Christmas and Idolatry: What Every Christian Needs to Know in Order to Properly Defend the Celebration of Christ’s Birth
There has always been those who denounce the celebration of the birth of Jesus, most notably the Free Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Puritans. But I have run into a few people within the circles of “Christendom” myself who do not belong to these groups but who also have some reservations about Christmas. I think after reading this post all concerns about celebrating the birth of Jesus on the grounds of participating in pagan idol worship will be dispelled.
Let’s first look at the facts about the ancient paganism associated with December 25th.
December was originally a pagan festival to celebrate the birth of the sun god Sol Invictus, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.”
I should point out that historians actually question which came first, the Christian festival of Christmas, or the pagan festival to Invictus, since both were celebrated on December 25th. But who did it first is not clear. The truth is that the selection of December 25th for Christmas could have been taken over from any number of winter solstice festivals, such as that of Saturnalia.
Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture and harvest, and December 25th was also chosen by the ancient Druids as a celebration to Saturnalia.
Later, the Roman pagans introduced into their law December 17-25 as Saturnalia. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the week long celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering the innocent man or woman who they chose to represent “the forces of darkness”.
But something amazing happened circa 325 AD. Rome was being overtaken by Christians, literally. It is a popular secular explanation of Rome’s conversion to Christianity to say that Emperor Constantine put a stop to the harsh persecution of Christians because of political necessity. And, in fact, Yale professor and eminent historian of ancient Rome, Dr. Ramsay MacMullen, set out to prove once and for all that this was the reason that Rome turned from paganism to Christianity. However, MacMullen’s research showed just the opposite. Rather than proving to the world that Rome had converted to Christianity as a political maneuver, MacMullen proved that it was actually a spiritual revival complete with miracles, signs, and wonders that led to Christianity literally overtaking Rome. Macmillan’s findings became the focus of his recent book, Christianizing the Roman Empire.
As a result of the spiritual revival in Rome, Christians seized the date, December 25th, and converted it from an all-out pagan-fest into a celebration of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Bad news for third century emperors like Decian who had formerly persecuted Christians – his empire is gone and Jesus, not Solus Invictus, is celebrated on December 25th. Bad news for neo-pagans like European intellectual, de Benoist, who wanted to return Western civilization back to pagan pluralism: as long as “Hark the Herald Angels” and “O Holy Night” are songs people hear, sing, and enjoy at Christmas, those guys don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.
As Michael F. Bird wrote in his article, December 25th Means the Triumph of Christianity Over Paganism, “Christmas means that the ‘unconquerable’ god of the Romans just got conquered. A pagan Roman holiday just got stuffed with more Christianity than a December Turkey stuffed with spiced bread crumbs.”
Tertullian wrote: “We [Christians] are but of yesterday, and yet we already fill your cities, islands, camps, your palace, senate, and forum. We have left you only your temples” (Apology 37).
To that I would, add: “Oh, FYI, we just stole your holiday and crowned Jesus as King of kings on top of a city with seven hills, sitting on a big throne using Jupiter, Sol Victus, and Caesar as a foot rest!”
Those who denounce Christmas on the basis on paganism do have this in common with those of us who choose to continue celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25th: we all agree about the seriousness of idolatry. But we obviously disagree on what this date now stands for, and we also disagree about how paganism is practiced.
Let’s do a quick review of First Corinthians chapter 8 to see what Scripture might teach us on this debate.
In this discourse the Apostle Paul was writing to the Corinthians regarding meat sacrificed to idols. The Corinthian Christians were justifiably concerned about participating in idol worship when they were offered meat from an animal that had been offered up in sacrifice in a pagan temple. So Paul clears this up:
1Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3But whoever loves God is known by God. 4So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.7But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 9Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
What he was saying is that an idol is a nothing. It has no power. It’s a block of wood, a piece of metal…a nothing. So when meat that has been sacrificed to an idol is presented to a person who possesses this knowledge, they can eat with a clear conscience because it’s just a piece of meat — something completely neutral. Paul even makes reference to going so far as to even eat in an idol’s temple, suggesting that for the person with mature knowledge that this is actually OK….UNLESS someone with a weak conscience and less mature knowledge happens to see you and it makes them stumble because of their former associations in idol worship. So Paul says that for those people with weak consciences and less mature knowledge, go ahead and abstain in their presence for their sake.
It’s the same reason I abstain from drinking alcohol for the most part. I don’t think drinking alcohol is wrong, unless it leads to drunkenness. But for some people — even some non-religious people — it is associated with pagan revelry and smears the name of Christ. I was once having a drink with some friends in a bar in my younger Christian days, and a young lady who I knew from a college class saw me and said, “I didn’t expect to see YOU in here!” I felt my presence in that party place shed a bad light on my witness for Christ. So I made a decision to refrain from going to bars from that point forward, not because I think being in a bar is necessarily a sin, depending on what is being done there. And neither do I consider drinking to be problematic for me. But for the sake of other people, I abstain. And I find it interesting that while alcohol in our culture is closely associated with immorality, addiction, and pagan revelry, just like it was in the Bible in some instances, some of the same people who denounce Christmas on the basis of paganism have no problem with drinking alcohol (nor do I have a problem with them drinking). But the same principle they are applying to their justification of drinking alcohol are the very same principles being applied to worshiping God by celebrating the birth of our Savior on December 25th.
So going back to the Apostle Paul, in modern day vernacular, Paul was basically saying to those who had the knowledge and maturity to accept his instructions, “This meat was sacrificed to an idol, huh? Who cares?! There is only one God, and that is Jehovah! Let’s eat!”
How does this apply to December 25th? Well, December 25th is just a date. It has no significance whatsoever when it comes to the worship of God or of idols. I think Paul would say, “Who cares? If the pagans want to worship their pagan gods on that date, big deal. If you want to worship Jesus by celebrating His birth on that date, fine.” And putting up evergreen trees on that date? It’s just a tree, an inanimate object. It has no significance one way or the other. If people are not worshiping it, as the ancient Druids did, or using it to worship a pagan god, then we are free to use and enjoy God’s creation however we want. That is the freedom of New Covenant grace.
I refer to Colossians 2 on that point:
16Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ… 20Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
This passage does not have anything to do with Christmas specifically, but it does apply to Christmas and every similar debate in a general sense.
It is true that the first Century Christians did not celebrate Christmas — a point that Christmas opponents often make. And, yes, it is also true that some prominent people in early Christendom even opposed Christmas on the basis of paganism. But while I have a high regard for how the First Century Christians worshiped, our ultimate guide needs to be the Word of God, not someone’s opinion, even if that opinion is offered by someone who truly does love God and seeks to honor Him. After all, even the great Apostle Peter, who walked with Jesus for three years, was once rebuked by the Apostle Paul because Peter was “led astray” by some of the Jews (see Galatians 2:11-21). Everything we do needs to weighed against the Word of God, not just history, and not just someone’s opinion.
While I fully acknowledge that some of the earliest Christians did not celebrate Christ’s birth, and while I fully acknowledge that many were even opposed to it, I again refer back to the Word of God as penned by Paul to the Corinthians. Based upon this passage you can rest assured that you are guiltless if you celebrate Christmas like the 4th Century Christians intended for it to be observed, as a celebration of the sending of Messiah to the world. (“Christ” means Messiah, and “mass” means, to send.)
Here’s are the acid-test questions we need to ask ourselves:
- Is there a specific scriptural prohibition against worshiping God with a celebration of Christ’s birth? No.
- Are we bowing down to a pagan god and worshiping it at Christmas time? No.
- And based upon Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians, can we take something that pagans used for worshiping a false god and use it instead for our own enjoyment apart from pagan worship? Obviously, yes.
What a wonderful Savior we serve! His grace is amazing and His ways perfect! He has conquered His enemies and, to this day, the date December 25th is associated with the coming of Messiah as described in Isaiah 9:6:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.