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What is the origin of Christmas?

Many people and cultures around the world celebrate the day of Christmas in many different ways. Christians have a tradition of honoring the birth of Jesus. Over the years, various aspects have been added such as the pretty Christmas lights, holly wreaths, winter decorations, lighting of candles, and more. But how did these traditions begin? Some say Christmas is rooted in pagan traditions, but is that true? What is the real origin of Christmas?

The Beginning of Christmas

Christmas as we know it has always been a day to celebrate Jesus’ birth into the world, which happened over 2000 years ago. While the Bible doesn't tell us the exact date of Jesus’ birth, tradition has placed it on December 25.

How we got this date is through the work of Sextus Julius Africanus, a Roman Christian historian in the second century, who came up with that date by calculating when Jesus was conceived (according to him) then adding nine months. However, it wasn't until the fourth century when Christians started celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25, based on Africanus' calculations.

Christmas & Pagan Traditions

Yep, the rumors are true. Some Christmas traditions do indeed have pagan origins. The Romans already had a celebration in December called Saturnalia. Saturnalia honored the Roman god Saturn and coincided with the winter equinox, running roughly from December 17 to 24.

While there were a few good things that happened during Saturnalia, it is historically looked upon as a couple weeks of total hedonistic debauchery. The Romans would celebrate for days by...well, doing stuff that should not be done by followers of Christ. We won’t go into gross detail here, but just imagine naked caroling, gluttonous overeating, and food shaped like body parts, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what was going on.

So how did Christmas become the holiday that overtook Saturnalia? In the fourth century, Rome declared Christianity to be the state religion, and they kicked Saturnalia aside, replacing it with Christmas or the Feast of the Nativity. All the immoral traditions were "cleaned up" so to speak. Some of those original Saturnalia traditions remain today, such as displaying evergreen trees and giving gifts, but they are now focused on God and celebrating Christ's birth.

The Roman Christians did a great job at replacing Saturnalia practices with traditions that would honor Christ instead. In a way, we could say the Roman Christians of the fourth century “redeemed” this pagan holiday and turned it into a joyous celebration of Christ our Lord.

Should Christians celebrate Christmas?

Christmas itself is not and has never been a pagan holiday. When Christmas first came around, it was meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Savior of the world (Luke 2:11). There is no hidden message or agenda behind Christmas. Christmas is TOTALLY different than Saturnalia. Yes, some traditions associated with Christmas have pagan origins, such as the use of candles and bells, but this does NOT mean that Christmas is a pagan holiday.

Christmas has always been intended to celebrate our Lord Jesus being born into the world to redeem us and restore our relationship with God (John 3:16). If you feel no personal conviction against celebrating Christmas, it is completely OK to do so. If you feel personally convicted that it's wrong to celebrate Christmas (or practice some part of it) because of traditions that have pagan origins, that is OK too.

Whether a person chooses to celebrate Christmas is completely between them and God (Romans 14:5). However, those who choose to celebrate Christmas should not condemn those who don’t, and those who don’t celebrate Christmas should not condemn those who do (1 Corinthians 8).

Christmas can be a beautiful remembrance of the miraculous birth of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:18-25), but this is something we can remember and be thankful for throughout the year—not just on Christmas.

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TL;DR

In the fourth century, the Romans declared Christianity as the state religion, and Christmas was instituted as a celebration of Christ's birth. December 25 was chosen as the date because of a historical belief that Jesus was born on that day. Saturnalia, a celebration of the Roman god Saturn, occurred around the same time and was known for its hedonistic traditions. Fourth century Christians “redeemed” Saturnalia in a way, "cleaning up" those traditions and focusing them on Christ. Regardless of some traditions' origins, Christmas itself is and always has been the celebration of Jesus’ miraculous arrival (Luke 2:11). Whether you choose to celebrate Christmas is a matter of personal conviction (Romans 14:5; 1 Corinthians 8). Christmas can be a beautiful remembrance of the miraculous birth of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:18-25), but we can remember and be thankful for Jesus' birth throughout the year—not just on Christmas.

By: Vivian Bricker

Vivian loves learning, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She is dedicated to helping people learn more about Jesus and is ready to help in any way she can. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, cooking, drawing, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, you can find her soaking up the sunshine or going on an adventure.

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