Tis the season! Christmas music is being played, and people have bought presents, decorated their houses, and put up their trees. For apologists, this time of year means that at least 150 times, we’ll hear someone talk about how Christians should not celebrate Christmas because of its origins in Paganism. It’s important to realize that there are generally two questions implied in such challenges. One is that the origins are pagan, and the other is that because of pagan origins, the holiday should not be celebrated. The second question is very rarely argued for, because that would require showing that the things which make up a Christmas celebration are inextricably linked to pagan practices, and are contrary to living the Christian life.
So, did it have pagan origins? The short answer is, maybe. Some people trace celebrations of the winter solstice, saturnalia, the birth of the unconquering sun, and a generic “mystery religions” celebration to roughly the date of December 25th. Others contend that there was no significant celebration in the Roman pagan celebratory calendar for this date prior to the emperor Aurelian, which would mean that the first people celebrating anything on that day would have been Christians who tried to determine the date of Christ’s birth.
Let’s assume that there were all sorts of pagan celebrations happening at the same time, and Christians created the celebration of the birth of Christ to not participate in the paganism around them. There would clearly be nothing wrong with this, but let’s take it a step further. Let’s suppose that there was an ancient practice of tree worship on December 25th. Would that mean that it is bad for Christians to set up a Christmas tree? Not particularly. I can imagine that those who would worship trees wouldn’t take to kindly to them being cut down and set up in a house as a decoration. In other words, the use of the tree is not at all the same. It’s not inextricably linked to a pagan practice.
It’s important to point out that this is a matter of conscience and Christian liberty. I don’t believe anyone has a problem with setting aside at least one particular day every year to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and at its core, that is what Christmas is. If you feel like you cannot in good conscience celebrate the holiday as most people do, then don’t do it. If celebrating Christmas does not violate your conscience, then I think Christians are at liberty to celebrate it. Whatever your position on the holiday, I think it’s important to focus on the main point, and that is to remember and celebrate the birth of our Lord.