“Thus saith the LORD, Learn NOT the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.” Jeremiah 10:2
The Church of God (Seventh Day) does not participate in pagan customs like Christmas. While the Church affirms the virgin birth of Christ and His resurrection from the dead, it distances itself from this holiday. Why?
Christmas and Pagan Customs
The birth of Jesus occurred in the land of Palestine more than 2,000 years ago. God the Father sent His Son Jesus to live on earth as a human, to teach the way of salvation and then become a sacrifice for our sins.
We enjoy reading Luke’s Gospel account of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. We rejoice as we read how an angel from heaven announced His birth to the shepherds who were in the fields attending their sheep: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10, 11). Just as the shepherds rejoiced at this wonderful news, we too are glad that Christ was born to bring salvation to all people.
When did this miraculous event take place? Strangely, no one knows the day, month, or year of Jesus’ birth! But people the world over celebrate His birth on December 25th, and call that day “Christmas.” Christmas is generally a time of good will and happy activity. Many people consider the Christmas season the best time of the entire year.
Many Christians have inquired, “Is this celebration taught in the Bible?” To their surprise, Christmas is neither taught by the Bible, nor was it ever celebrated by the New Testament Church. If this is true, then what is its origin? What about the date of December 25? What about the Christmas tree, lights, decorations, and Santa Claus? Where did these traditions come from? Who authorized them and for what reason? What should our attitude be toward the celebration of Christmas?
The purpose of this study is to examine and answer these questions.
The Origin of Christmas Celebration
Many authorities on the origin of Christmas conclude that most of the related customs did not begin with the first-century Christian church. In fact, many familiar and widely beloved elements of the Christmas celebration came to us by way of ancient pagan religions. Here are excerpts from various sources indicating the origin of Christmas:
“Christians began to celebrate Christmas about 200. But they observed it on varying dates, because the exact date of Christ’s birth was unknown. In 354, December 25 was declared to be the birthday of Christ, and in 440 the pope decreed that Christmas should be celebrated on that date. The church at Constantinople, however, observed it for years on January 6, and that date is still used in some Eastern Orthodox churches.
“December 25 comes only a few days after the winter solstice (about December 22), the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. This season had long been a period of celebration among pagans in many parts of the world because it symbolized the beginning of a new year in nature. Christmas thus replaced a pagan holiday with a Christian one, while keeping the same symbolism — the birthday of Christ corresponds to the birth of the year. Many of the pagan customs became part of the Christmas celebration.”1
“Mesopotamia is the very ancient Mother of Civilization. Christmas began there, over 4000 years ago, as the festival which renewed the world for another year. The ‘twelve days’ of Christmas; the bright fires and probably the Yule log; the giving of presents; the carnivals with their floats, their merrymakings and clownings, the mummers who sing and play from house to house; the feastings; the church processions with their lights and songs — all these and more began there centuries before Christ was born. And they celebrate the arrival of a New Year.”2
“For that day [December 25] was sacred, not only to the pagan Romans but to a religion from Persia which, in those days, was one of Christianity’s strongest rivals. This Persian religion was Mithraism, whose followers worshiped the sun, and celebrated its return to strength on that day. The church finally succeeded in taking the merriment, the greenery, the lights, and the gifts from Saturn and giving them to the Babe of Bethlehem.”3
“It happened that the date [December 25] did fall in the midst of the Saturnalia. Far from being an invention to compete against Roman and Persian paganisms, the birthday of Christ ran the danger of being swallowed up in pagan merrymaking. The [church] Fathers tried strenuously to keep Christmas strictly a church celebration. It was part of their unremitting struggle to break the grip of the pagan gods upon the people. And they broke the grip — after a battle of centuries. The pagan Romans became Christians — but the Saturnalia remains.”4
The evolution of Christmas customs, as it is celebrated in the western world, has taken many centuries. Most features of its celebration are taken for granted by the 21st century public. No longer is attention given to the origin and customs of Christmas because by now they have been given an “air of respectability” by their adoption into the Christian church. Both time and popularity have given respectability to these many practices of pagan origin.
Listed below are the origins of several time-honored traditions of the Christmas celebration:
“It is a fact that the Christmas tree stems from primitive pagan customs. Its main features, green foliage and candles, were associated with the winter solstice when nature seemed dead, and green branches and the trees were used in a magical rite to insure the return of vegetation and the victory of light over darkness.”5
“Nearly all American customs can be traced to other countries — the homeland of the many nationalities represented in the United States. For instance, the Christmas tree, usually an evergreen, was first used in Germany. The mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, priests of ancient Britain and Gaul. The Norse used holly and the yule log to keep away evil spirits.”6
“Gifts were exchanged during the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia, a feast to the god Saturn, held December 17-23. Gift-giving came to symbolize the gifts brought to the Christ Child by the Three Wise Men or Magi.”7
The wise men gave gifts to Jesus, but did not exchange gifts among themselves. Their gifts to Jesus were not birthday gifts. They brought gifts to Him because He is a King:
“The people of the East never approach the presence of kings and great personages without a present in their hands.”8
The wise men did not institute a new custom by bringing Jesus gifts. They merely followed an ancient Eastern custom of approaching royalty with a gift. Quoting from the Magi, Jesus was: “born king of the Jews. We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).
Santa Claus is a variation of a Dutch folk tale that is based on the historical figure Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop from Myra in Asia Minor (now a part of Turkey). Saint Nicholas was made a patron saint of children by Eastern Christians because it is said that he used his inheritance to give gifts to children and to assist the needy, sick, and suffering. He was a religious figure, but was not associated with Christmas.
The story of Saint Nicholas inspired the mythical figure of Sinterklaas, a celebrated subject in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. This in turn inspired the myth and name of “Santa Claus,” which actually started as a mispronunciation of the Dutch word Sinterklaas by English settlers in early America.
In England and many other countries this legendary figure is known as Father Christmas. Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Santy, Jolly Old Elf, Santa Klaus, or Santa, are other names used in various cultures for a mythical figure who distributes gifts to children and adults, traditionally on the night of December 24, while everyone is sleeping. By the twenty-first century, American influence has spread the legendary Santa Claus, or his equal, to many different cultures worldwide.
Santa Claus, or his counterpart, has become an important part of the Christmas celebration for children. He is pictured as the jolly old elf who knows if children have been “naughty or nice.” Children are taught to write to Santa or sit on his lap and make known their Christmas wishes for gifts. They are taught that it is Santa who brings their presents as he encompasses the world on Christmas eve, flying from housetop to housetop in his sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer.
The popularity of Santa Claus rivals that of Jesus among children in the Christmas celebration. It is Jesus’ birthday that is supposedly celebrated at Christmas time. But it is Santa to whom children are taught to pay attention. Is Jesus honored by all this myth and deception? Santa has become the benevolent god who sees and knows the actions of everyone. He is the bearer of good gifts! Santa is the one children are taught to ask for the things they want!
Jesus is not a myth! He is the ultimate giver of good gifts. How can Jesus, who is the personification of “light” and “truth,” be honored by attributing His characteristics to the mythical figure, Santa Claus? Of course, Jesus is not honored by such a misdirected show of love and affection.
When one stops to think of Christmas celebration — tree, lights, decorations, Santa Claus and all, Christianity's main contribution is the insertion of Jesus' birth as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. From an historical perspective, the miraculous birth account was finally incorporated with ancient pagan customs in an attempt to justify their practice by Christians.
Mixing religious practices of various sects may be acceptable within paganism, but it has never been acceptable to God! Religious syncretism is harmonizing and fusing together elements of various religions. It serves to make the combined religion more acceptable to a greater number of people. It is the way of man, but forbidden by the God of Heaven. God allows no fusing, intermingling, or uniting of foreign elements in the worship of Himself. Jesus described exactly how God wants to be worshiped: “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).
Jeremiah spoke to Israel about the practice of syncretism:
This is what the Lord says: “Do not learn the way of the nations . . . for the customs of the people are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammers and nails so it will not totter” (Jeremiah 10:2-4).
What are we intended to learn from Jeremiah 10:2-4? While Jeremiah is referring to the making of idols and not to a Christmas tree, the application is easy to understand. The custom of the people was worthless as worship to God because it included the most blatant form of idolatry.
The Apostle Paul also warned against syncretism:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
We conclude that time and circumstances do not remove the stigma paganism leaves on religious customs: “Therefore come out from them and be separate.” Religious practices that do not originate with God, but with an unbelieving, idolatrous world cannot become acceptable to God in worship. Note from the following reference how much the Christmas celebration has been influenced by customs adopted from paganism:
“It is interesting . . . to see how the genius of the human mind has been able, through the centuries to give them [heathen customs] a different and sacred meaning.”9
Ezekiel described how God was about to punish Israel for idolatry:
Your lewdness and promiscuity have brought this upon you, because you lusted after the nations and defiled yourself with their idols (Ezekiel 23:29b, 30).
It seems logical to suppose that God who changes not is just as adamant against the Christian church’s inclusion of practices derived from paganism into its worship. In view of the many Scriptures that deal directly with God’s rejection of syncretism, we are compelled to believe that the modern observance of Christmas is unacceptable.
Paul described the kind of life which honors God:
Since we have these promises [to be sons and daughters of God], dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Putting Christ Back into Christmas
Every December as Christmas decorations are displayed we may observe a slogan that says: “Put Christ Back Into Christmas.” To put Christ back into Christmas assumes that He was once a part of it. It may assume that He advocated its observance or that it was observed by the early Christian church. The following references prove that neither position is true:
1). Well respected Bible scholars admit that Jesus was not born on or near December 25. That date was adopted as the birthday of Jesus because of its popularity as a festive season with pagans. The actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown and there are no New Testament instructions for believers to commemorate it.
2). The observance of Christmas as a Christian festival was unknown until the fourth century — a long time after the New Testament was written:
“The observance of December 25, only dates from the fourth century and is due to assimilation with the Mithraic festival of the birthday of the sun.”10
3). The pagan elements incorporated into the celebration of Christmas have overpowered its intended purpose as a celebration of Jesus’ birthday:
“Christmas was generally celebrated in the West only after the triumph of Constantine, when the time of Christ’s birth was reckoned with the day of the Unconquered Sun on December 25.”11
“The pagan Saturnalia and Brumalia were too deeply entrenched in popular custom to be set aside by Christian influence. . . . The pagan festival with its riot and merrymaking was so popular that Christians were glad of an excuse to continue its celebration with little change in spirit and in manner.”12
Put Christ back into Christmas? It can not be done! Christmas is a borrowed relic from the heathen scene, predating our Lord’s birth. Christ cannot be put back into a celebration He did not originate or sanction.
Upholding the Bible
Rejecting Christmas in no way slights nor denigrates the actual fact of Jesus’ birth. That historical fact is of great importance to all Christians. The Church of God (Seventh Day) holds the biblical account of Jesus’ birth in the highest regard. The virgin birth of Christ in Bethlehem is the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Jesus’ birth is a vital part of our theology and Christology. While we do not sanction the celebration of Christmas, we neither neglect nor shun the wonderful Bible teaching about the birth of Christ. Our conviction that Christmas is not biblical does not detract from our love for our blessed Lord and Savior.
We understand that many people have strong feelings about the celebration of Christmas. It usually brings friends and family together in a festive atmosphere. Goodwill abounds. Anticipation runs high. Therefore, many folk are deeply committed to its observance. So the question arises: “How do we approach those who celebrate Christmas?”
Surely, as Christ’s disciples we should be sensitive to others in discussing our conviction about Christmas. We need to show loving concern as we share our belief with friends and family. Paul gave Timothy instructions which apply here: “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24, 25). 0ur views about Christmas should never be shared with the assumption that believers who celebrate Christmas are insincere. Let us always stand firm in our convictions, and remember that as recipients of God’s wonderful grace we all are still learning.
What difference does it make? We admit that Christmas lights, carols, giving and receiving gifts, and the festivities of Christmas are attractive. Does celebrating Christmas matter? It really does matter when you consider that the date of Christ’s birth is unknown; when you understand that the Scriptures are silent about our celebration of the birth of Christ; when you understand that many elements of Christmas are tainted with paganism. It matters, because it is hard to believe that something so pagan in origin, and now so commercialized, could be honored by God as worship.
God has made His will known about mixing customs and practices of pagan origin with worship of Him. It is unacceptable!
God can properly be worshipped only in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). A festival adopted from the heathen misses the mark of true worship. Thus, because of its heritage we do not believe Christmas honors Jesus or His Father. We honor both Father and Son when we commit our lives to serve and worship in the context of His Word, with all our heart.
1 New Standard Encyclopedia, Volume 4, Article “Christmas” (Chicago, Illinois: Standard Education Corporation, 1989), C-320.
Earl W. Count, 4000 Years of Christmas (New York, New York: Henry Schuman, 1948), 18.
R. Brasch, How Did It Begin? (New York, New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1966), 332, 333.
New Standard Encyclopedia, Volume 4, C-320.
Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, Volume 3, Matthew 2:11, (Cincinnati, Ohio: Applegate, Pounsford & Co., 1868), 37.
R. Brasch, How Did It Begin?, 324.
World’s Popular Encyclopedia, Volume 3, Article “Christmas” (Cleveland, Ohio: The World Syndicate Publishing Co., 1937).
M. A. Smith, From Christ to Constantine (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971), 150, 151.
The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Volume 3, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1908), 48.
All scripture quotations in this publication are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
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