Is Christmas Pagan?

Some Christians worry that Christmas has pagan associations, e.g. with the pagan midwinter celebration of Saturnalia. The church – wisely in my view – has taken a positive view of replacing paganism with celebrations of the life of Christ. So ancient churches were deliberately built on pagan sites – to show the victory of Jesus over them. Pagan festivals were replaced with Christian celebrations, showing the power of Christ to destroy paganism.  After all, if the gospel isn’t more powerful than paganism then it isn’t good news!  Prayer in the name of Jesus is more than sufficient to remove any pagan influences. 

To me, celebrating the incarnation on the “wrong” date is no more significant than the Queen of England having an official birthday which is not her actual birthday.  It worries me that believers who don’t make full use of Christmas may finish up not really emphasising and celebrating the incarnation adequately. (The same might be said of those who don’t really observe Good Friday and Easter). As someone said: “Although we can worship God at anytime, if we don’t worship him at some time, we might end up worshipping him at no time.” The same could be said about celebrating the great events of our Faith.

As for pagan symbols, it is interesting to note that candles, which are central to the great Jewish festivals, are pagan in origin. The ancient Romans lit candles to ward off evil, and to convince the sun to shine again.  Does that mean we shouldn’t use them?  Of course not, candles are neutral in themselves: it all depends on the context in which we use them.  We can also note that there is blood sacrifice in paganism (which predates the Levitical system) but that was replaced by a good use of the practice. Wine is used in pagan rituals but that didn’t stop Jesus using it for what we now call Communion. “God” is a pagan word.  Sunday is a pagan title, as is Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday etc., but, in English, we happily use the terms

What about the Christmas tree?  The story is told of the 7th century monk named Boniface who was in the woods preaching to a group of German pagans. During his sermon, he noticed a small fir tree and used its triangular shape to explain the Holy Trinity. From then on, the German converts referred to the evergreen fir tree as – “God’s tree”. Years later, the German churches used dramatic plays, called “miracle” or “mystery” plays, to help spread the Gospel and teach the people about God’s Biblical truths. One popular play was about Adam and Eve and “God’s tree” represented the “Tree of Knowledge.”   Others have used the evergreen nature of the tree to symbolize eternal life in Christ. Martin Luther, the great Reformer, is also said to have encouraged Christians to have Christmas trees.

The gospel has overcome and replaced paganism.  Why should we not use beautiful aspects of God’s creation (which he declared “very good”) – candles, trees, wine, etc., – in our celebrations of the great gospel events?  Why should we fear that using such good parts of God’s creation could somehow contaminate or threaten us. Surely such fear is dangerously close to superstition. God does not want us to live in fear, so, whilst avoiding the commercialism of the West, we’re right to celebrate Christmas wholeheartedly and joyfully.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction