An increasing number of Christians have come to believe that Christmas is derived from paganism. They’ve heard that the timing of Christmas may have been borrowed from Roman sun god worship. Or that Christmas trees come from German paganism. Or that the star on top of the Christmas tree comes from astrological worship. But these myths are all so wrong. Christmas—the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord—is a thoroughly Christians celebration. Here’s why.
The date of December 25
The urban legend goes that December 25 is derived from the birth of the ancient Roman sun god. But when we look back in history, we find that several Christian writers calculated the date of the Lord’s Nativity long before the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti—Birthday of the Unconquered Sun—was established.
The fact is though, ancient Christian writers built the timing for the birth of Christ from the Scriptural observation that Zechariah was on duty on Yom Kippur (September 23). This observation comes from the information we find in the gospel of Luke.
“Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense” (Luke 1:8–11).
The day of Yom Kippur is the day in which incense was offered in this manner.
Based on this observation, Christians were able to calculate the birth of John the Forerunner as being September 23 + 270 days = June 24. They then observed that the Annunciation of Christ’s birth was six months after John the Baptist’s conception.
“In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary” (Luke 1:26–27).
Calculating September 23 and adding six months brings us to March 25. Through this reasoning, Irenaeus had established March 25 as the date of the Annunciation before the end of the second century. The Annunciation was being celebrated long before Christmas, since the Annunciation was miraculous, whereas the birth was a mere function of human biology.
The date of December 25 is therefore derived from the date of Jesus’ conception.
By the year 221 AD, three Christian writers had independently calculated the date of Jesus’ birth as December 25. Irenaeus, as we have just said, identified the date of his annunciation before the end of the second century. Hippolytus used a different method, but determined December 25 as the date of the Nativity in 202 AD when he wrote his commentary on Daniel 4:23. Finally, Sextus Julius Africanus, in writing his “Chronology of the World” in 221 AD had also calculated December 25.
When people pushing the pagan conspiracy theory argue that December 25 the date of a pagan festival, they build their argument upon observances of that date. But they never bother to explore the series of Christian dates from which December 25 is derived. They never whisper a word of dissent about September 23 (Conception of John the Baptist), March 25 (Annunciation) or June 24 (Nativity of John the Baptist)! The conspiracy theorist’s only complaint is with December 25. When we examine why Christians began observing December 25 as the birthdate of our Lord, the argument that it was first a pagan holiday simply collapses.
But what makes our conspiracy theorist’s job even more difficult is the fact that it was the pagans who plagiarised from the Christians (not the other way round). The scholar Manfred Claus established that Emperor Aurelian established the cult of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti on December 25, 274 AD, and decreed that day as the day of the Winter Solstice celebration. This is more than 50 years after Sextus Julius Africanus established Christ's birthday; 72 years after Hippolytus had done so, and probably at least 100 years after Irenaeus established March 25 as the Annunciation.
The pagans were responding to the rise of the Church and the subsequent collapse in popularity of pagan observances. They were responding to the “competition” provided by the Church by trying to usurp a date revered by Christians.
Clearly, the date of December 25 for the Nativity of our Lord is Christian, not pagan.
The myth of the snow-filled fields
Many Christians doubt the date of Christ’s birth on December 25 because they have heard it said, “We know that Christmas Day isn’t when Jesus was born because the fields would have been covered by snow in December and therefore the shepherds would not have been in the field.” It’s strange that people can hear this statement and then not check the average temperatures in Israel!
It may come as a surprise to realise that people quite comfortably swim in Tel Aviv, just forty miles from Bethlehem, on Christmas day! The average temperature for Bethlehem in December is 14 degrees Celsius. In other words, Melbourne’s average minimum temperature in December is equal to Bethlehem’s average high temperature! That’s a long way from a temperature that would support snow-covered fields.
So, anyone who believes this myth has unfortunately been conned!
Googling the average temperature of Bethlehem in December will tell us everything we need to know to dismiss this as a complete fabrication.
The use of Christmas trees
Sometimes it is alleged that the Christmas tree is of pagan origin, having been used within German paganism. The problem with this theory is that the use of an evergreen tree is a global Christian tradition that was first practised in the East!
When I look at the decorated fir tree, I always remember the genealogy of Jesus Christ, but also of His mother, Panagia Theotokos, Ever-Virgin Mary Mother of Christ. “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). St. Cosmas the Poet referred to this verse when he wrote of Christ as the blossom which rose up out of the Virgin stem from the stump of Jesse. The root is Jesse, David’s father. The rod is king David. The flower which came from the root and the rod is the Theotokos. And the fruit which came forth from the flower of the Panagia Theotokos is Christ. Holy Scripture presents this wonderfully.
Thus the Christmas tree reminds us of the genealogical tree of Christ as Man, the love of God, but also the successive purification of the Forefathers of Christ. At the top is the star which is the God-Man Christ.
The Christmas tree is evergreen—never losing its vitality during winter—and therefore symbolises the tree of life and the fact that Christ is the tree of life.
It is usually said that the custom of the Christmas tree is foreign and western. But a manuscript in the British Museum from the 13th century informs us that in 512 AD the Emperor Anastasios I built a church at the Monastery of Saint Gabriel in Tur Abdin in northern Syria. Among other dedications, he offered “…two large brass trees which stood on both side of the Beautiful Gate of the sanctuary. On the leaves of the trees, there was a place for lights to flicker. Each tree had one hundred and eighty lamps and fifty silver chains from top to bottom. On these hung small objects of gold, silver or copper, as well as red eggs, vases, animals, birds, crosses, wreaths, bells, carved grape bunches, discs…”
Paul the Silentiary (c. 563 AD) in his Ekphrasis of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and Ekphrasis from the Ambon of Hagia Sophia, describes in detail the lights of the icon screen and the pulpit of the Great Church. On the architrave of the icon screen, there were metal cone-shaped trees, like a pine tree or a cypress of tender foliage, where instead of fruits they had conically shaped lights. This document even records that illuminated crafted trees (tree-like chandeliers) were placed throughout the Church. This is a description of Hagia Sophia’s Christmas trees.
Christmas tree practice is also documented in the study of the late professor of Byzantine Archaeology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Constantine Kalokyris, titled, “Sacred Trees and the Eastern Origin of the Christmas Tree.” Here he reveals that the custom of the Christmas tree is not foreign or western European but Byzantine and Orthodox!
Our Christmas tree is not derived from the pagan yule tree. Rather, from the Paradise Tree, adorned in honour of Adam and Eve. The Christmas tree is completely biblical in origin.
How legitimate is it to use a fir tree in the celebration of Christmas? From the earliest days of the Church, Christians brought many things of God's material creation into their life of faith and worship, e.g. water, bread, wine, oil, candles and incense. All these things are part of God’s creation. They are part of the world that Christ came to save. Mankind cannot reject the material creation without rejecting Christ’s own humanity!
Christmas celebrates the great mystery of the Incarnation. In that mystery, God the Word became man. In order to redeem us, God became one of us. He became part of His own creation!
The Incarnation affirms the importance of both man and the whole of creation. “For God so loved the world…” And most importantly, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” Christ entered the material realm, which is why it is valid to use material objects in our worship of Christ.
Enjoy your Orthodox Christmas trees!
The star on the Christmas tree
We place a star on the Christmas tree, not because of astrological observances creeping into Christianity, but because the three pagan kings who came to Judea to worship Christ followed a star.
“After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him” (Matthew 2:9–11).
Christians place a star atop the Christmas tree because it was a star that guided the Magi to worship the Newborn Infant.
Why presents are exchanged
The exchange of presents is not purely crass commercialism—although unfortunately, we do see a fair bit of that today—but actually has both Jewish and Christian origins.
The Jewish origins of gift-giving arise in the history of God’s deliverance of Israel from destruction. In the book of Esther, a new holiday is given during the month of Adar. This holiday was to celebrate the deliverance of the Jewish people from the death decreed by the king.
“And Mordecai wrote these things and sent letters to all the Jews, near and far, who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, to establish among them that they should celebrate yearly the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar, as the days on which the Jews had rest from their enemies, as the month which was turned from sorrow to joy for them, and from mourning to a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, of sending presents to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:20-22).
So, exchanging gifts was something that arose within the tradition of Judaism. It’s not pagan at all.
But more directly, Christians exchange gifts in remembrance of the three pagan kings who brought presents to our Infant Lord.
“They saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
To understand the message behind these gifts, we need to understand their symbolism. Gold was the symbol of kingship. By giving Jesus gold they were signalling that He is a King. Frankincense was the fragrance burned in the Temple before God. By giving Jesus frankincense they were indicating they knew He was Divine, which is why they fell down and worshipped Him. Myrrh was used in the embalming of bodies. By giving Him myrrh, they were already beginning to prepare Him for His death.
Somehow, these pagan kings knew that Jesus was Lord. Somehow they knew that God Himself and had come into this world in order to die. The gifts they gave Jesus encapsulate the Gospel. By giving each other gifts in front of an evergreen tree with a star atop, we declare that Jesus is the Tree of Life.
What the Shepherds saw
During the first century, every Jewish family was expected to sacrifice a lamb, yet most Jews did not own any flocks. Instead, the Temple had become the largest landowner in Judea and ran their own flocks from which people could purchase sacrificial lambs.
Located in Bethlehem was one of a number of lambing operations whose purpose it was to raise lambs without blemishes that were suitable for sacrifice. They had a tower, whose name was “Tower of the Flock” in which shepherds could obtain a 360-degree view of the surrounding flocks. Near the tower was a small housing section (not more than a dozen or so buildings) on the outskirts of Bethlehem where people could rent the “upper rooms” for lodging.
Below these rooms were caves, some were natural and others had been man-made. In these “caves” the shepherds would house the more vulnerable flocks at night during the cold to protect them from thieves and predators as well as to provide natural warmth to the house at night. Each of these caves had mangers which were used for the birthing of the sacrificial animals.
Now evidently, during the time of the census, these “upper rooms” had become overcrowded leaving no private space for a pregnant mother to give birth, which is what Mary needed according to Jewish law. So they were given the lower level where the animals were housed as a private area for Mary.
“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:1-2, 4-7).
“So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:22-23).
The shepherds who tended these flocks were well acquainted with the requirements for the sacrificial lambs. Because small lambs tend to thrash around, they would tend newborns by swaddling them in special cloths to protect them from injury or blemish. Swaddling cloths were strips of cloth about 3 ft in length and about 4-6 inches in width. They were used to tie the legs of the unblemished lambs together to prevent them from injuring themselves.
According to Biblical archeologists, newborn children in that region were not wrapped in swaddling cloths. Rather, it was the custom for babies to be dressed in miniature versions of period style clothing.
When the Angels appeared to the Shepherds, they gave the Shepherds only limited directions. They said that the child would be found in Bethlehem and that the Saviour would be wrapped in “swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The Shepherds didn’t need any more detail than that, because they knew exactly what that meant. The Shepherds promptly visited the caves in which the new-born lambs intended for slaughter were swaddled.
And there they saw Jesus. He was wrapped in the cloths used to protect perfect sacrificial lambs. There where they had seen so many lambs born and swaddled, they saw the ultimate Lamb of God.
Even the name Bethlehem—which means “House of Bread”—testified to the fact that Jesus is the Bread of Life come down out of heaven. The sacrifice Who would be Holy Food. The Lamb Who would ratify a New Covenant with mankind.
Isaiah communicated a prophecy of the Nativity. He promised that the Gentiles would rejoice and that their joy would increase.
“Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed,
As when at first He lightly esteemed
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
And afterward more heavily oppressed her,
By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
In Galilee of the Gentiles.
“The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation And increased its joy;
They rejoice before You According to the joy of harvest,
As men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
“For You have broken the yoke of his burden And the staff of his shoulder,
The rod of his oppressor, As in the day of Midian.
For every warrior’s sandal from the noisy battle,
And garments rolled in blood, Will be used for burning and fuel of fire.
“For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:2–7).
As we approach the Nativity, we need to realise that we are among the Gentiles spoken of by this prophecy! We are among the Gentiles who are to celebrate and rejoice in the birth of the Saviour.
The celebration of the Nativity of our Lord is far from pagan. Indeed, it is prophetically foretold that Gentiles would celebrate the birth of the Lord. Let us join in this celebration with our whole hearts.
May God bless us all this season!
- More reasons why Christmas is not pagan
- 10 ways to put Christ back into Christmas
- Worship with us Christmas Eve
About this article
This article resulted from a collaboration between Christians on three continents. Many thanks to Ignatius, Irina, Amy Jo, Daniel, Sandi and Æthelwold for their research, writing and editing of this article.