A variety of opinions are held, all of them represented in our summing up later; but at least two views of ancient history are in order to understand how 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’) some say we have to go a long way further back …
One reading of history
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 allegedly 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 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. 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 nakedness had been covered with the garb of a deformed Christianity’ (W.E. Vine).
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.’
An alternative reading of history
The above research points to Christmas traditions being based on pagan Babylonish practices taken up historically by the church of Rome and given the facade of Christianity. However, that view has been seriously questioned. Hislop’s research has been critiqued and his scholarship found wanting by some in terms of Tammuz being an offspring of Nimrod and Semiramis etc.
One article, ‘Calculating Christmas’ by Tighe, W., concludes: ‘Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.’ The pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the ‘Sun of Salvation’ or the ‘Sun of Justice.’ If this is correct, the pagan celebration on that date is the counterfeit, not the original!
Augustine, On the Trinity 4:5, [Tr. Arthur West Haddan, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff, 1887] explains: ‘For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. What’s being argued there is the notion that prophets were thought to have been conceived on the same day and month as they died. Taking Jesus’ date of dying as 25th March, makes that (by this strange reasoning) also the date of his conception, and so 9 months later, the date of his birth is arrived at as 25th December!
The name ‘Santa Claus’ is a corruption of ‘Saint Nicholas’, via the Dutch Sinter Klaas. He was no pagan, but a real historical Christian figure, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in the 4th century (270–343). He was known for his generosity. Hanging stockings comes from an instance where he gave some three daughters of a poor man money for their dowries by putting it in their stockings, which were drying by the fireplace.
Gift-giving seemingly originated from both the gifts of the Magi and from Saint Nicholas.
There is no evidence of ‘Christmas trees’ earlier than the 15th century, in what is now Estonia. Then in the next century, Christians in what is now northern Germany performed mystery plays with an evergreen ‘Paradise tree’ hung with apples, and one apple was plucked. 24 December was a traditional ‘name day’ for Adam and Eve.
The Christmas tree was introduced to England by Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert.
Pagan or Christian?
Should Christians celebrate Christmas, but without many of its trappings? 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. Even if the pagan version of the origin of Christmas celebration as reviewed above 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 any possibly dubious origin and associations.
If, on the other hand, the ‘more Christian’ historical traditions of St. Nicholas (shorn of all its later mythological baggage, of course) and Christmas trees are considered to be more relevant and accurate (free of sinister pagan associations), then perhaps, it’s worth considering a parallel that might be drawn from the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. This celebrates the ‘re-booting’ of the Second Temple after the Maccabees expelled the Seleucid defiler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This included lighting the Menorah, and the story goes that one day’s supply of oil lasted all eight days.
In John 10:22–23, Jesus would appear to be walking on the Temple Mount during Hanukkah – and using this Feast of Lights to explain something better!
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:
PS: What about the supposed pagan origin of ‘Easter’?
‘Easter’ is supposed by some to derive from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, equivalent to the Assyrian goddess Ishtar. This comes from a 19th-century book, The Two Babylons, by the Scots reverend Alexander Hislop: ‘Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar. The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids.’
Actually, as will be shown, Tyndale was responsible for introducing the word ‘Ester’ into the English Bible. His work is better known as providing the basis for the KJV (1611). When Tyndale prepared the new Testament, he followed Luther’s practice and used the most common word in his native language. That is, while Luther most often used Oster, Tyndale used Ester. For example: Luke 22:15 And he said unto them: I have inwardly desired to eat this ester lamb with you before that I suffer.
Easter eggs are an early Christian tradition that began in Mesopotamia. Those who observed Lent would refrain from eating eggs. But the hens were still laying them! To prevent wastage, the eggs would be hard-boiled. They were often then dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ, while cracking the egg open would come to symbolize the opening of Jesus’ tomb. Much later, they came to be replaced with chocolate eggs.
On the other hand, the Easter bunny only goes back to German Lutherans (although it was a hare!) Due to their fast-breeding, ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch thought hares could reproduce without fertilization. Based on that false notion, Christians used them as a symbol of the Virgin Mary.