Thursday, December 15

The Origin of Christmas Traditions

"On December 25, 0 BC, Jesus was born in a little stable in a town called Bethlehem." This is a summation of the traditional story we often hear around this time of the year, but is not entirely based in Scripture. Jesus was likely not born in December, and was not born in 0 BC, as such a year is non-existent. While Scripture conveys that Jesus Christ was born to Mary in Bethlehem, also known as the City of David, it does not state exactly when Jesus was born. But some have suggested that Christmas itself, particularly the date of December 25, is not of Christian origin, but of pagan. The word pagan can be defined as "a member of a group professing a polytheistic religion or any religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam; a person without any religion; irreligious."[1] Does Christmas actually have pagan origins? If so, how do these origins apply to the modern celebration of Christmas? *Note: This is not intended to be a comprehensive, in-depth examination of the origin of certain traditions, merely an overview. (No copyright infringement intended, photo credit: Saturnus, Caravaggio 16th century; Alex Petrov, St. Nicholas "Lipensky," orig. AD 1294)

Christmas is the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus, and is traditionally celebrated on December 25. In Old English, it is Crīstesmæsse, which literally means "Christ's mass." Interestingly, research has suggested that it is celebrated by an increasing number of non-Christians.[2] Historically, the birth of Jesus is estimated to have occurred sometime between 7-2 BC. The BC/AD system of dating, although the BCE and CE designation is seemingly becoming more utilized, even by some Christians, came about in AD 525 by a monk named Dionysus Exiguus (c.AD 470-544). It is widely thought that Dionysus was incorrect in his estimation of the birth of Christ, so that Jesus was actually born in BC (Before Christ) times, according to the Anno Domini dating system. Rather ironic, and there is no zero year in this system, with the year 1 BC being followed by the next year as 1 AD. Anno Domini itself does not stand for After Death, as Christ is believed to have been crucified c. AD 30-33. The term itself, Anno Domini, is Medieval Latin, translated as "In the year of the Lord" and "In the year of our Lord."[3-4] Sometimes, it is translated as "In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ," or "Anno Domini Nostri Iesu (Jesu) Christi."

Saturn (16th century)
It has come to the attention of some that around the time which we celebrate the birth of Christ was also the celebration of an ancient pagan holiday. Is there any credence to this idea? Actually, "This celebration was the pagan holiday Saturnalia, which was the Roman festival for their god Saturn. It ran from about December 17–23. Saturn is the Roman god analogous to the Greek god 'Cronus' or 'Kronos.'"[5] To note, in Greek mythology, Cronus was the father of Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hades, Poseidon, Hestia, and Chiron. Cronus (or Cronos) was the offspring of Gaia (mother earth) and Uranus (sky), also spelled Ouranos. Now, Greece itself was inhabited by the descendants of Noah's grandson, Javan. Javan was the fourth son of Japheth. The Hebrew name for Greece is still Javan. "Alexander the Great is called the 'king of Javan' (rendered 'Grecia,' Dan. 8:21; 10:20; compare 11:2; Zech. 9:13). This word was universally used by the nations of the East as the generic name of the Greek race."[6] Javan's sons were Elisha, Tarshish, Kittim (Cethimus) and Rodanim (Dodanim). Greek landscape and surrounding areas retain these names in many forms.

According to Bodie Hodge, "Eliseans was the old name of the ancient Greek tribe now called the Aeolians. Cethimus inhabited the island Cethima, from which the name of the island Cyprus was derived. (Josephus, a Jewish historian about 2,000 years ago, elaborated on these relationships in more detail.) Many of the characters of Greek mythology are based on real historical figures who were raised up to godlike status. One example here is 'Hellen,' the alleged mythological patriarch and god of the Aeolians (or Elisians). Hellen (Ἕλλην) is likely a variant of Elishah. Even in other cultures, ancestors were often deified; for example, in Germanic and Norse mythologies there is Tiras (Tyras, Tiwaz, Tyr), who was the king of the gods and also happens to be one of Noah’s grandsons (Genesis 10:2)."[7] There are several other examples, yet the intended point is that although the pagan holiday is rooted in both Roman and Greek mythology, it traces back to a biblical figure. This figure is Cronos.

"Cronus/Kronos (Κρόνος), a variant of Cethimas/Kittem, could have been raised up to godlike status. Considering that Noah and his early descendants were living such long lives, it should be obvious why many of these ancestors were raised up to be 'god-like.' Not only did they live long lives, but they were obviously the oldest people around and would seem to be the people (gods, demigods) that started civilization.  Noah would have been roughly 500 years older than anyone else and his sons approximately 100 years older.  We know this was because of the Flood, but the true message would quickly be changed to fit the pagan ideas. Thus it is interesting that this pagan festival was likely born as a result of a suppressed view of a biblical character."[8] It is also worth noting, and indeed rather telling, that in Plato’s Euthydemus, he referred to Zeus, Athena, and Apollo as his "gods" and his "lords and ancestors."[9] If Saturnalia was celebrated December 17-23, and in some cases December 17-24, this does not yet answer why we celebrate the birth of Jesus around the 25.[10]

What did the early church fathers say about the notion? Some of the early church leaders did not wish to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Their reasoning was that he was not merely a pharaoh, a pagan god, or Herod. We see this in use by Origen in the AD 200s. Others, however, disagreed with this and as a result provided their own dates. Hippolytus (c. AD 170-236) pitched January 2, a Latin essay (c. AD 243) contended that it was March 21, which the writer(s) insisted was when God created the sun, and May 20, as proposed by Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-215).[11] By AD 336, as far as we can tell, when Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman empire, December 25 was used as the celebration of Jesus' birthday. "Many scholars say that church leaders picked this date to bump aside a trio of winter solstice holidays that were popular among Romans. Winter solstice is when the sun starts to make its comeback, when the long nights of winter begin to shorten and move toward the long days of summer."[12]

Psychologically, during the winter months, "depression seems to set in during the winter months and goes away with the coming of spring and summer. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that is caused by the body's reaction to low levels of light present in the winter months."[13] Another reason which we have Christmas in the winter months is to give people something to look forward to during the long winter months, where SAD can set in. Celebrations seem to promote a general "good feeling" in people. Concerning the "trio of winter solstice holidays," the first is Saturnalia, aforementioned. Interestingly, on this holiday, "Businesses, schools, and public offices closed to allow people to party hearty and exchange gifts. Here's how Seneca, a Roman philosopher writing in AD 50, describes the flurry of activity: 'It is now the month of December, when most of the city is in a bustle... Loose reins are given to the public for their wild parties; even where you may hear the sound of great preparations."[14]

Second of these three winter solstice holidays is the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. In Latin, it is called Natalis Solis Invicti. It marked the start of the end of winter and the coming of spring and summertime. The third of the holidays is the Birthday of the Sun of Righteousness. This holiday is referred to in a past article, "Is Christianity Derived From Mithraism?", and is the celebration of the birthday of Mithras, the sun god born with a knife, who later rode and killed a great cosmic bull, whose fertilized blood is responsible, according to the mystery religion, for giving vegetation to the earth. Members of this cult worshiped the god by slaughtering a bull and bathing in its blood by standing in a pit below the corpse, literally washing themselves in the blood of bulls. Eventually, Christians contended that the celebration on December 25 of Christ's birth was not an attempt to "Christianize" pagan sun worship or the other festivals. An anonymous Christian in the AD 300s once said, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."[15]

It has been claimed by some that the Christmas tree has its roots in pagan origins. Despite attempts to connect pagan traditions to this Christmas tradition, the modern custom does not come from paganism. During Saturnalia, bearing in mind that Saturn was the god of agriculture, Romans decorated their houses with greens and lights, and exchanged gifts, as aforementioned. "Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. The first Christmas tree was decorated by Protestant Christians in 16th-century Germany. Our modern Christmas tree evolved from these early German traditions, and the custom most likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio."[16] The modern custom of putting up a Christmas tree and decorating it is derived from this. While there are Christians who believe that the Bible teaches against putting up a Christmas tree during the season, it does not state that we cannot put up a tree - but it does state that it is sinful to worship the tree. Decorating and worshiping are two separate things.

Other Christmas traditions, such as ringing bells, do harken back to certain pagan celebrations and traditions. Ringing bells is generally believed to have its origin in a winter pagan festival where ringing bells would drive out evil spirits.[17] In latter times, ringing bells on Christmas Eve symbolized the welcoming of Christmas with a joyful noise, a form of celebrating Jesus' birth. In like manner, there was an ancient pagan tradition of lighting candles to drive out forces of cold (which is simply the absence of heat) and darkness (which is simply the absence of light).[18] As for the tradition of gift-giving, while it is true that Druids would offer up his goat as a type of pagan ritual, we give not because of this, but we give because He gave. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that the wise men (magi) brought gifts to Jesus. Matthew 2:11 records, "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh."[19]

What of Santa Claus? The modern Santa Claus legend is actually based on a fourth century Christian. He is known as Saint Nicholas, or Nikolaos of Myra (AD 270-343), a Greek bishop of Myra, which is part of modern-day Turkey.[20] He is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Νικόλαος ὁ Θαυματουργός, Nikolaos ho Thaumaturgos), as he is alleged to have performed certain miracles. For example, during a famine that Myra experienced, there was a ship in the port which had been loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. Nikolaos asked the sailors to unload part of their wheat to help in the time of need. While at first the sailors did not like the request, after Nikolaos promised that they would not take any damage for their consideration, they agreed, and unloaded wheat. After later arriving at the capital, the found that the weight of the load had not changed (having previously weighed it), even though the wheat they had unloaded in Myra was enough for two years, and could also be used for sowing. Some call this the miracle of the multiplication of wheat.[21]

Other legends exist concerning Nikolaos. During a famine, three children were lured by a butcher into his home, where he murdered them and butchered them, putting their remains in a barrel to cure, intending to sell them as ham. Nikolaos was visiting the region, caring for the hungry, saw through the butcher's gruesome crime. He sought the butcher's cottage for rest. The butcher asked Nikolaos if wanted some ham, and judging by his reply, the butcher understood that Nikolaos knew what he had done, and turned to flee. Nikolaos prayed, and the three children were resurrected.[22] Other versions exist, but this gruesome legend demonstrates the kindness of Nikolaos and caring for others, a familiar characteristic of the modern Santa Claus. Perhaps the most infamous legend concerning Nikolaos is that of a poor man and his three daughters who could not afford a proper dowry for them ("the money, goods, or estate that a wife brings to her husband at marriage").[23] In other words, the poor man's daughters would remain unmarried, and, having to earn money, would likely become prostitutes.

As a result, having heard of the situation, Nikolaos decided to help the man. However, he did not wish to help the man in public, as he wanted to remain modest and save the poor man from having to take charity, so he waited until nighttime, when he took three money purses filled with gold coins and tossed them through the window into the man's house. Variants of this legend exist. For example, one version has him throwing a purse into the house for three nights in a row. In another, the poor man wants to find the identity of the man, confronting Nikolaos, who said to give glory to God, and not him. In yet another, Nikolaos learns of the man's plan to confront him, and instead drops the money down the chimney, with one variant saying that one of the daughters had hung her stockings to dry, having washed them, and the gold fell into the stocking.[24] Where did the name Santa Claus come from, however?

Saint Nicholas (c.1294)
"Santa Claus" comes the Dutch Sinterklaas, which itself is a corruption of transliterations of "Saint Nikolaos." In Dutch, he is also referred to as Sint Nicolaas. Some have claimed that there are parallels between the Dutch Sinterklaas and the Norse god, Odin. For example, Sinterklaas rides on rooftops with his white horse, and Odin rides the sky on his grey horse. Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers who have black faces, and Odin has a spear and black ravens as helpers.[25] However, similarity does not prove that some of the Sinterklaas traditions are derived from Norse mythology. There are various explanations as to how Sinterklaas become the North American Santa Claus, one of which is that, during the American Revolution, a former Dutch colony (New York City) reinvented the Sinterklaas tradition.[26] Not everyone agrees with this, and advocate other theories, but the fact remains that the Santa Claus legend is derived from Sinterklaas, which in turn is derived from the historical figure, Nikolaos of Myra, a fourth century Christian. 

Where various Christmas traditions come from, scholars and historians sometimes disagree on, yet many of our traditions are original, Christian traditions. While some have been derived in part from pagan traditions, others have purely Christian origins. Historically, Jesus is indeed the "reason for the season," and it is important to remember our roots, but if it is claimed that Christmas is a pagan holiday and Christians should not celebrated, bear in mind that while certain traditions have pagan roots, we do not celebrate those pagan ideas or deities now, but the birth of Jesus Christ, the Creator in the flesh (John 1; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-19, 2:9; 1st Timothy 3:16). Roots are important, but it is also important to understand why we celebrate today. We do not give gifts because a Druid somewhere, at some time offered a goat to his god, but because the Savior of Mankind was born in human form, being both man and divine: the God-man.

The Truth Ministries would like to thank you for taking the time to read this article of "The Truth." Feel free to email us at or, visit our facebook page, or visit our ministry website.  It is the mission of this ministry to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2nd Corinthians 10:5). We understand that many will disagree with our position, our claims and our ministry, and we recognize the individual's right to believe what he or she wills, and that some will disagree on our position regarding this particular topic. However, understand that we stand firm upon the Bible as God's Word, which we believe to be historically accurate and reliable, and hold to our conviction that this conclusion was arrived at based on what His Word tells us, and through a Biblical worldview, and hope that if you have not already, will come to faith in Jesus. Take care, and God bless you reader. Troy Hillman 
[1] "pagan." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 08 Dec. 2011.
[2] "Christmas as a multi-faith festival." BBC Learning English. BBC World Service, 29 Dec 2009. Web. 08 Dec 2011.; Tood, Liz. "Why I celebrate Christmas, by the world's most famous atheist." MailOnline. Associated Newspapers Ltd, 23 Dec 2008. Web. 08 Dec 2011.; Hytrek, Nick. "Non-Christians focus on secular side of Christmas." Sioux CIty Journal. Sioux City Journal, 10 Nov 2009. Web. 08 Dec 2011.
[3] "Anno Domini". Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. 2003.
[4] Blackburn, Bonnie; Holford-Strevens, Leofranc. The Oxford companion to the Year: An exploration of calendar customs and time-reckoning. Oxford University Press, 2003. 782. Print.
[5] Hodge, Bodie. "Feedback: The Origin of Christmas." Answers In Genesis, 19 December 2009. Web. 11 December 2011. 
[6] "Javan." WebBible Encyclopedia. Christian Answers Network, n.d. Web. 11 Dec 2011.
[7] Ibid, [5].
[8] Ibid.
[9] Plato, Euthydemus, from: The Dialogues of Plato, Jowett, B. (Translator), 3rd ed., Vol. I, Oxford at the Clarendon Press: Oxford University Press, Humphrey Milford Publisher, 1892. 302d. Print.
[10] Miller, Stephen M. The Jesus of the Bible. 1st ed,. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing Inc., 2009. 48-49. Print.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Saundra K. Ciccarelli and J. Noland White. Psychology. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009. 548. Print.
[14] Ibid, [10].
[15] Ibid.
[16] "Should we have a Christmas Tree? Does the Christmas Tree have its origin in ancient pagan rituals?." Got Got Questions Network, n.d. Web. 13 Dec 2011.
[17] "Do some Christmas traditions have pagan origins?." Got Got Questions Network, n.d. Web. 13 Dec 2011.
[18] Ibid.
[19] The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005. Print.
[20] Cunningham, Lawrence. A brief history of saints. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005. p. 33.
[21] A companion to Wace, Françoise Hazel Marie Le Saux. Cambridge Brewer, 2005. Print.
[22] "Saint NICOLAS." St. Nicholas Center. St. Nicholas Center, 2011. Web. 15 Dec 2011.
[23] "dowry." Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 15 Dec. 2011. 
[24] William J. Bennett. The True Saint Nicholas. Howard Books, 2009. 14-17. Print.
[25] McKnight, George Harley. St. Nicholas - His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration, 1917. Print.
[26] Lendering, Jona. "Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus"., 20 Nov 2008. Web. 15 Dec 2011.