I remember the night. It was chilly, especially for Florida, and Dad had a fire burning in the hearth. Even as a seven year old, I realized that this spelled certain doom for the jolly man who later that night would squeeze down the chimney. I mustered the courage to ask Dad, 'Is there really a Santa?' I was devastated. Doubts soon began to flood my mind as to the existence of 'the Stork,' the Easter Bunny, even of God himself. In later years I learned that Santa Claus (alias Father Christmas, Saint Martin, der Weihnachtsmann, Père Noël) was merely a corruption of Saint Nicholas, a Roman Catholic bishop of the 4th century. His attributes (red suit, reindeer, residence at the North Pole) derive from a blend of pagan legends with traditions about the saints. Good heavens!
When was Jesus born? Does anyone really know? Early Christians were unsure. Cyprian thought 28 March, Clement of Alexandria guessed 20 May, Hippolytus supposed 2 June. If these early Christian writers (3rd century), who lived close to the time of Christ, had to guess the date of his birth, how is it that we know better?
According to Luke 2:8, the shepherds were 'living out in the fields' keeping watch over their flocks at night.' But what is Israel like in late December, the time traditionally assigned to 'Christmas'? It is cold. It is the rainy season (Ezra 10:9, 13; Song 2:11). The shepherds would not be found dwelling in the fields in the winter season, and certainly not at night. It is therefore unlikely Jesus was born after Halloween! Whence then the notion that he was born 25 December?
In 274 AD the Emperor Aurelian, influenced by the Persian cult of Mithras, designated 25 December as the 'birthday' of the sun god, 'Sol Invictus' the invincible sun. (In Mithraic tradition, the deity was born 25 December, and celebrated for twelve days. Sound familiar?) In some circles worship of the sun became identified with worship of the Son (see Malachi 4:2). Then in 354 Liberius of Rome ordered Christmas celebrated. This was popular among the Romans, who had already been celebrating the Saturnalia (12-24 December) as well as the Brumalia (25 December) -- times of merrymaking and exchanging presents. Houses were decorated with greenery and festal lights. Gifts were given to children and the poor. Yes, Christmas has pagan origins. On top of all this, it is not even the actual birthday of Christ!
As with the Romans, the Teutonic peoples too had their celebrations of the winter solstice. The idea was that the sun god was dying or dead, and there certain things one should do to assist it on its way, thus speeding the recovery of the world from its winter torpor. As the days lengthened after around 22 December, there was great rejoicing and partying. Thousands of years of Teutonic history make their contribution to the customs of Christmas, and these customs spread with the people into Central Europe, Gaul, and Britain. At the Yuletide, special cakes were consumed, Yule logs were burnt as an incentive to the waxing sun, fir trees were adorned with lights in honor of the tree spirits, special greetings and gifts were exchanged, many went a-wassailing, and of course there was the mistletoe, under which one stood and began (only a kiss, mind you) the headlong rush into a night of pagan revelry (1 Peter 4:3)! Remember that all of this was going on long before Christ was born.
What would Christmas be without the frenzied shopping that characterizes our society? Listen to Libanius, a 4th century Roman writer, as he describes the scene in pre-Christian Rome:
Everywhere may be seen 'well-laden tables'. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who through the whole year has taken pleasure in saving'becomes suddenly extravagant'a stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.
Yes, Christmas 'spirit,' often sustained by big business to sell merchandise, is nothing new, but rather an ancient and time-honored tradition.
We have seen that 'Christmas' is essentially 100% tradition -- and non-Christian at that! Yet traditions are condemned in the Bible only if they directly contradict the word of God (Mark 7:6-8). Jesus commanded us to remember his death, yet there is no harm in commemorating his entrance into the world. As one of the few who understands the true origins of this holiday, you can now enjoy the season in a more enlightened manner. So be of good cheer!
Further Reading and Research
More Content on DouglasJacoby.com
- An Engineer's Perspective (about Santa Claus)
- Book - The Truth About Christmas
- History Channel DVD - Christmas Unwrapped - The History of Christmas