Christmas is the Christian remembrance and celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that, in Christ, God entered the human race and so deserves the title Immanuel or God With Us (Matthew 1:23).
Even so, some say that various Christmas traditions have pagan origins, so the question is legitimate.
First, the pagan origins of Christmas are far from certain. The winter solstice, often tied with Christmas, never falls on December 25. Likewise, Saturnalia, which has also been proposed as the origin of Christmas, was never celebrated on December 25. Other Christmas symbols, such as trees and candles, may have had some pagan connotations, but these are so common in human experience that it can hardly be claimed that their use was ever exclusive to paganism.
Second, the meaning of any word, symbol, or custom is determined by current usage, not origin. Many words and practices have departed from their origins and no longer mean anything close to what they once did. For instance, the swastika has been around for thousands of years as a symbol of good fortune. It was therefore reasonable for the Nazi party to take this as their symbol, as they emphasized that they were the party to bring good times back to Germany, which was going through hard times after World War I. However, it would be absolute foolishness for a person to decorate his home today with swastikas based on their “real meaning.” The swastika has been so thoroughly identified with the horrors of the Holocaust that, in the current culture, it is a symbol for anti-Semitism and all things evil. The original meaning of the symbol is completely irrelevant.
Likewise, if you asked the average American to tell you about Nike, probably better than 90 percent would talk about a brand of athletic shoes and clothing with hardly any mention of the Greek goddess of victory for whom the company is named. In a Google search of the term Nike, you would have to sift through dozens of results before you found anything about the Greek goddess Nike. When you see someone wearing the famous “swoosh,” your first thought is of a modern company, not an ancient goddess, and no one would assume that the wearer of said clothing is a worshiper of the goddess.
Regardless of what the Christmas symbols may once have meant, their use today needs to be evaluated on the basis of what they mean today. To automatically associate candles, colored lights, or decorated trees with pagan worship is unwarranted.
If there are unbiblical practices in our Christmas celebration, then those should be forsaken. Feasting is biblical, but gluttony is not, so perhaps that is an area that Christians need to think about in their Christmas celebrations. Drinking alcoholic beverages is not forbidden by the Bible, but getting drunk is. So, a Christian celebration should not involve drunkenness. Giving of gifts is biblical, but going into debt or spending beyond your means is not, so Christmas gifts should be purchased responsibly. It’s good for Christians to examine their celebrations to make sure that they truly honor God.
Third, when cultures clash, there is always an attempt to change and co-opt language and cultural symbols. Paul had no problem co-opting a pagan altar in order to spread the gospel. Speaking at the Areopagus, he says, “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 (Acts 17:23–24).
If what we know as Christmas originally started out as a pagan celebration, then it has been so successfully co-opted by Christians that any self-respecting pagan would be distressed at what Christians have done to it. Christmas celebrations are so completely the opposite of paganism that any suggested link between the two can be disregarded.
Christians celebrating Christmas are no more pagan than are churches who gather to worship on Sunday (so named because it was the pagan Day of the Sun) or who hold a prayer service on Wednesday (named after the Norse god Woden). The pagan origins of the names of the days of the week have nothing to do with the church’s weekly gatherings, and ancient pagan winter festivals have no real bearing on the modern Christian celebration of Christmas.
Imagine a second- or third-century Christian reflecting on his town’s celebration of Saturnalia. He thinks to himself: “The whole town is celebrating Saturnalia with feasting and giving of gifts. They are talking about ‘freeing souls into immortality’ and ‘the dawn of a golden age.’ I think this might be a great time to throw a party and invite my friends over to tell them how their souls really can be freed into immortality and the dawning of the truest golden age of all, the Kingdom of God. I think it might be a good idea to give them some gifts as well in honor of God’s giving us the greatest gift of all.” In this way, a celebration is “redeemed” for God’s glory and Christians are given a biblical alternative to the pagan day.
With every cultural practice, Christians usually fall into three different camps. Some simply accept the practice wholesale without any reflection. Obviously, this is unwise. Other Christians will simply reject it and often retreat into a Christian subculture. Finally, some will carefully reflect on the cultural practice, embrace what they can, reject what’s ungodly, and redeem what’s worth saving. Christians have been so successful in co-opting some cultural practices that no one even remembers what the original meaning of the practices was. If the origins of Christmas are indeed pagan, then this is what happened, to God be the glory! Would to God that it would happen to more of our social and cultural conventions and activities.
Although not written about Christmas, Romans 14:5–6 seems to apply: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.” If an individual Christian does not feel comfortable with some or all aspects of the celebration of Christmas, that Christian should do what he or she believes to be right. He should not judge others who believe and celebrate differently, nor should the others judge him, when no clear biblical guideline is involved.