Christmas Day is one of the most celebrated holidays in the world, marking the birth of Jesus Christ around 2,000 years ago. The gospels of Matthew and Luke provide the biblical story of Jesus’ birth and are read aloud in churches every year. But many people are surprised to learn of the pagan origins of some of our most beloved Christmas traditions.
Bells, candlelight, December the 25th, and more have been linked to some pagan worship practices from centuries ago. Other traditions like Christmas trees and Santa Claus are more recent but are not found in the Bible. So, does that mean that Christians should reject these traditions – or even celebrate Christmas at all?
Scripture teaches that some believers may come to different conclusions when it comes to questions like this, and that’s OK! (See 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 and Romans 14:1-12). Many people choose to redeem the holiday due to its deeper meaning, celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus. In fact, Christmas joins a long line of cultural traditions that God has used to point people to the good news of His great love.
“Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” — 1 Corinthians 10:31
The Surprising History of Your Favorite Christmas Traditions
The first surprising fact about our favourite December holiday is that Jesus may not have been born anywhere near the 25th of December. Theories about shepherding practices in winter and Roman census records make it unlikely that Jesus was born in December.
The 25th of December tradition came from a historian who calculated the date based on assumptions about when Jesus was conceived. When the Romans made Christianity the state religion, they converted the winter solstice holiday observed on that day. A day already marked by merriment and feasting was repurposed into a Christian holiday commemorating Jesus’ birth!
Christmas bells may have their origin in a winter pagan tradition of ringing bells to drive out evil spirits. But today, bells welcome the spirit of Christmas with a joyful noise, announcing the arrival of Jesus! The Christmas tradition of candlelight resembles the pagan tradition used to repel the forces of cold and darkness. But who better to give us hope in the darkness than our Messiah, Jesus, the Light of the World?
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” — John 8:12
A Sign of Hope in the Darkness
Other Christmas traditions grew out of the Christian culture itself. In the Middle Ages, Germans placed green trees inside their homes in winter to remind them of their hope in the coming spring. The first Christmas tree was decorated by German Christians during the Protestant Reformation. It was a visible display of their hope in the miracle of Christ’s birth.
The most well-known Christmas icon that is sometimes accused of taking the focus off the reason for the season is Santa Claus. The question of “What should we tell our kids about Santa?” is a tricky one that Bible-believing, Jesus-loving parents may come to different conclusions about. The real-life person behind the mythical figure of Santa can serve as an inspiration of sacrificial love to all Christian families.
Saint Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century priest who was well-known for his compassion and generosity. He received an inheritance at an early age, which he loved to give away anonymously. He would sometimes throw bags of money down people’s chimneys at night to avoid being seen. The real Saint Nicholas dedicated his life to serving others and is a great example of God’s extravagant, sacrificial love.
The True Meaning of Christmas
The best example of a modern Christmas tradition that points us to the love and goodness of God is gift giving! “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son,” (John 3:16). On the first Christmas, the wise men gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as an act of worship of Jesus as King.
Gold represents Jesus’ divinity, that He is God born as a man. Frankincense was burned in worship as a pleasing offering to God (Exodus 30:34). It symbolizes Jesus’ holiness and righteousness. Myrrh is a spice associated with death and was offered to Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:23). Together, these gifts signified the true meaning of Christmas. Jesus is God, born as a man, who saved people from their sins through His sacrificial death on the cross.
“She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:21