Every year since 2008, Answers in Genesis has put together a major gospel-centered outreach based on the events surrounding the birth of Christ. Christmas Town (originally called Bethlehem’s Blessings) is a free event at our Creation Museum in northern Kentucky that takes advantage of the Christmas season to tell people about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, some Christians have been convinced that believers should have nothing to do with Christmas for various reasons. Here are a couple of responses we have received from concerned individuals. These two responses are representative of emails that have been sent to us and do not necessarily address every objection posed by these individuals.

God commanded Israel … NOT to practice other holidays and practices. Christmas is a Pagan holiday. It is Saturnalia. It is Zeus’ and Hercule’s [sic] birthday. The Catholic Church created Christmas in the 3rd Century to let the Pagan priests do their thing while "worshiping" our God. That is part of how we got Santa Claus and Rudolph and the Yule log, etc.

Most people know that Christmas was a pagan holiday and most of the accoutrements like the tree, holly, yule, mistletoe are from worship forms offered to other Gods. How does God feel about Christmas and receiving worship forms from the service done to other Gods? [Followed by a quotation of Deuteronomy 12:29–32]

How are we to respond to these particular claims? Are Christians guilty of celebrating a pagan holiday at Christmas time? According to these people, a celebration of Christmas inevitably involves paganism, so is it wrong for Answers in Genesis to put on Christmas Town each year even though we have good intentions? As always, we need to turn to the Scriptures to learn the truth about these matters, but let’s first deal with the charges related to paganism.

Pagan Origins?

What are we to make of the specific claims made about pagan origins for various things affiliated with Christmas, such as yule logs, holly, and trees? We have addressed many of these issues in previous web articles, and it is important to point out that many Christians do not even include these items in their Christmas celebration. So if these things are what allegedly make the holiday pagan, then how could we accuse someone of pagan worship if they do not even include these elements in their holiday observance?

It is difficult to discover the true origin of many of these traditions since there is a great deal of information concerning various theories, along with quite a bit of misinformation to sift through. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed upon that some of these traditions had their start among pagan groups. In some cases, when Christianity spread to a new region, some of the practices were co-opted and repurposed with Christian meanings.

Yule logs are thought to come from an ancient German tradition, but whether they ever had religious significance is debated.1 Holly, ivy, and mistletoe are often said to have been ancient pagan fertility symbols.2 And there is no shortage of claims that Christmas lights and candles originated with various pagan beliefs in a sun god.3 Other Christmas mainstays have little to no religious significance, such as Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. The figure of Santa Claus (Saint Nick) was initially derived from Nikolaos of Myra, a generous Christian who gave much to needy people, and the Little Drummer Boy made his way into Nativity stories in the 1950s upon being popularized by the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music fame.4

Many Christians have repurposed some of these symbols. For example, evergreen plants like holly and mistletoe are used as a symbol of eternal life. Christmas lights are treated as being symbolic of the fact that Jesus is “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9). However, the entire notion of “Christianizing” pagan symbols is unacceptable to some believers. I will address this in the next section, but first, there are three more supposedly pagan elements of Christmas that need to be examined.

First, it has been argued that Jeremiah 10:1–5 explicitly forbids the use of Christmas trees. Although some words in these verses seem to speak against such a practice, Jeremiah was actually addressing the creation of idols. People would cut down a tree and fashion it, but through His prophet, God told the people that their idols are worthless. These verses have nothing to do with Christmas trees, since neither non-Christians nor Christians worship their Christmas trees as a god or even look to the tree as some kind of good-luck charm. And some Christians choose to use a tree as a reminder of Christ’s death on the Cross, which the Bible occasionally calls a tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Peter 2:24). Of course, if someone were to treat the tree as an idol or allow it to distract people from the message of Christ, that would be problematic.

Second, we have been told by those who oppose Christmas that the Bible never commands us to celebrate the birth of Christ. Also, the only two birthday celebrations mentioned in Scripture were for the pagan rulers, Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20) and Herod (Matthew 14:6), and both involved executions.5 There are some problems with these claims. Just because pagan rulers celebrated their birthdays does not mean that Christians cannot celebrate their own birthdays or the birth of Christ. Pagan rulers also slept in beds with roofs over their heads; must we avoid those things too? Furthermore, shepherds, angels, Simeon, Anna, and the magi rejoiced and praised God because of the birth of Christ,6 so there is precedence for honoring this event. Frankly, Scripture does not give a specific command whether we should or should not celebrate the birth of Christ. As such, this issue falls under the category of Christian liberty, which we will discuss below.

Third, one of the most objectionable elements of Christmas for some people is the actual date of the celebration. While some Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the holiday on January 6 or 7, most Western Christians use December 25. According to those who object to Christians celebrating Christmas, this date was adopted either because of the festival of Saturnalia or another pagan holiday known as Sol Invictus. While this is a plausible argument, there are some problems. First, Saturnalia was celebrated between December 17–23 and Sol Invictus was started by the Roman emperor in AD 274, approximately 50 years after the early church father Julius Africanus pinpointed December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth.7

Others have argued that Scripture reveals December 25 could not possibly be the date of the Lord’s birth. They base this claim on two main points: (1) the shepherds would not have been out in the fields at night in the winter, and (2) the timing of Zechariah’s service in the temple in relation to the birth of Christ. Both of these arguments fall flat for various reasons. There is no reason why shepherds would not keep their flocks in the fields of Israel at this time of year. In fact, because of the amount of rainfall, this is the ideal time for shepherds around Bethlehem to keep their flocks out at night.8 Also, the timing of Zechariah’s service simply cannot be determined based on the fact that he was of the order of Abijah. I have elsewhere covered these two points in more detail.

These types of arguments eventually backfire on those who use them. That is, if we must avoid all things associated with pagan worship, then we will need to give up far more than we expect. For example, the days of the week are named after various pagan gods: Sunday for the sun, Monday for the moon, Tuesday for Tiw (Norse and German god of combat), Wednesday for Woden (Odin), Thursday for Thor, Friday for Frigge, Saturday for Saturn. Using the rationale of those who say we cannot celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25 because it is associated with Saturnalia or Sol Invictus, we could argue that we can never celebrate any holiday—even those mentioned in Scripture—since they must necessarily fall on one of these days with pagan names.

Christian Liberty

So let’s turn our attention to the major issue introduced above. Is it okay for Christian to “repurpose” pagan symbols or holidays with Christian ideas? As mentioned in the two responses above, God instructed the Israelites not to model their worship after their pagan neighbors.

When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.” You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.

Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it. (Deuteronomy 12:29–32)

These instructions were specifically given to the Israelites just before they entered the land promised to them. Christians do not always agree on whether or not these instructions are directly applicable to us today, but we would all agree that we should not worship false gods. Is that what Christians are doing at Christmas?

The New Testament offers some relevant teaching related to the celebration of holy days. Paul made it abundantly clear that Christians are “not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14–15; Galatians 5:18). In fact, he wrote his letter to the Galatians to refute the errors of the Judaizers, a group of believers who thought it best to add the works of the Law (particularly circumcision) to the gospel message. Paul often used stern language in rebuking these people, even condemning in the strongest terms anyone who would proclaim “any other gospel” (Galatians 1:6–9). He repeatedly stressed that salvation was by grace and not works:

This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?—Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:2–3)

What does this have to do with the celebration of Christmas? The error being taught in the Galatian churches was not limited to that region alone. Judaizers had influenced people in the church at Colossae, particularly with the dietary and holy day regulations of the Mosaic Law. He told the Colossians, “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17). The “new moon or sabbaths” were holy days or festivals that Jews under the Law were obligated to observe. Are those who are “not under the law” required to follow the same rules? Paul said no.

In Romans 14, Paul elaborated on the liberty enjoyed by Christians when it comes to both food and holy days:

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written:

“As I live, says the Lord,
Every knee shall bow to Me,
And every tongue shall confess to God.”

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. (Romans 14:5–13, emphasis added)

The church in Rome consisted of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Generally speaking, some of those of Jewish background esteemed one day above another (e.g., the Sabbath), while the Gentile believers treated all days as being of equal importance. God’s Word did not say that one is right and the other wrong. Instead, Paul wrote, “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it” (vv. 5–6).

It would be difficult to be much clearer than this. Believers have freedom to esteem one day over another or to view all days the same. In other words, Christians can choose to worship God in certain ways on December 25, or they can choose to treat every day the same, and we have no business telling a fellow believer what he or she must do on this point. Also, the Christian who recognizes his freedom must take care that the exercising of that liberty does not become a stumbling block for fellow believers (1 Corinthians 8:9–13; Romans 14:1–2, 21; 15:1).

Conclusion

Since we have liberty in Christ, Christians have often struggled to figure out exactly how they should conduct themselves in various situations. Walking the fine line of Christian liberty can be difficult because it rests between the errors of legalism and license. Instead of asking something like, “How can I best honor God in this situation?” many Christians tend to go one of two directions. Some misunderstand this freedom as license and ask, “What can I get away with?” Or they reason, “If the Bible doesn’t explicitly say something about this issue, then I can do it.” On the opposite side, those who lean toward legalism may have good intentions, but they often end up adding man-made rules that go beyond what Scripture commands or prohibits and insisting that all believers follow those rules to be “good Christians.”

This important point can hardly be overstated—Paul wrote major sections of Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians to emphasize it. Because of the completed atoning work of Christ on the Cross, we have freedom in Him. This does not mean we can do whatever we want to do, since there are still many specific instructions in Scripture we are to follow. But it does mean that in the so-called “gray areas” of the faith, we have the freedom to make decisions for ourselves based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our own conscience.

Perhaps it is best to close with Paul’s words to the Colossians: “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31). This Christmas, make sure that in whatever you do, you seek to honor Christ through it all. People who observe what we do should have no doubt that Jesus is the reason we celebrate. Here at the Creation Museum during our Christmas Town events, it’s all about sharing the gospel with the 25,000 people (many of whom are non-Christians) who are expected to visit over eight evenings.

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Footnotes

  1. J. Hampton Keathley, III, wrote an excellent article on the topic of Christians, Christmas, and pagan beliefs. See “Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?” available at http://bible.org/article/should-christians-celebrate-christmas. Back
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holly_and_the_Ivy Back
  3. See the following news report for one example: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2011/12/mich-residents-receive-letter-calling-christmas-lights-pagan/ Back
  4. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Drummer_Boy. Back
  5. We need to realize the difference between biblical passages that are descriptive and those that are prescriptive. Just because something is described in the Bible does not make it right or wrong. God’s Word abounds with the descriptions of humanity’s moral failures and inconsistencies, but this doesn’t mean that we should model the behavior in these descriptive passages. While we can certainly learn from these things, we need to see if there is any teaching that is prescribed for us, studying other Bible passages to help us discern those teachings that apply to all people or all believers. Back
  6. I am not claiming that the magi arrived during Christ’s birth since I believe the text indicates they arrived much later. Nevertheless, they traveled a great distance to celebrate the arrival of Jesus. Back
  7. Some have cited Hippolytus (AD 165–235) as the first Christian to use December 25 as date of Christ’s birth, but this is debatable since only certain manuscripts of Hippolytus contain this information. See http://chronicon.net/blog/chronology/hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas/ for more details. Back
  8. James Kelso wrote, “The best season for the shepherds of Bethlehem is the winter when heavy rains bring up a luscious crop of new grass. After the rains the once-barren, brown desert earth is suddenly a field of brilliant green. One year when excavating at New Testament Jericho, I lived in Jerusalem and drove through this area twice every day. At one single point along the road, I could see at times as many as five shepherds with their flocks on one hillside. One shepherd stayed with his flock at the same point for three weeks, so lush was the grass. But as soon as the rains stopped in the spring, the land quickly took on its normal desert look once again.” James Kelso, An Archaeologist Looks at the Gospels, p. 23–24, cited in Keathley, “Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?” Back