Roots of Christmas
The celebration of Christmas has caused some controversy in recent years, for a variety of reasons. Many have been concerned that Christ is too often left out of Christmas; replaced by trimmings and presents and fudge. Others have battled over whether we should allow manger scenes on public property or allow the school choir to sing Christmas carols that actually contain a message about Jesus Christ. On the other hand, a growing number of Christians have been arguing that we should not celebrate Christmas at all because there is no command to do so in the Bible, and the celebration is based in pagan roots.
What stand should we take? How should we approach this all-encompassing holiday in the light of history and in the light of the Bible?
The Pagan Background:
Many pagan religions through the millennia have worshipped the sun as the source of light and warmth and life. As darkness deepened in the winter and the shortest day of the year approached, many pagans of yesteryear feared that the light might die altogether. Once the winter solstice hit, however, and the hours of sunlight began to increase once again, there would be great celebrations over the return of the sun and the accompanying hope for a future spring. In the northern hemisphere, these celebrations would occur toward the end of December.
Tammuz, the son of Nimrod and his queen, Semiramis, was identified with the Babylonian Sun God and worshipped following the winter solstice, on about December 22-23. Tammuz was thought to have died during the winter solstice, and was memorialized by burning a log in the fireplace. (The Chaldean word for infant is yule. This is the origin of the yule log.) His rebirth was celebrated by replacing the log with a trimmed tree the next morning.
The Roman god Saturn's celebration fell on December 17 and lasted for seven days. Romans would gaily decorate their homes in evergreen boughs and candles, and would give gifts to one another. It was a time of visiting with family and friends, and of often rowdy merry-making.
December 25 was also considered to be the birth date of the Iranian mystery god Mithra,, the god of light and contracts. A once-minor god of the Persian pantheon, Roman soldiers adopted Mithra as the manly man's hero, a divinity of fidelity, manliness, and bravery. Women were excluded from the caves where men worshipped Mithra through secret rituals.
While quite different in person and mission, there are a few similarities between the legends of Mithra and the story of Christ. Mithra was said to have been born in a cave, with shepherds attending, (although there were no men on earth at the time (?)). Other legends have him being born from a rock by a river under a tree. According to Persian mythology, Mithra was born of a virgin given the title 'Mother of God'. Mithra was a moral god, upholding the sanctity of the contract even when the contract was made with one who was sure to break it. Initiates into Mithraism would be "baptized" with the trickle of the sacrificial bull's blood that would flow into a pit. This blood was said to cleanse the initiates from any impurities.
Tertullian (160-220 A.D.), the early Church writer noticed that the pagan religion utilized baptism as well as bread and wine consecrated by priests. He considered Mithraism to have been inspired by the devil, who wanted to mock Christians and lead others to hell.
Mithra came to be identified with the sun-god Helios and became known as 'The Great God Helios-Mithras'. Several Roman emperors formally announced their alliance with the sun, including Commodus who was initiated in public. Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of Pagan solstice celebrations of such god-men/saviors as Appolo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun", celebrated on December 25th.
The Hebrew Roots:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
...When at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
The Christian Roots:
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
About 1950 years ago, a well educated and faithful physician wrote to one Theophilus, detailing the life of Jesus Christ. Luke explained that he had done research on the subject so that Theophilus could know with certainty that the things he had been told about Jesus were true (Luke 1:4). Luke must have spoken with Mary herself, for he tells of things that only she would know. "But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart," (Luke 2:19). He tells Theophilus of the birth of Jesus; how he was born in Bethlehem during a time when all the Roman world was being taxed. Shepherds out in the field were surprised by a host of angels that filled the sky, singing, "Glory to God in the highest!" and as they were told, went to go find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Then, those shepherds told everybody they could find about the incredible things they had seen.
The child grew up and went on to have a short, three-year ministry that ended in his death on a Roman Cross. Yet, the man that was born in Bethlehem rose again from the dead, as witnessed by over 500 men. And he is still changing the hearts and lives of people living today.
The early Christians are not known to have celebrated Christ's birth, and the actual date of his nativity has been lost in history. The first recorded mention of the December 25 date is in the Calendar of Philocalus (354 A.D.) which assumed Jesus' birth date to be Friday, December 25, 1 A.D. - even though it was quite unlikely that shepherds would be out in the fields in December. Pope Julius I officially proclaimed December 25 to be the anniversary of Christ's birth in 440 A.D. Giving the December 25 Christian significance has been understood to have been an effort to help the pagan world embrace Christianity and trade in their worship of pagan gods for the One True God. Originally called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the 6th century. By the end of the 8th century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to the Scandinavian countries. Christmas is celebrated on January 6 in the Orthodox Church, on what is also called Epiphany or Three Kings Day, the day that celebrates when the wise men found the Christ child and gave their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christmas did largely win out over the pagan holidays, but was still celebrated with rowdy festivities and practical jokes - more like Mardi Gras than anything resembling the character of Christ. Puritans in England outlawed Christmas for years, and the holiday was not popular in early America. In fact, Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870.
Then, the holiday underwent a conversion. Americans "reinvented" Christmas into the more moderate holiday we know today. Writers Washington Irving and Charles Dickens both wrote tales that presented Christmas as a holiday of caring for the poor and bringing families together. As the angels sang above the shepherds that original Christmas night, "peace on earth, good will toward men". Americans borrowed traditions from here and there to celebrate the birth of Christ - the giving of presents and good cheer and getting together to enjoy families.
The Season is still a mixture of traditions pulled from a multitude of sources. Perhaps there are vestiges of the ancient winter solstice celebrations, but the festivities today in no way point toward Mithra or Saturn. While Santa Claus ho ho ho's down main street on a firetruck, and Hershey makes a killing on aluminum-wrapped chocolate bells, the reality of Christ's birth still breaks through! Nativity scenes in downtown squares bring to mind the great gift of God - the King of kings laid in a manger, attended by shepherds. Children who see them have the chance to ask, "What is that?" Christmas carols that cry "The Lord is come" and "Come let us adore him" are sung from door to door, reminding us all of what God has done. It is a time of year when people can speak more freely of Jesus the Savior, and when even the faithless are willing to go to a Christmas Eve church service. It is truly a precious slot of time God has given us during which to spread the Good News of His Son. Glory to God in the highest!
May your celebration of the birth of Christ honor him who gave himself to us as the ultimate sacrifice of love. May everything we do reflect the love and compassion of our Savior, and bring glory to his name.