Filipinos are known to be rather festive; we all love festivals and feasts. One of the many festivals that most Filipino are all eager to celebrate is Christmas. For many, it is a time of giving, of sharing, of loving. For most businesses, it is a time of great sales. For people who call themselves Christians, it is one of the most awaited times of the year because it is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ—the Saviour of the entire humankind. But how many Christians are aware that Christmas actually has pagan origins and that Christ’s birth was not referenced in the Bible to have taken place on December 25? Then, when was Jesus born? How did Christmas come to be an accepted holiday of Christ’s birth?
Was Jesus born in December?
The Bible does give the actual date of Jesus Christ’s birth; however, it gives us a sound reason to conclude that Jesus was not born on December 25.
December, in the Jewish calendar, falls in the months of Chislev and Tebeth, both of which are known to be cold months—winter, just like our modern day December (Ezra 10:9, 13; Jeremiah 36:22). Both months saw the lowest temperatures of the year, with occasional snows in the highlands. The Bible, however, mentions that there were shepherds tending their flock on the night of Jesus’s birth. In fact, the Bible writer, Luke, shows that at that time, shepherds were “living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks” near Bethlehem (Luke 2:8–12). Notice that the shepherds were actually living out of doors, not just strolling outside during the day. They had their flocks in the fields at night. Does that description of outdoor living fit the chilly and rainy weather conditions of Bethlehem in December? No, it does not. So the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth indicate that he was not born in December. In support of this notion, Henri Daniel-Rops in his book, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus states, “The flocks . . . passed the winter under cover; and from this alone it may be seen that the traditional date for Christmas, in the winter, is unlikely to be right, since the Gospel says that the shepherds were in the fields” (New York, 1962, p. 228).
Also, wouldn’t it be unwise for Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a winter? That is a 110-kilometer trip, and they did not have any means of transportation, but an ass. Would Joseph really take that trip and put the life of his pregnant wife in danger? Most likely, no. The thought of them settling in a stable on a winter night is also very risky.
Another instance from the Scriptures that directly points the birth of Jesus as not being in December is his death. Jesus died at the age of thirty-three and a half in the month of Nisan (or Abib) (Mattew 26:2; John 13:1-3). Nisan, in our modern calendar, would fall in the months of (late) March and (early) April. Counting six months back or forward (so we could lead to the month of his birth), we would not be redirected to either Chislev or Tebeth, which correspond to December, but rather to Tishri, which corresponds to late September and early October.
How, then, did December 25 come into the scene as the date of Jesus’s birth? How did Christmas come to be?
If the date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, how did December 25 become Christmas?
The New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “The date of Christ’s birth is not known. The Gospels indicate neither the day nor the month . . . According to the hypothesis suggested by H. Usener . . . and accepted by most scholars today, the birth of Christ was assigned the date of the winter solstice [December 25 in the Julian calendar, January 6 in the Egyptian], because on this day, as the sun began its return to northern skies, the pagan devotees of Mithra celebrated the dies natalis Solis Invicti [birthday of the invincible sun]. On Dec[ember] 25, 274, Aurelian had proclaimed the sun-god principal patron of the empire and dedicated a temple to him in the Campus Martius. Christmas originated at a time when the cult of the sun was particularly strong at Rome” (1967, Vol. III, p. 656).
How did Christmas come to be?
Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week-long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17–25. Roman courts were closed during this period, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the week-long celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community chose a victim whom that they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan mass in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, these Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday (the first mention of a Nativity feast appears in the Philocalian calendar, a Roman document from 354 CE, which lists December 25th as the day of Jesus’s birth).
Aside from the date itself, are there any other Christmas traditions with pagan origins?
Yes, there are a lot. Almost all of them, but below are some of the Christmas customs that originated from pagan belief.
A. The Christmas Tree
Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshipers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning “Christmas Trees.”Pagans had long worshiped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them, and this observance was adopted and painted with a Christian veneer by the Church.
B. The Mistletoe
Norse mythology recounts how the god Balder was killed using a mistletoe arrow by his rival god Hoder while fighting for the female Nanna. Druid rituals use mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim.The Christian custom of “kissing under the mistletoe” is a later synthesis of the sexual license of Saturnalia with the Druidic sacrificial cult.
C. Christmas Presents
In pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this ritual expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas.
D. Santa Claus or Father Christmas
This Christmas belief, although associated with a saint, started out as a cult. In 1087, a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. There, Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called The Grandmother, or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill the children’s stockings with her gifts. The Grandmother was ousted from her shrine at Bari, which became the center of the Nicholas cult. Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death, December 6. The Nicholas cult spread north until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshipped a pantheon led by Woden –their chief god and the father of Thor, Balder, and Tiw. Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing. In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25th instead of December 6th.
As Christians, should we celebrate Christmas?
It is up to you. But it is interesting to note that Jesus Christ himself did not give any directive to his followers that they should celebrate the date of his birth. What he commanded was for them to commemorate the anniversary of his death (Luke 22:19). We must also put to mind the words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:1, “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born.”
This article does not mean any offense toward people who celebrate Christmas. This is a mere presentation of facts found in the Bible and world history.