Information on the pagan origins of Christmas is 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, you’ll learn some 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 parts of these pagan festivals and reassembling them into a celebration of Jesus’ birth. Late December was selected to appeal to new converts despite there being no evidence that Jesus was born in late December.
But should it matter to you? Does it really 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.
It is likely derived from the Latin word paganus, which according to New World Encyclopedia meant “a country dweller or rustic.” It’s similar to the old English word heathen. The word pagan is believed to have come into common usage during the 1400s.
In some translations of the Bible, you will find the words pagan and heathen used for people outside of Israel who worshipped other gods. The original Hebrew words typically mean a stranger or a foreigner.
What is paganism in the Bible?
The Bible shows that paganism was a constant weakness of the Israelites. Nearly every culture Israel encountered worshipped multiple gods.
The pagan gods often had three common characteristics:
- Nature. They were connected to something in the natural world (such as an animal, a location, a planet or a force of nature like thunder).
- Imagery. They were worshipped through imagery—typically statues or pictures. This is called idolatry.
- Culturally ubiquitous. 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 the Bible directly mentions paganism is in Genesis 31:19, where we read of Rachel stealing her father’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), the area historians call Mesopotamia or Babylonia.
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 Baal).
Do God’s strong warnings against pagan worship apply to the pagan customs tied into Christmas?Nimrod’s very name means to rebel. We see the impact of his influence in Genesis 11, when the people he led rebelled against God’s command to spread throughout the earth. Instead, 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. “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 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 rely heavily on statues and images to represent their gods.
Despite how those around them worshipped, 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.
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 that image as a representation of the deity—which, in reality, did not exist.
So the worship of the idol was worthless. The prophet Isaiah recorded, “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).
Jeremiah 10:2-5 also speaks about the uselessness of idols:
“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 . . . 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 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 are 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; so is everyone who trusts in them” (Psalm 135:15-18).
These verses highlight the foolishness of praying to a god represented by an image. 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 other forms of human sacrifice.
These are all reasons that explain why God took paganism so seriously. But what does all this have to do with Christmas?
Is God against Christmas?
It’s an established historical fact that Christmas originated from pagan traditions that were reformulated into a holiday claiming to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
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 giving gifts comes from the Roman Brumalia and Saturnalia celebrations; the tradition of Santa Claus likely derives from German and Norse mythology; 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 approve of taking the traditions of nature-worshipping peoples of the past and repackaging them as “Christian”?
Do God’s strong warnings against pagan worship apply to the pagan customs tied into Christmas?
Does God still find the traditions of paganism offensive, or has He changed His mind and softened toward paganism?
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.
So, does it matter that Christmas is pagan?
According to the above scriptures, it absolutely does.