I can’t remember for certain where I first heard this allegorical story of Christmas–probably on Mark Call‘s radio show–but I have never forgotten its message. It involves a recently married couple. The wife has a sordid past, and her husband gave up nearly everything to help her put it behind her and heal from her many emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds. I have embellished it somewhat from the original. Here, we overhear them discussing his birthday.
W: “Dear, what would you like to do for your birthday this year? Anything you want!”
H: “More than anything else, I’d like to spend some time with you. Let’s go camping for a week where we can really be together.”
W: “But it’s so uncomfortable out there sleeping on the ground. Mosquitoes, flies…yuck! And no air conditioning! I have a better idea. Why don’t we stay home and throw a party? We’ll put up lights and decorations, and we’ll give presents to everyone! I know how much you like the wilderness, so we’ll put a tree up in the living room and make it up all fancy with lights and silver and gold! Oh! Won’t it be beautiful?”
H: “I’m sure it would be, but that’s not what I want. Besides, didn’t you used to do all these things with one of your ex boyfriends?”
W: “I know you didn’t really ask for anything this fancy, but I know you’ll love it. It will give me and all our friends a chance to show you just how much we love you! We’ll even change the date to make sure it’s convenient for everyone. How does December 25th sound?”
H: “That’s your ex boyfriend’s birthday, not mine! Those are the things he wanted you to do! How could you possibly think I would appreciate that?”
W: “I know, but we already have this tradition. We’ve been doing it every year for so long now. It will be so much easier if we just keep using that same date and holding the same party. We’ll change the name! It’s OK because everyone will know we’re doing it for you now, not for Sol. Nor for old Satty, even if that’s where I got most of my ideas. Nor for Mithras, because hardly anybody remembers him anyway. See? It’s OK because I’m doing it all for you!”
H: “I already told you what I want.”
W: “Thor and I used to have a fire every year on his birthday. Let’s do that too! Oh! One more thing. You’ll love this! Can you dress up like Odin? He looked so cute, and the children will love it!”
H: “I am not Odin!”
It gets worse. Here is another conversation at a later date.
H: “I want you to always remember how much I sacrificed to rescue you from the cruel bondage of your former lovers. I want you to remember how I bled and suffered for you.”
W: “Oh! I will. How could I ever forget? To commemorate what you’ve done for me and to show you how much I love you, I’m going to bake a ham and invite everyone over for dinner.”
H: “You know ham disgusts me! I told you to roast a lamb.”
W: “We’ll color eggs and decorate with cute little bunnies.”
H: “Isn’t that what your ex lesbian lover, the one who murdered your children, used to make you do?”
W: “Well, yes, but that doesn’t matter anymore. I’m doing it all for you, and you know how much I love you. We’ll celebrate this day in your honor every year, and we’ll call it Easter!”
H: “That’s your lover’s name!”
God specifically told us not to adopt the religious customs of pagans. He told us not to join in their feasts. Yet we do it anyway, year after year after year, and we say it’s all good because God knows our hearts. He does indeed. Do you? What would you think of a wife who continued to celebrate the birthdays and deeds of horribly abusive ex lovers while claiming she did it for her husband who told her not to? How pure can your heart be if you still pine after your slavery and fornication?
When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations before you, where you go to possess them, and you take their place and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you do not become snared by following them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not ask about their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods, that I too may do likewise? You shall not do so to the LORD your God. For every abomination to the LORD, which He hates, they have done to their gods; even their sons and their daughters they have burned in the fire to their gods. All the things I command you, be careful to do it. You shall not add to it, nor take away from it.
(See also Deuteronomy 18:9-14.)
Regarding Christmas, there are good things and bad things, but the most important consideration for me is what pleases God. In Deuteronomy 12:29-32, God said not to learn how the former pagans used to worship their gods and then do the same for him. He told us how he is to be worshiped, and we are forbidden from adding to it or taking away from it.
Christmas is to holidays as English is to languages. They are cultural borgs, assimilating everything they touch. Some Christmas traditions are clearly biblical, while others are clearly pagan, and some are more difficult to pin down. Google the words “pagan” and “Christmas,” and you are sure to find plethora of sites declaring everything about Christmas to be purely pagan and evil. You will also find sites claiming that everything about Christmas is purely inspired by God with not a speck of yellow to mar the pristine snowy landscape. Who’s right?
I’m no expert on the subject, but, for whatever it’s worth, I’m going to give you my thoughts on it anyway.
From what I’ve read, December 25th was decided on as the birthdate of Yeshua relatively early on in Church history. Unfortunately, it was still decided at least a century after the fact, and it was decided by Greeks and Romans who wouldn’t necessarily understand all the nuances of the Jewish Gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, and John were all native Jews, and Luke was a proselyte at a fairly young age.
There are some people who seriously believe that Yeshua was actually born on December 25th, but they are a minority. Most believe he was actually born in either spring, around Passover, or fall, around Tabernacles. Competing modern traditions point to the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and the many other winter solstice celebrations to explain how December 25th earned the title.
One tradition says that most of the cultures encompassed by the Roman Empire had some kind of winter solstice celebration, which generally fell very close to December 25th. That tradition is undoubtedly correct on that point, but it goes further. It says that Roman Christians didn’t want to appear too Jewish, so instead of celebrating a new holiday at a different time of year, they melded the new ideas into their existing celebrations. In that way, they would be celebrating Christmas at the same time everyone else was celebrating Saturnalia, and they wouldn’t stand out as much from the crowd. This sounds like a reasonable explanation, but as far as I can tell, it is only speculation. The solstice celebrations were certainly real, but I haven’t seen any solid evidence that this was the motivation for selecting this date for Christmas.
A competing tradition says that the Roman Empire instituted the formal holiday of Saturnalia in order to compete with the growing popularity of the Christian holiday. I have at least heard of some documentary evidence that Saturnalia was not officially recognized by the Emperor until after Christians had already adopted the 25th for Christmas. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Saturnalia had not already been celebrated unofficially, so it doesn’t really prove it one way or another.
Another argument against December 25th is the fact of shepherds tending their flocks in the hills at night. I have heard it argued that no shepherd in Judea would have been tending flocks outdoors at night on December 25th. The shepherds supposedly drove their flocks into barns or warmer climes, I’m not sure which. I’ve never seen any historical documentation of either claim, and it sounds like something invented by people with no actual knowledge of sheep or shepherding. Israel is a small country, so where would they go? And it has relatively few trees, so what would these giant barns be made of?
The counter argument is that it rarely gets below freezing in that region even in December, and that shepherds routinely tend their flocks under those conditions. I have no way of knowing which is right. I know that it’s fairly easy to find pictures on the internet of sheep in snowy pastures. I also know that in modern times the temperature in Israel does occasionally fall below freezing in winter, but it averages something closer to forty degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe 2000 years ago it was ten degrees every night or maybe it was sixty.
There is also the faint possibility that December 25th was chosen because it is possible that Yeshua was conceived sometime near Hanukkah, which is celebrated beginning on Kislev 25 and is always within a few weeks of December 25th. Kislev, being a month on a foreign calendar, was changed to December and the day came to be celebrated as a birthdate instead of as a conception date. More speculation.
Absent proof of one hypothesis or the other, I’m not going to raise a stink about it. If everyone wants to celebrate Yeshua’s birth on December 25th, it seems silly, but it doesn’t hurt me in any way.
Every report I have heard says that Christmas trees were adopted from a Germanic solstice tradition. One such report said that some Germanic tribes would bring a tree inside their house as some sort of talisman against the symbolic death of the shortest day of the year. The living tree within their home helped preserve their own lives and ensured another prosperous year. I have no clue if that is correct. I haven’t been able to find any primary sources supporting it.
Also consider the prophecy of Jeremiah 10:2-5:
So says the LORD, Do not learn the way of the nations, and do not be terrified at the signs of the heavens; for the nations are terrified at them. For the customs of the people are vain; for one cuts a tree out of the forest with the axe, the work of the hands of the workman. They adorn it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers, so that it will not wobble. They are like a rounded post, and they cannot speak. They must surely be lifted, because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them; for they cannot do evil nor good, for it is not in them.
I doubt that Jeremiah was thinking of Christmas trees when he wrote these words from God, but the parallel is too striking to ignore. The pagans are terrified of the signs of the heavens, signs like the winter solstice, in response to which they cut a tree out of the forest, bring it back to their house, and decorate it. Perhaps Jeremiah had never heard of the German people or their Yuletide traditions. Perhaps he thought he was only writing about carved idols inlaid with gold and silver.
But then again, perhaps God had a wider perspective than Jeremiah.
It seems obvious that, despite many efforts to apply Christian meaning to the Christmas tree, it is not of biblical origin. It was almost certainly adopted from some pagan religious rite. However harmless it might seem, I can’t see any way that it does not violate God’s command to not adopt pagan religious practices. Justifying it by saying we are doing it in his honor adds insult to injury. Does it help the adulteress’ case to claim she was thinking of her husband at the time?
The Twelve Days of Christmas, Yule logs, Yule Tide, and Yule everything else is unquestionably pagan. I don’t think anyone seriously disputes that. There is nothing biblical about it, and claiming otherwise is pointless.
I suspect the tradition of candles placed in the windows was adopted from Hanukkah, in which an 8 or 9 candle menorah is lit and placed where it can be seen through the house’s windows. While this tradition is not included in the Scriptures of the canon, it is not done in honor of any pagan gods. It is done solely in honor of a miracle that God performed in fulfillment of prophecies in Daniel and in preparation for greater fulfillments to come. I say light ’em up.
One tradition says that gift giving was adopted from Saturnalia. Another says that it was instituted in honor of the gifts brought to Yeshua by the magi. Either one seems like speculation to me. I have never seen evidence either way and there’s nothing inherently pagan about giving gifts.
Witnesses from the first century report that the Celtic Druids employed mistletoe (not the same as holly) in religious fertility rites, perhaps even involving human sacrifice. Most pagan European cultures ascribed magical properties to mistletoe, and it was widely associated with fertility. Obviously the plant itself isn’t pagan, but the association with the Winter solstice definitely is.
Red and Green
Once again, I have never heard of documentation for claims of pagan origins for the colors red and green associated with Christmas. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how it might be derived from Scripture. It seems equally likely to me to have a distant pagan connection or to be a harmless tradition based on one of the most hopeful denizens of winter: evergreen hollies.
Lest anyone think I might be turning into the Grinch, I am not interested in making anyone else conform to my opinions on Christmas. There will be no Christmas trees or Yule logs in my house, but you need to make your own decisions about it. I am not going to complain about nativity scenes or Christmas trees on public property, and I am not going to tell you you’re going to hell for your cheese log. These are just some rambling thoughts relevant to the day. They might even be wrong. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind.
Have fun. Enjoy yourself. But consider giving your traditions a little more thought as to whether or not they please God. He is, after all, the reason for this and all other seasons. Is he not?
Add your thoughts if you want. I might disagree, but I’ll try not to call you any bad names. 😉
119 Ministries’ documentary, The Christmas Question, also discusses the origin of these and other Christmas traditions. Watch it free right here.