Around Christmas time, there always seem to be those that want to claim “Christmas is a pagan holiday, and not Christian at all!” Although there is a LOT of complicated history behind the holiday of Christmas, here are a couple thoughts on it that I think are interesting.
First of all, the Bible never tells us what specific day Jesus was born, so there is really no way to know. But how often have you known people to have a birthday party on a day that wasn’t their actual birthday? Lots of times people will have a party on Saturday if their birthday was actually on Wednesday or something. The point is, you don’t have to celebrate someone’s birth on the actual day. The important thing is that you celebrate the FACT that they were born! The birth of Jesus is important to Christians because He had to be born first in order to die and be raised again (Good Friday and Easter). We know that Jesus was born, even if we don’t know the exact day of the year. That is what we celebrate at Christmas. December 25th is often called “The Birthday of Jesus,” which probably confuses people. It may be more appropriate to call it “The day we celebrate the birth of Jesus.”
The way Dec 25th came about was kind of weird. Jewish tradition believed that great figures (like Moses) died on the same date as they were born (so they died on their birthday). Some Christian scholars (Tertullian and Hippolytus) determined that Jesus probably died on March 25 (near Passover), so he must have been born on that date. Another guy named Sextus Julius Africanus later said that Jesus was actually conceived on March 25, and was born 9 months later…on December 25.
There were 3 pagan feasts that were celebrated on or around this day (Deus Sol Invictus which celebrated the Sun god, and the birthday of the Persian fertility deity Mirthra both fell on Dec 25. The immoral drunken orgy of Saturnalia was celebrated from Dec 17-23). Christians would often celebrate something Christian in place of the many pagan festivals of the time, so this was an opportunity for them to replace these pagan feasts with a Christian celebration instead. The earliest reference to the established Christian feast of Christmas was in 336 A.D., so Christmas is almost 1700 years old! Of course, over the years many other traditions were added (the story of Santa Clause and that other stuff came later). The cool thing is that, even though there are a lot of non-Christian traditions added to Christmas now, the main things (family, giving, love, the Nativity, helping the poor) all trace back to a Christian worldview.
So yeah, there were pagan feasts on Dec 25 before Christmas came along, but that really doesn’t matter. Reformation Day (in which Christians celebrate the Protestant Reformation) is on Oct 31…the same day as Halloween. It doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate it because Halloween is also on that day…they just share the same date! So even though there are other historical traditions dating back to Dec 25, the fact is that Christmas has survived while those other pagan traditions have died. Christmas has now become the biggest holiday celebrated in America, and at the very center is a celebration of the birth of Jesus.