A variety of opinions are held, all of them represented in our summing up later; but first some ancient history in order to understand how such different attitudes have come about.
When the first New Testament churches of God were in existence, we don’t read of any Christmas celebrations. To discover the origins of Christmas (and other events in the calendar of the now so-called ‘established church’) we have to go a long way further back.
Nimrod and Tammuz
Nimrod was the great grandson of Noah and described in the Bible as a mighty warrior and hunter. He was the founder of, and king over, several cities including Babylon and Nineveh. (Gen 10:8-12). History identifies his wife as Semiramis, a very beautiful – and grossly immoral – woman.
It is claimed that Nimrod introduced a counterfeit religion surrounding the worship of the sun and fire, before his life was ended in a violent and untimely manner. Accounts tell of how his death led to a supression of the false religion, but Semiramis then revived it again in secret. She claimed that Nimrod was now a god in the form of the sun. She later gave birth to a child (conceived through fornication) who was supposedly the reincarnation of the hero Nimrod, now the sun god. That child became known under various names, of which one of the most important was ‘Tammuz’ (see Ezekiel 8:14).
‘It was taught that Tammuz was slain by a wild boar and afterwards brought back to life … the evergreen was his chosen symbol and was set up in honour of his birth at the winter solstice, when a … yule-log burned with many mysterious observances’ (H.A. Ironside, Lectures on the Revelation). Worship of Nimrod as the sun god spread worldwide (as traced by Hislop in his carefully documented book, The Two Babylons).
It was Julius Caesar who adopted the Babylonian false religion and introduced it into the Roman Empire. The Emperor Constantine in the fourth century A.D. was astute enough to realize that, in order to bring unity and peace to his empire, he needed to have union between paganism and Christianity. So he declared Christianity the state religion and at the same time ‘Christianized’ pagan practices. ‘The idolatry of the Roman world, though deposed from its ancient pre-eminence, had by no means been demolished. Instead of this, its pagan nackedness had been covered with the garb of a deformed Christianity’ (W.E. Vine).
Christmas as a Festival
The first mention of Christmas as a Christian festival is in the third century and it wasn’t until the fourth century that the celebration of the birth of Christ gained widespread observance (by decree of Pope Julius I in 375). The Bible doesn’t give the date for Christ’s birth and commentators debate the issue, some thinking that October would be the latest time for shepherds to be out on the hillsides around Bethlehem. So why was 25 December chosen for the celebration of Christ’s birth?
A heathen celebration in honour of the birth of Tammuz, the son of Semiramis, the Babylonian ‘queen of heaven’, was held at exactly that time of year. It is presumed that, in order to placate the heathen and swell the ranks of nominal adherents to Christianity, the same festival was adopted by the Roman church, but giving it the name of Christ. As Peter Partner describes it in his book ‘Two Thousand Years’, ‘… the feasts of Christmas, the Winter Solstice celebration of the northerners for which the nativity of Christ is a cheeky Christian misnomer.’
Christmas traditions are based, so it seems then, on Babylonish practices taken up historically by the church of Rome and given the facade of Christianity. These have now spread amongst many Christians today. The Christmas tree was only introduced into Britain by Prince Albert in 1841, but had been in use in Northern Europe long before that. In ancient Egypt, the Babylonish messiah was represented by a palm tree and in pagan Rome by a fir tree. In Babylon, the yule log stripped of its branches (the dead Nimrod) and the evergreen tree symbolised the violent death and supposed reincarnation of Nimrod in his new son. The use of mistletoe is supposed to be of druidic origin, being the symbol (along with the kiss) of reconciliation between God and man through a false ‘messiah’.
Pagan or Christian?
If the origins of the festival of Christmas (and Easter) are pagan, does that mean that Christians should cease to observe the festival, even though it has now taken the name of Christ?
It could be argued that a pagan festival was replaced with a Christian one, although the symbols and traditions that are carried through are obviously not of Christian origin. Should Christians celebrate Christmas, but without the tree, the yule log and probably the wreath as well (symbolic of eternal sun), not to mention the legends of Father Christmas? Some Christians would take that stance and be justified in doing so. Fewer still reject the festival entirely.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 8, Paul wrote about the issue of whether or not to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. To those who were then in the Church of God in Corinth, and who had come from a pagan background, the pagan ‘origin’ of the food held great significance; to others, it was simply something to eat. Paul affirmed it was permissible to eat such food provided it wasn’t eaten as if it was something sacrificed to an idol (1 Cor 8:7), and provided no-one’s conscience was offended. If all that has been reviewed here regarding the pagan background of Christmas rituals were to be agreed as factual, then it would still seem appropriate to apply this same principle. To do so would allow some display of the usual Christmas trappings provided, of course, there is now in our minds and consciences no respect for their dubious origin and associations.
In the New Testament, the only celebration given by the Lord Jesus Himself is the remembrance, with its accompanying symbolism of bread and wine. This is a proclamation of the Lord’s death on the first day of every week (1 Cor 11:26). Festivals which are not God-given should never be given a wrong emphasis by the Christian. It is all too easy to be driven by society’s consumerism or the world’s traditions. No one should be criticized for taking a definite decision not to celebrate such a festival; but as well as Christmas affording a welcome time for family relaxation; some Christians, perhaps the majority, will interact with the Christmas event for one main reason: evangelism – an opportunity to share the true story of the real Saviour’s birth and death for us:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV)