Does It Matter That Christmas Is Pagan?
Information on the pagan origins of Christmas is relatively easy to find. But what is so bad about Christmas coming from paganism? Does it really matter to God?
If you look up “Christmas” in an encyclopedia (even Wikipedia!), you’ll learn some pretty interesting facts about the history of what is probably the world’s most popular holiday.
Here’s the history of Christmas in a nutshell:
Christmas originated from many pre-Christian pagan festivals that were tied to the winter solstice (which occurs in late December). For instance, Mithraism, an ancient Persian religion, celebrated the birthday of its god, Mithra, on Dec. 25. The Romans celebrated two major winter solstice festivals in late December: Brumalia and Saturnalia.
Christmas, as we know it, was formulated over 300 years after Christ’s birth by taking bits and pieces of these pagan festivals and putting them together into a birthday celebration for Jesus. This time of year was selected by Rome to appeal to new Christian converts despite there being no evidence that Jesus was born in late December.
But why should it matter to you? Is paganism really that bad? Does it even matter if Christmas originated in paganism?
What does pagan mean?
Paganism is a word that arose in the early Christian era of history to describe those who practiced polytheism instead of Christianity or Judaism.
The word pagan is believed to have come into common usage during the 1400s when the Western world was dominated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
If you do a search of the Bible, you will find the words pagan and heathen used in some translations to describe people outside of the Israelite community who worshipped other gods. The original Hebrew words typically mean a stranger, foreigner or anyone outside of Israel’s religious community.
What is paganism in the Bible?
The Bible says a lot about paganism because it was a constant challenge and weakness of God’s people, Israel, in Old Testament times. Nearly every nation and culture in those times worshipped multiple gods.
The false gods of the ancient world often had three common characteristics:
- They were connected to something in the natural world (such as an animal, a location, a planet or a force of nature like thunder).
- They were worshipped through imagery—typically statues or pictures. This is called idolatry.
- They often had similar counterparts in other cultures. Oftentimes, the concept of a deity in one culture was adopted and modified by another culture.
The first time paganism is directly mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 31:19, where we read of Rachel stealing her father Laban’s “household idols.”
But it’s indirectly alluded to all the way back in Genesis 10, which describes the rise of Nimrod—the founder of “Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar” (verse 10)—which historians call Mesopotamia or Babylonia. We read that Nimrod was “a mighty hunter before the LORD” (verse 9). Interestingly, many false gods that derived from Babylon are also portrayed as mighty warriors (such as Ba’al).
The Bible says a lot about paganism because it was a constant challenge and weakness of God’s people.Nimrod’s very name means to rebel. We see the impact of his influence in Genesis 11, when the people in his land rebelled against God’s command to spread throughout the earth. Instead of obeying God, they gathered in Babel and attempted to build “a tower whose top is in the heavens” (verse 4). They were likely building history’s first ziggurat (a terraced pyramid structure).
Nearly every Babylonian city was built around a ziggurat. Notice how a history book describes these structures: “Each temple was associated with one or more gods or goddesses, whose cult-statues it housed” (Robin Winks and Susan Mattern-Parkes, The Ancient Mediterranean World, p. 19).
As people spread throughout the earth from Babylon, they took with them some common religious ideas. Those ideas include towerlike structures (similar to ziggurats) and idols.
Have you ever noticed that nearly all of the world’s religions include high, towerlike structures? For instance, Egyptian pyramids, Chinese pagodas, Hindu temples, Islamic minarets and Christian steeples. Many of these same religions, with the exception of Islam, rely heavily on statues and images to represent their gods.
These religious characteristics all come from Babel.
Nearly every culture that Israel came into contact with practiced idolatry, but God prohibited Israel from using carved images in their worship (Exodus 20:3-4). The warnings against idolatry are even found throughout the New Testament (1 Corinthians 10:14; Galatians 5:20).
Why is pagan religion so offensive to God?
Throughout the Bible, God provides many reasons why paganism is so offensive and reprehensible to Him. Here are a few reasons:
1. Paganism diverts worship and attention from the true God. In His law, God made this point crystal clear: “Do not turn to idols, nor make for yourselves molded gods: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:4). It is very dangerous to make up gods and myths and attribute what God has done by His power to fictional beings who don’t exist. God wants us to reject anything that diverts attention and worship from Him.
2. Paganism produces useless worship. Nearly all false gods were worshipped using idols. Craftsmen would create an image of the so-called god and people would worship and bow down to that image as a representation of the deity. Of course, the reality is that the deity represented was an invention of men with no basis in reality.
So the worship of the idol was worthless. The prophet Isaiah recorded God as saying, “Those who make an image, all of them are useless, and their precious things shall not profit; they are their own witnesses; they neither see nor know, that they may be ashamed. Who would form a god or mold an image that profits him nothing?” (Isaiah 44:9-10).
It is interesting how similar Jeremiah’s description is to the modern custom of cutting down and decorating a Christmas tree. Another notable scripture that discusses the uselessness of false worship is found in Jeremiah 10:2-5: “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile [or useless]; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple.
“They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good.”
It is interesting how similar Jeremiah’s description is to the modern custom of cutting down and decorating a Christmas tree. Tree-related worship has a long history, and many secular historical sources connect the Christmas tree with many of these traditions.
3. Paganism causes human beings to embrace foolishness. In many places, God and His servants mock the foolishness of idolatry. Here’s one of those places:
“The idols of the nations silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; eyes they have, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear; nor is there breath in their mouths. Those who make them are like them; everyone who trusts in them” (Psalm 135:15-18).
These verses highlight the foolishness of praying to a god represented by a statue or picture. They may be crafted to have all the parts we use to exercise our senses—but they can’t use any of them. This emphasizes the foolishness of trusting in an inanimate object for blessings or protection!
4. Paganism leads to immorality. Throughout history, pagan worship has led to many forms of blatantly immoral behavior. This includes the most extreme example—child sacrifice. But many other practices have been associated with paganism throughout history, including temple prostitution, debauchery and various other forms of human sacrifice.
These are all reasons that explain why God took paganism so seriously. So what does all this have to do with Christmas?
Is God against Christmas?
As we mentioned in the introduction to this blog post, it’s an established historical fact that Christmas originated from various pagan traditions that were integrated into a holiday claiming to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Does God approve of taking the traditions of nature-worshipping peoples of the past and repackaging them as a “Christian” holiday?The date derives from pagan celebrations connected to the winter solstice; the act of ornamenting trees comes from various pagan customs that involved worshipping trees (which is forbidden in Jeremiah 10); the act of partying and gift-giving comes from the Roman Brumalia and Saturnalia celebrations; the tradition of Santa Claus seems to come from German and Norse mythology (according to National Geographic); and on top of all that, there is not one hint of a command for its observance in the Bible.
So it comes down to some serious questions: Does God license Christians to formulate their own religious traditions? Does God approve of taking the traditions of nature-worshipping peoples of the past and repackaging them as a “Christian” holiday? Do God’s strong warnings against pagan worship not apply to the pagan customs tied into Christmas?
Does God still find the traditions of paganism as offensive as He did when He warned against them in Bible times? Or has He somehow changed His mind and softened toward paganism?
We all must look at the evidence for ourselves and make a decision. Here are three scriptures that can be helpful to consider when analyzing Christmas and its traditions:
- Deuteronomy 12:29-32: “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.”
- 1 Corinthians 10:21: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons.”
- Ephesians 5:11: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.”
God’s standard is pure worship and belief based on what He has revealed in the Bible—unadulterated by any mixture with pagan religious customs.
Does Christmas meet that standard?