Break out the lights and the mistletoe – it’s the Christmas season once more! As in years passed, families are decorating trees and preparing for the holiday, retail stores are stocking the shelves with festive goods, and churches throughout the world are planning their Christmas services. Though easily forgotten amidst all the Santas, trees, and candy canes, there is a religious component to the celebration. The actual reason for the season might be the tilt of the earth’s axis, but there are religious influences upon the rituals and symbols that we observe every year during the month of December. While Christmas certainly has a tradition of Christian imagery, particularly in modern times, the roots of the holiday go back even further.
I. December 25th
The winter solstice lasts from about December 21st to December 25th, when the tilt of the earth causes the sun to shine more in the southern hemisphere than the northern, and so the day is made shorter while night becomes longer. Solstice comes from the Latin words sol, for sun, and sistere, meaning “to stand still.” During this time of year the sun reaches its lowest elevation in the North, appearing to stand still in the sky. Ancient peoples were far more dependent on the sun to carry out their lives than we are today, and without an understanding of the scientific reason for the change in sunlight, fear spread that the sun might leave for good. Sun worship was quite common in the world of antiquity, and so the winter solstice came to be celebrated as a time when the sun would be renewed.
On December 25th, the ancient Romans celebrated the festival of the birth of the unconquered sun, an event which allowed for the worship of several solar deities, such as Mithras and Sol. The Norse and Germanic tribes celebrated Midvinterblot, later known as Yule, and the Greeks celebrated Saturnalia, a feast in commemoration of the temple of Saturn. The Christmas holiday originates, in various ways, from all of these ancient festivals. Pope Julius I has been credited as the first to declare the birth of Jesus to be on December 25th, as part of a long-lasting campaign by the Catholic Church to transition pagan cultures into Christianity.1 The word Christmas comes from Old English and literally means “Christ’s mass.”
Contrary to the beliefs of some, there is no precedent – biblical or otherwise – for the birth of Jesus being on December 25th. There is no historical evidence for any of the nativity story, and the bible can provide only for a birth year of Jesus, not any specific month or season. However, the gospel reports about Jesus’ birth are inconsistent. Luke 2 places the birth of Jesus during the time when Quirinius took a census of the Roman world, which was approximately 6/7 CE. Matthew, on the other hand, says that Jesus was born “during the time of King Herod” (2:1), yet Herod died in 4 BCE, about ten years before the census of Quirinius. Of additional interest is the fact that the earliest Christian estimates of Jesus’ birthdate are closer to summer time, specifically April and May.2
The date of December 25th is most certainly pagan in origin, but there are many other pagan elements in Christmas, too.
II. Trees, Gifts, Wreaths, and More
Several ancient cultures had a custom of cutting down and decorating a tree for the winter solstice. The Egyptians used palm trees, but the Greeks, Romans, and Germanic tribes used evergreen trees.3 Because the evergreen trees remained green through the harsh climate of winter, they were seen as powerful symbols for use in celebrating the procession of the seasons. Jeremiah 10:2-4 warns against a practice that sounds so similar to decorating a Christmas tree that some Christians have used it to argue against believers celebrating Christmas:
Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.
The first century poet known as Martial wrote in his Epigrams about the custom of gift-giving during Saturnalia. The festival of Saturnalia was also a school holiday and involved sacrifices, gambling, a special market, and feasting. During the celebration, governmental restrictions were relaxed and even slaves were permitted to overstep their usual boundaries.
Wreaths date back to the ancient Greco-Roman world, symbolizing status. The early Christian writer Tertullian discouraged his fellow Christians from using wreaths and other pagan practices during the holiday season.4 Mistletoe has significance in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, found in texts like The Aeneid and The Poetic Edda. The Yule log still retains its name from the ancient pagan festival of Yule celebrated by the Germanic people, and the Christmas ham is tied in to the Yuletide fertility sacrifice of a boar or goat. The practice of wassailing, or caroling, also finds its origins in Yule.
The custom of hanging a stocking for Santa to fill dates back to the Germanic/Scandinavian custom of putting out boots with carrots, straw, or sugar, which would be eaten by Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir [at the beginning of this article is an 18th century image of Odin riding Sleipnir]. The children who put out treats for Sleipnir would be rewarded by Odin, finding gifts or candy left in their boots.5 Although Santa Claus is often traced to Saint Nicholas, a devout Christian of the 4th century, the figure also bears influence from the pagan deity Odin, who was usually depicted as an old man with a long white beard. As just mentioned, there are connections between gift-giving in boots and the Christmas stocking, as well as Odin’s horse and Santa’s reindeer. Odin would lead a hunting party through the sky, according to the myth.
Many of the customs and traditions of which we partake at Christmas time have their roots in pagan cultures. But does this mean that Christmas is a pagan holiday today? Should Christians, or atheists, celebrate Christmas?
III. The “Spirit” of Christmas
Symbols only have the power that we give them. Throughout history, many rituals and signs have been changed many times, as part of the natural process of social evolution. Christmas may have its roots in pagan practices, but it does not mean that our modern way of celebrating is pagan. In 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul writes about eating food sacrificed to idols, declaring that “we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” To celebrate with friends and family on December 25th does not mean we invoke the Roman sun god – it simply means we celebrate with our friends and family. Intent is the issue, and since we are the only ones that can give symbols their meaning, the “spirit” of Christmas is truly whatever we wish it to be for us.
Of course, there are still those who argue that the real spirit of Christmas is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. But this is why it’s useful to draw attention to the pagan roots of the holiday. Christianity has no monopoly on Christmas. Christians may have usurped and Christianized numerous practices from pagan cultures, yet the Christian symbols have now been secularized in our modern age. Santa Claus, reindeer, the Christmas tree, candy canes, and many other symbols do just fine without the influence of Christianity, and these are some of the most popular Christmas icons. The encouragement to “Keep Christ in Christmas” is amusing because it fails to recognize that Christendom merely ‘decorated’ older, existing traditions with its own distinctive symbolism.
No religion or culture has an exclusive claim on the meaning of Christmas, and this is what makes the holiday so special for countless people around the world. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists can all celebrate the season in their own way. Personal sentiments, including those we share with others in our communities, can remain meaningful even as they are recognized as strictly personal.
In many ways, Christmas is a compromise, not just of ancient customs and practices, but among family and friends, as we meet for the holidays and prepare to put another year behind us. We ought to extend this same consideration to those of different beliefs. Christians often protest the commercialization of the Christmas season as a decline into material selfishness, insisting that the so-called Christmas spirit is what should matter. This spirit, as we have seen, is not exclusively Christian. It is quite human, though, since it appears to be part of a number of our different traditions.
If the spirit of Christmas that we enjoy and participate in is truly the spirit of giving, of peace on earth and good will towards others, then we should bear this in mind for how we treat those around us, as well as with respect to the things we choose to focus on and uphold as consistent with these values. Denouncing diverse styles of celebration, or attempting to force your own favored style into the public square, seems antithetical to the alleged meaning of the holiday. Old man Scrooge and the Grinch are neither Christian nor atheist, after all. Both, it can be said, just have a heart a few sizes too small.
1. William D. Crump, The Christmas Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (McFarland, 2001), p. 95-96.
2. Kevin Knight, Christmas, New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (2009). Retrieved Dec. 13, 2015.
3. B.A. Robinson, All about the Christmas tree: Pagan origins, Christian adaptation & secular status, Religious Tolerance (2000). Retrieved Dec. 13, 2011.
4. Tertullian, On Idolatry, XV.
5. Phyllis Siefker, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years (2006), p. 171-173.