Christmastime is truly the most wonderful time of year—the lights, the music, the holiday cheer. But it can also be the most controversial time as well. Online skeptics and well-intentioned Christians alike will tell you that Christmas is actually a pagan holiday that was “baptized” by the early church to make Christianity more attractive to the pagans. Trees, wreaths, and other decorations are rooted in pagan worship, and their use is explicitly condemned as idolatry in the Bible. Thus, they must be avoided at all costs. What should we think of this? Must Christians stop decking the halls and trimming the tree lest we break the first of the Ten Commandments by unintentionally worshiping false gods? Let’s examine some of the common claims about the alleged pagan roots of Christmas.
One common claim you may hear about Christmas is that an early church leader decided to celebrate the birth of their Savior on December 25 to co-opt an existing pagan holiday, thus making Christianity more inviting to pagan worshippers. One such holiday is Saturnalia, a Roman festival honoring the sun god, Saturn, which lasted from December 17 to 24. Another possibility is Sol Invictus, a holiday instituted by Roman emperor Aurelian in 274 AD, which was celebrated on December 25. The problem, however, is that there is no written evidence of an early church leader deciding to usurp these pagan holidays with a Christian holiday. It is simply assumed that since the earliest records of Christ’s birthday celebrations come after Aurelian’s time, then Christians must have appropriated this day from the pagans. Furthermore, there is evidence that Christians recognized December 25 as the day of Jesus’s birth—even if they did not yet formally celebrate it as a holiday—before the creation of Sol Invictus.
Since the Bible does not offer a date of the birth of Jesus, why has it come to be celebrated on December 25? This is because of the date of another important Christian event: Jesus’s crucifixion. The Bible describes the crucifixion as occurring during Passover, which has a definite date in the Jewish calendar. Using this as a reference point, some early Christians calculated that Jesus died on the 14th of Nisan, which is March 25 according to our calendars. It was also believed that Jesus died on the same date that he was conceived, so if Jesus was born nine months after March 25, that would be the date that we recognize as Christmas, December 25. Of course, this may not actually be the date that Jesus was born, but, this shows that some Christians recognized December 25 as the day of Jesus’s birth before the time of Aurelian. Furthermore, to spin the “pagan Christmas” theory on its head, it is likely that Aurelian purposely chose December 25 as the date of Sol Invictus to spite Roman Christians. Thus, Christians did not appropriate December 25 from the pagans; pagans may have appropriated the date from us.
O Christmas Tree, No Christmas Tree?
Although the date of Christmas may not have pagan associations, what about the way we celebrate it? One of the most iconic features of the holiday is also the biggest target for many critics: the Christmas tree. There are two branches of attack, one from the Bible and one from pagan traditions. Some Christians claim that the Bible explicitly condemns Christmas trees, citing Jeremiah 10:1–5. In these verses, God commands Israel not to be like other nations, who cut down trees and adorn them. This sounds like the modern practice of decorating Christmas trees, doesn’t it? Not once you read the verses carefully. This passage describes fashioning an idol out of wood for the purpose of worship. God is condemning idolatry, not the use of trees for seasonal decoration. Thus, the claim that the Bible explicitly condemns Christmas trees is false.
This passage describes fashioning an idol out of wood for the purpose of worship. God is condemning idolatry, not the use of trees for seasonal decoration. Thus, the claim that the Bible explicitly condemns Christmas trees is false.
But what about the alleged pagan source of Christmas trees? This may be valid. It is true that pagans have used standard Christmas staples such as trees, holly, berries, and candles in their worship. Some pagans have even worshiped trees themselves. Does this disqualify Christians from using these objects as seasonal decorations? This answer is not as clear-cut, and it seems to fall into the same category as decorating with pumpkins and jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween or bunnies and eggs at Easter. Christians have a wide range of opinions on these matters. Yet, the Bible does offer guidance on how to think about these issues.
In 1 Corinthians 8–11, Paul teaches us to be mindful of weaker Christians who may stumble because of the actions of fellow believers. He specifically addresses Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols, and since idols are nothing, there is no problem eating such meat. However, this action may trouble a weaker Christian and cause them to stumble. Thus, for their sake, Paul urges his readers not to eat meat offered to idols. The same principle can be applied to holiday decorations, such as Christmas trees. If you have a Christian friend or family member who formerly practiced a pagan religion, they may find certain decorations troubling. Out of love, you may refrain from using them to avoid causing your brother or sister to stumble. Otherwise, the decision to use various Christmas decorations, or to celebrate Christmas at all, is a matter of conscience.
Yet, there may be a deeper significance to the Christmas tree than many of us realize. Maybe it isn’t just a pagan symbol that was appropriated by a Christian celebration, but it is an intentional “shadow” of the cross.
Shadow of the Cross
C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist and creator of The Chronicles of Narnia, became convinced of the truth of Christianity through conversations with his close friends J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, and Hugo Dyson. Lewis loved mythology and recognized that Christianity has some parallels between pagan stories. In referencing these stories, Tolkien and Dyson helped Lewis to realize that Christianity is the “true myth,” the real story of which many stories and myths are but shadows.³ The familiar dying-and-rising stories of pagan myths prepared him to accept the truth of the gospel, as it also helped prepare the pagans who lived before Christ.
The familiar dying-and-rising stories of pagan myths prepared him to accept the truth of the gospel, as it also helped prepare the pagans who lived before Christ.
What does this have to do with the Christmas tree, though? Aaron Gleason argues1 that the Christmas tree is “a perfect symbol of Christian theology” because it “depicts the complete good news of Christ.”⁴ To make his point, Gleason examines Norse mythology. To the Norse people, the entire world was a tree, Yggdrasil. The greatest of Norse gods, Odin, sacrifices himself upon the tree to obtain the runes, which he gave to humanity. Gleason says, “The North men saw the obvious parallels between Jesus on the cross and Odin on the tree. And that tree was Yggdrasil: the awesome one’s gallows, the place where God was hung. Yggdrasil is the cross.”
Before the Norse discovered Christianity, they had a holiday that was celebrated on December 25: Yule. Part of the celebration was to bring an evergreen into one’s home to remind people that winter could be overcome and that Yggdrasil would one day defeat Ragnarok, the end of the world according to Norse mythology. Gleason states, “Because of these beliefs, the north men saw in Jesus their own worldview completed. He hung upon the cross, like Odin, for the sake of humanity. By clinging to the cross, we can all escape God’s wrath in Ragnarok.”
Although the Christmas tree may have a connection to ancient Norse practices, the tree of the pagans was simply a shadow of the cross upon which Christ would hang. As we celebrate Jesus’s birth, we also remember his salvific death.
When people ask the question, “Is Christmas pagan?” the answer is both yes and no. No, Christmas was not created by the early church to usurp preexisting pagan holidays. Some early Christians believed December 25 to be the birthday of Jesus long before Emperor Aurelian instituted Sol Invictus. However, it is true that some elements of modern Christmas celebrations were also used in pagan religion. How do we respond to this? We can ignore it completely, viewing lights, wreaths, trees, and such as mere decorations that have no significance other than elements of festive cheer. However, there are some Christians who are troubled with any possible association of their Savior with pagan religions, and we should defer to Paul’s teaching on the “weaker brother.” Or, like C. S. Lewis, we can view pagan symbolism as mere shadows, pointers to the true myth, the gospel. No matter where we land on celebrating Christmas, we should respect the conscience of our brothers and sisters. Jesus is greater than trees, lights, presents, or any of the holiday trappings. He is the Word made flesh, God with us.