(Originally published by me on a different website. This updated article includes minor changes and a new section at the end.)
It is often asserted that Christmas is, in origin, a Christian holiday. In fact, this is not the case. It originates from at least three pagan holidays, which Christians combined and upon which placed a Christian spin.
First, Christmas originates in the holiday of Saturnalia. This was an ancient Roman festival celebrated in honor of the god Saturn, celebrated between the 17th and 23rd of December. They held a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in Rome, with a public banquet. Catullus, a Roman poet, called it “the best of days.” Unlike other Roman holidays, it could be held in one’s own home, anywhere in the Empire. Some crucial similarities exist:
- A tree – At Saturnalia, residents would decorate a tree with candles and ornamentation.
- Gift-giving – At Saturnalia, Romans would purchase and give gifts to one another.
- Partying – At Saturnalia, the celebrants would party frequently, have banquets, and engage in general merrymaking.
The tree decoration is perhaps the most striking similarity. Some Christians have attempted to argue that the gift-giving comes from the three magi, but that is false.
More conservative-leaning Christians will denigrate Halloween for its pagan origins in Germanic tribes, all the while happily ignoring the pagan Germanic origins of their favorite holiday. The festival of Yule was celebrated in winter prior to 1000 A.D., held between mid-December and early January. It is connected to the wild hunt. Northern Europe was the last area to be Christianized, and it appears that Yule had a major influence on Christmas. Some similarities:
- The yule log – the tradition of the yule log comes directly from the pagan holiday of Yule.
- Carolling – Yule was celebrated with crowds coming together for a winter ritual of singing, known as Koliada. This appears to be the origin of Christmas carolling.
3: Birthday of the Unconquered Sun
This was a late Roman holiday honoring Sol Invictus (“unconquered sun”), a god, on – strikingly – the 25th of December. No scholar, Christian or otherwise, thinks Jesus was born in winter (the Bible certainly never claims he was), so the day appears to have come from Sol Invictus.
Malachi 4:2 speaks of “the sun of righteousness” (Sol Iustitiae), a reference to Jesus. It makes sense that Christians would have tied the birthday of Sol Invictus to the birthday of Jesus, Sol Iustitiae. In Mausoleum M, under St. Peter’s Basilica, we see an inscription calling Jesus “Christo Sole”, Christ the sun.
In conclusion, then, Christmas originated in Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, and Christians combined the birth of Jesus with it. Later, Yule was incorporated. The whole celebration is pagan.
What does all this mean for us? Well, some people who have left Christianity feel uncomfortable about Christmas due to its Christian nature. However, the truth of the matter is that the holiday was originally pagan, and Christians put their own holiday on it. Jesus was not born in the winter (if he was ever born at all). Various symbols such as the Christmas tree have no relation whatsoever to Christianity. So there’s no need to feel any discomfort celebrating Christmas.
Second, it’s a helpful illustration of Christianity’s tendency to steal good ideas and mix in some Christian theology with it. I’ve often said that Christian Contemporary music is not a real genre, it’s just whatever is popular at the time, with some Christian lyrics instead. But this is something normal for Christianity. Recently, a church illegally played Hamilton and mixed Christianity with it. Seth Andrews gave a speech seven years ago on how Christianity can’t stop stealing good ideas (https://youtu.be/KNik8niSrrY).
A Crossway article said, “At least in America (and much of the Western world), Christmas is synonymous with commercialism.” But they don’t realize that it has been all about marketing for over fifteen hundred years now – marketing the Christian religion by doing nothing more than copying the good ideas that people had at the time. And that’s what it continues to do even now.