‘Tis the season to be jolly… or is it? About this time every year, some Christians celebrate the holidays, some non-Christians celebrate the holidays, some Christians declare it evil paganism, some non-Christians are perplexed on why some Christians don’t celebrate a Christian Holiday, and some Christians are just perplexed about what to do. So the question that haunts so many Christians is, “Is Christmas a pagan holiday?”My answer is no.
But before you get mad at me or call me a pagan, let me clarify. Christmas is a Christian Holiday; it actually bears Christ’s name. It was created to honor Christ. However, some traditional practices of Christmas do have pagan roots. Does this make the holiday a pagan one? The answer is still no, because the original pagan reasons are now gone. The paganism (the idolatry) of these practices has ceased to exist. No one worships the gods originally honored by the practices. These practices themselves are amoral (neither moral nor immoral). It was the reason for the practice that made it evil. The current reason for a practice is infinitely more important than the origin of that practice. Paul made this same argument concerning eating foods offered to idols:
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” —yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
(1 Corinthians 8:4-8 ESV)
Let’s examine how amoral things can be used for evil then redeemed for good. Let’s say the little town I live in had a striptease club in it. This place is a place of debauchery and sin; a blight on our community. Now, let’s say I purchased this strip club, closed it down and opened a community center there and started holding Bible studies in it. As a Christian, what would your reaction be? Would it be celebratory because Christ conquered the strip club? Or would you declare the community center as evil because it used to be a strip club? Seems silly because no one would warn their families not to be involved because it wasn’t always a Christian place to go. No one would think that everyone who attends the community center is celebrating strip clubs by going there. No one would say, “it’s ok as long as it does not serve any food or drinks” just because one tradition of the strip club was to serve food and drinks. The bottom line is the culture of the place was redeemed. What was evil has been transformed. Christ has conquered the strip club and it simply does not exist anymore. Believe it or not, this is parallel to what happens this time of year.
Yes there are pagan origins for many of our Christmas practices. We can’t pin most of them down for sure. Many people claim that the practices come from Babylon or Rome or both. But the origin of most of these things are completely mysterious. It is really a melting pot of many traditions from many sources.
For example, many claim Christmas came from Saturnalia. True both celebrations happen at roughly the same time of year. But then again, Saturnalia was on the 17th-23rd of December, not the 25th. Yes some traditions from Saturnalia ended up in the melting pot of what we now call Christmas, but it is not a one to one relationship. All of that said, here is the main point:
No one worships Saturn anymore. Saturn is a dead pagan god.
The idolatry of Saturn is non-existent. No one’s heart is even tempted to turned to Saturn because of Christmas. It’s like the strip-club example. Some of what used to be used to celebrate Saturn has been taken from that pagan god and is now used to honor the King of Kings! Jesus the Christ.
This practice of replacing something evil or corrupt with something good is not an unbiblical practice either. In fact, Paul not only preached this, he exemplified it:
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:22-23 ESV)
Paul in Athens
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” (Acts 17:16-20 ESV)
Notice he was invited to the Areopagus at Mars Hill. Now he could’ve said, “Are you crazy? That’s a place of pagan worship! If I go speak there, I’d be partaking in idolatry.” But instead, he saw an opportunity to take what was created for paganism and use it to symbolize God.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, … (Acts 17:22-24 ESV)
Paul took the altar “to the unknown god” and redeemed it for God. In the past it was pagan, now it was not. This method ended up converting many to Christ. Think about this. This is one time in the year when non-Christians are at least in some way willing to celebrate Christ. It is an opportunity to preach Christ. After all, teaching about his birth leads to teaching about his death, for he was born to die for us.
My next example is somewhat open for interpretation, but my family saw a different side of Matthew 16 when we actually visited Caesarea Philippi in Israel.
This one sentence actually tells us a lot about the context of the conversation that is about to take place. They had been at Galilee, but “came into the district of Caesarea Philippi”. Caesarea Philippi was not close to Galilee, it would’ve been a days travel North for them. And the only thing there was a huge pagan worship center. There had to be a specific reason Jesus took them there to have this conversation.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13 ESV)
Caesarea Philippi is an absolutely huge rock face with various worship altars carved into it. There were altars for Zeus, Pan, and countless others. At the time of Jesus, it was a worship center where you could worship any god of the day. There is also a grotto with a spring in it called the Gates of Hades. Pagans believed it was an entry way into the Underworld. This is where Jesus took them to ask this question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Of course we know the conversation ends up with Peter confessing that Jesus is the Christ.
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:17-18 ESV)
In other words, standing here at this huge rock of pagan worship, you would never know who the real God was. This was revealed to Peter by God. Catholics and Protestants have often debated about what “the rock” in the passage is. Peter or the confession Peter made? But what if Jesus’ statement wasn’t meant to be a foundational one, but instead a situational one? On this rock, the one in front of us currently used to worship all kinds of paganism, I will build my church. And the Gates of Hades (the supposed gate to the Underworld located there) will not stop it from happening. This would’ve been unfathomable to the disciples at the time looking at the countless worshippers bowing, dancing, and praying to all these gods.
Today Caesarea Philippi is abandoned of pagan worshippers. Not one person still comes to worship Zeus or Pan anymore. The only people who now come there are Christian pilgrims who come here because of Jesus and this conversation in Matthew 16. Therefore, Jesus is the only one honored there and the Gates of Hades is nothing but a big hole in the wall. He has conquered it as he said he would. The people of Jesus’ day probably could not imagine this great pagan complex abandoned of worshippers… but Jesus knew it would be redeemed away from the pagan gods.
Just as Jesus conquered the paganism of Caesarea Philippi, he has conquered the paganism of the traditions we do at Christmas. When I see a Christmas tree or lights or bows of holly I don’t see pagan gods… instead I am reminded that my Savior, Jesus Christ is the conquering Son of God and Lord of all and that these things are now used in His name and not in the name of whatever has-been, unknown god they used to belong to.
O come let us adore Him! Christ, the Lord!