Christmas Shrouded in Mythology
No one knows what day Jesus Christ was born on. From the biblical description, most historians believe that his birth probably occurred in September, approximately six months after Passover. One thing they agree on is that it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in December, since the bible records shepherds tending their sheep in the fields on that night. This is quite unlikely to have happened during a cold Judean winter. So why do we celebrate Christ’s birthday as Christmas, on December the 25th?
The answer lies in the pagan origins of Christmas. In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.
In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.
Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means “wheel,” the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Hollyberries were thought to be a food of the gods.
The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.
In 350, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.
Christmas (Christ-Mass) as we know it today, most historians agree, began in Germany, though Catholics and Lutherans still disagree about which church celebrated it first. The earliest record of an evergreen being decorated in a Christian celebration was in 1521 in the Alsace region of Germany. A prominent Lutheran minister of the day cried blasphemy: “Better that they should look to the true tree of life, Christ.”
How well do the customs and traditions of Christmas match the biblical account of Christ's birth? An objective look shows that many traditions supposedly rooted in the Bible don't match the biblical account.
Did three wise men travel to see Jesus? The Bible doesn't say how many there were. There could have been more. We are told only that they gave Jesus three kinds of gifts: "gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (Matthew 2:1, 11). Did everyone exchange gifts when Christ was born? Gifts were presented to Jesus because He was born "King of the Jews" (verses 2, 11). This was the expected custom when appearing before a king, thus the wise men brought gifts fit for a king: gold and valuable spices. Jesus alone was the recipient of the gifts; others did not exchange gifts among themselves.
Did the wise men, as nativity scenes often depict, arrive to find Jesus in a stable manger, there having been "no room in the inn"? (Luke 2:7). No. When the wise men arrived, apparently some time after Christ's birth, Joseph's family was residing in a house (Matthew 2:11).
Did the writers of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) consider Jesus' birth to be one of the most significant events for Christians to acknowledge or celebrate? Mark and John do not even mention the event. Although Matthew and Luke do, neither gives the date. None of the biblical writers says anything about commemorating Christ's birth.
Did Jesus Christ tell us to celebrate His birth? No. He left explicit instructions regarding how His followers are to commemorate His death (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), but nothing about His birth.
What about other common customs and symbols associated with Christmas? Where did they originate? "On the Roman New Year (January 1), houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. To these observances were added the German and Celtic Yule rites ... Food and good fellowship, the Yule log and Yule cakes, greenery and fir trees, gifts and greetings all commemorated different aspects of this festive season. Fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life, have always been associated with the winter festival, both pagan and Christian" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol. 2, p. 903, "Christmas").
"In midwinter, the idea of rebirth and fertility was tremendously important. In the snows of winter, the evergreen was a symbol of the life that would return in the spring, so evergreens were used for decoration ... Light was important in dispelling the growing darkness of the solstice, so a Yule log was lighted with the remains of the previous year's log ... As many customs lost their religious reasons for being, they passed into the realm of superstition, becoming good luck traditions and eventually merely customs without rationale. Thus the mistletoe was no longer worshiped but became eventually an excuse for rather nonreligious activities" (Del Re, p. 18).
Historians tell us the Christmas celebration came from questionable origins. William Walsh (1854-1919) summarizes the holiday's origins and practices in his book The Story of Santa Klaus: "We remember that the Christmas festival ... is a gradual evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period ... It was overlaid upon heathen festivals, and many of its observances are only adaptations of pagan to Christian ceremonial" (1970, p. 58).
How could pagan practices become part of a major church celebration? What were these "heathen festivals" that lent themselves to Christmas customs over the centuries?
In addition to the Bacchanalia, the Romans celebrated another holiday, the Saturnalia, held "in honor of Saturn, the god of time, [which] began on December 17th and continued for seven days. These also often ended in riot and disorder. Hence the words Bacchanalia and Saturnalia acquired an evil reputation in later times" (p. 65).
The reason for the Saturnalia's disrepute is revealing. In pagan mythology Saturn was an "ancient agricultural god-king who ate his own children presumably to avoid regicide [being murdered while king]. And Saturn was parallel with a Carthaginian Baal, whose brazen horned effigy contained a furnace into which children were sacrificially fed" (William Sansom, A Book of Christmas, 1968, p. 44).
Notice the customs surrounding the Saturnalia: "All businesses were closed except those that provided food or revelry. Slaves were made equal to masters or even set over them. Gambling, drinking, and feasting were encouraged. People exchanged gifts, called strenae, from the vegetation goddess Strenia, whom it was important to honor at midwinter ... Men dressed as women or in the hides of animals and caroused in the streets. Candles and lamps were used to frighten the spirits of darkness, which were [considered] powerful at this time of year. At its most decadent and barbaric, Saturnalia may have been the excuse among Roman soldiers in the East for the human sacrifice of the king of the revels" (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 16).
Gerard and Patricia Del Re explain the further evolution of December 25 as an official Roman celebration: "Saturnalia and the kalends [new moon, in this case of January] were the celebrations most familiar to early Christians, December 17-24 and January 1-3, but the tradition of celebrating December 25 as Christ's birthday came to the Romans from Persia. Mithra, the Persian god of light and sacred contracts, was born out of a rock on December 25. Rome was famous for its flirtations with strange gods and cults, and in the third century  the unchristian emperor Aurelian established the festival of Dies Invicti Solis, the Day of the Invincible Sun, on December 25.
"Mithra was an embodiment of the sun, so this period of its rebirth was a major day in Mithraism, which had become Rome's latest official religion with the patronage of Aurelian. It is believed that the emperor Constantine adhered to Mithraism up to the time of his conversion to Christianity. He was probably instrumental in seeing that the major feast of his old religion was carried over to his new faith" (The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 17).
Although it is difficult to determine the first time anyone celebrated December 25 as Christmas, historians are in general agreement that it was sometime during the fourth century.
Many of the other trappings of Christmas are merely carryovers from ancient celebrations.
"Santa Claus" is an American corruption of the Dutch form "San Nicolaas," a figure brought to America by the early Dutch colonists (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. 19, p. 649, "Nicholas, St."). This name, in turn, stems from St. Nicholas, bishop of the city of Myra in southern Asia Minor, a Catholic saint honored by the Greeks and the Latins on Dec. 6.
Tragically, Christianity never accomplished the task of cutting off everything pagan. According to Owen Chadwick, former professor of history at Cambridge University, the Romans "kept the winter solstice with a feast of drunkenness and riot. The Christians thought that they could bring a better meaning into that feast. They tried to persuade their flocks not to drink or eat too much, and to keep the feast more austerely —but without success " (A History of Christianity, 1995, p. 24).
"As early as A.D. 245, the Church father Origen was proclaiming it heathenish to celebrate Christ's birthday as if He were merely a temporal ruler when His spiritual nature should be the main concern. This view was echoed throughout the centuries, but found strong, widespread advocacy only with the rise of Protestantism. To these serious-minded, sober clerics, the celebration of Christmas flew in the face of all they believed. Drunken revelry on Christmas! The day was not even known to be Christ's birthday. It was merely an excuse to continue the customs of pagan Saturnalia" (Del Re, p. 20). Putting Christ into Christmas is total Sacreligeous.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica adds: "The [church] Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Epiphanius, contended that Christmas was a copy of a pagan celebration" (15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. 4, p. 499, "Christianity").
The decision to celebrate Christ's birth on December 25 was far from universally accepted. "Christians of Armenia and Syria accused the Christians of Rome of sun worship for celebrating Christmas on December 25 ... Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century tried to remove certain practices at Christmas which he considered in no way different from sun worship" (Robert Myers, Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, 1972, p. 310). What a fake way to celebrate Christ.
Human reasoning aside, we need to consider God's opinion about such celebrations. We need to look into God's Word to see how He views mixing pagan practices and customs with worshipping Him.