And I’m sure there’s mistletoe in one of the many bright red and green boxes in our basement.
As I look around our house and reflect on all the symbols that we have come to associate with the Christmas season in the West, I am struck by just how very few of the decorations actually speak directly about the birth of Jesus in a little town in Bethlehem. In fact, when I observe the decorations that I now associate with Christmas, there are more pagan origins to our décor than there are actual Christian origins.
For example, the timing of Christmas is attributed to the pagan festival of Saturnalia and a celebration of the winter solstice more than the actual date when Jesus was born. Jesus was probably not born in the winter time. It is highly unlikely that the shepherds would be so jubilant tending their sheep on a cold winter’s night. The date of December 25th was chosen because of pagan festivals that coincided with the winter solstice (December 22nd), which was a significant time of festivals for many of the cultures that Christianity first encountered, particularly in the Western expression of the church. The date of the celebration of Christmas, therefore, has pagan origins.
The Roman tradition was to celebrate the divinity Mithra on December 25th. On that day, bulls were sacrificed and their blood was spread on the fields. The December 25th event celebrated a new-born child as well as celebrating the return of the Sun. Since the winter solstice was the shortest night of the year, the following days would now begin to get longer. It was believed that the Sun was returning and drawing closer. The winter solstice festival called Saturnalia was named after the Roman god of agriculture and celebrated on the longest night of the year. With the days now starting to get longer, there were a series of celebrations for the coming of the sun. Torch-lit processions, exchanging of gifts, and general merriment were the order of the day. During the festival, homes would be decorated with greenery as a symbol of new life. The festival would extend over a twelve day period; hence, the twelve days of Christmas.
The prominent use of greenery during the Saturnalia festival by the Romans is mirrored by pre-Christian Germanics, the Celtic tribes, as well as the Scandanavians. The pagan nations would also hold a festival in honor of the winter solstice. They worshipped the sun deity that is at its farthest point from the earth’s equator, but after the winter solstice would get closer and return to them. Worship of the sun through this winter “Yuletide” festival would insure that the Sun deity would return to them. As part of the festival, the participants would burn a decorated log, the Yule log which was a symbol of the burning heat of the sun. The plant life, such as the evergreen trees and wreaths that decorated their homes were symbols of perpetual life in the winter. Evergreens were hung to ward off wandering winter spirits and as a symbol of life. Holly and mistletoe were also symbols of life in the dead of winter. Holly was seen by the Druids as sacred symbol of life and peace, keeping the earth beautiful in winter. Mistletoe, which in Celtic means “all-heal,” was also a symbol of life and peace. The mistletoe was used by Druid priests in healing ceremonies.
If I were to examine all the evidence presented on the pagan origins of Christmas, I may never want to celebrate Christmas again. Christmas seems to have some unholy origins. In fact, more pagan and ungodly elements seem to be at the root of our Christmas celebrations than Christian ones. These revelations call the entire institution of Christmas into question. How can we taint a holy celebration like the birth of Jesus with unholy symbols? How can we take something pagan, sinful, and unholy and make it into something good. Why would God allow a sinful vessel to represent His holy Son? What business does God have of taking something unholy and sinful and making it into something holy and good?
But is this not the message of Jesus and the true message of Christmas? God has taken something that is sinful, pagan, unholy, and fallen and through His grace and His work, He has turned it into something good. If God can change Christmas from its pagan and sin-filled origins into a holy day, then God can take a fallen culture and still communicate the powerful gospel story through that fallen culture. Christmas is a reminder that the message of redemption is available for all cultures and all peoples. Christmas is a reminder of God’s grace made evident through His ongoing mission to reveal His grace, mercy, love, justice, and compassion to a fallen world.