What is the truth behind Christmas?
Is There Truth in the Story of Christmas?
It is common at Christmas to hear ‘experts’ questioning the Gospel accounts. They make their pronouncements with something approaching glee, claiming that there is not a shred of evidence outside the Gospel of Luke for a census at the time of Jesus’ birth; Matthew’s hovering star over Bethlehem is a fiction; and the virgin birth is the neurotic invention of a church trying to distance the Son of God from any association with sex. Then there are questions about the date of Jesus’ supposed birth. December 25 was a pagan festival until it was hijacked, we are told, by a church desperate for relevance. Evidence that the starting point of the Western calendar, AD 1, cannot have been the year of Jesus’s nativity helps the sceptics’ case, and we are left with the impression that perhaps Jesus never lived at all. Maybe the whole thing is a fable with no more credibility than Santa Claus. And, like that story, thinking adults ought to grow out of it. But while much of this is factually correct, it is ultimately wrong. Take the absence of corroborating evidence for the Roman census, the visit of foreign Magi or the great star. The sceptics would have us think, if these things really did take place, there would be mention of them in other sources. But scholars of antiquity often note we probably have in our possession less than 1 per cent of the literary works that existed in the first century. Ninety-nine per cent of our evidence is lost.
. we probably have in our possession less than 1 per cent of the literary works that existed in the first century. Ninety-nine per cent of our evidence is lost.
“As every student of ancient history is aware”, Professor Graham Stanton of Cambridge University writes, “it is an elementary error to suppose that the unmentioned did not exist.” With only 1 per cent of the evidence to hand, it is foolhardy to deny something just because it appears in a single source. As recently as June 2004, a large public pool mentioned only in John’s Gospel – and so doubted by some – was uncovered during sewerage works in Jerusalem. It is true there is no corroborating evidence for the finer details of the Christmas story but it is wrong, and wrong-headed, to turn this into evidence that they are untrue. People are free not to trust what the Gospels report, but this is a choice based on a preference, not an argument arising from evidence. What, then, of the problems with dating Christmas? It is true December 25 marked the recovery of the Invincible Sun for ancient pagans, and about AD 330 this date was adopted by the Roman church as a celebration of Christ’s nativity. Christianity was fast becoming the dominant faith in this period and so, rather than cancel a happy festival, Christians decided to transpose it into a more appropriate religious key. In any case, when this date was adopted there was no suggestion that Jesus was actually born on December 25, any more than it is now believed all horses are born on August 1. The year of Jesus’ birth is a little more complicated but no more suspicious. According to Matthew and Luke – Gospels written independently – Herod was still alive at the time of Jesus’ birth. From firm dates provided by the first century writer Josephus, we know Herod died in early 4 BC. This means Jesus was born some time before that – between 6 BC and 4 BC. The man who gave us the calendar distinction between BC and AD, an Italian mathematician and archivist named Denis the Little, got the calculation slightly wrong. In AD 525 Pope St John asked Denis to sift through the available sources and propose the most likely anno Domini, or ‘year of the Lord’. He missed the mark by about five years – not bad considering his limited resources. We now know the exact dates for figures such as Herod, so can more accurately date Jesus’ birth. But none of this should add to the repertoire of reasons to be suspicious about the Jesus story. After all, there is a larger point which seems to be lost on some sceptics. Historians agree there really was a ‘first Noel’, a date somewhere between 6 BC and 4 BC when a famed teacher and healer named Jesus (soon to be hailed Messiah) was born in humble circumstances. Only an arbitrary kind of scepticism can deny this. The Virgin Birth, of course, cannot be decided by historical argument. This one involves philosophical assumptions. If you hold that the laws of nature are the only things regulating the universe, then no amount of evidence could convince you that Mary conceived “of the Holy Spirit”. If, however, you accept there probably is a law-giver behind those natural laws, then such an idea is not philosophically insurmountable. After creating a universe, fashioning another 23 chromosomes would be a walk in the park for the Almighty.
The traditional Christmas story won’t be going away. It will continue to be a source of wonder and hope for millions of believers and curious alike.
What the historian can confidently say about this strange claim in Matthew and Luke is that, whatever inspired it, it certainly had nothing to do with an awkwardness about sex. Ancient Judaism, from which the Gospels drew their influence, celebrated sex. There’s a whole book of the Bible about it (Song of Songs). The curiosity for the historian is that, in a culture comfortable with the idea of ‘sacred seed’, the Gospels say Jesus was born without it. Sceptics will continue to mock. That’s their right and preference. But such cynicism is not a natural consequence of a sober examination of the historical realities. The traditional Christmas story won’t be going away. It will continue to be a source of wonder and hope for millions of believers and curious alike.
© 2010 Centre for Public Christianity. This resource is reproduced here by the kind permission of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). CPX seeks to promote the public understanding of the relevance of Christianity in the 21st century.
Is There Truth in the Story of Christmas?
About the Author
John Dickson is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University (Sydney).
View all resources by John Dickson
The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity
For many, it’s unthinkable to celebrate Christmas without a beautiful evergreen fir in the living room decorated with sparkling ornaments and wrapped presents. Like most Christmas traditions, including the celebration of Christmas itself, the origin of the Christmas tree can be traced to pagan traditions. In fact, were it not for Queen Victoria (the most powerful monarch of her time) and a group of German soldiers in a temporary hospital in England, the decorated fir trees we love today might have remained an obscure custom that only a couple of Germanic and Slavic countries practiced.
Pagan origins of the Christmas tree
Although the Christmas tree is a relatively recent addition to the list of holiday traditions, it goes back several centuries, as do many other customs.
Long before Christianity appeared, people in the Northern Hemisphere used evergreen plants to decorate their homes, particularly the doors, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. On December 21 or December 22, the day is the shortest, and the night is the longest. Traditionally, this time of the year is seen as the return in strength of the sun god who had been weakened during winter — and the evergreen plants served as a reminder that the god would glow again and summer was to be expected.
The solstice was celebrated by the Egyptians who filled their homes with green palm rushes in honor of the god Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a crown. In Northern Europe, the Celts decorated their druid temples with evergreen boughs which signified everlasting life. Further up north, the Vikings thought evergreens were the plants of Balder, the god of light and peace. The ancient Romans marked the Winter Solstice with a feast called Saturnalia thrown in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and, like the Celts, decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Saturnalia was the most important celebration in Roman life. It was a week-long, rowdy celebration held from the 17th of December. It was so wordy, in fact, that at some point, no one could be prosecuted for injuring or killing people, raping, theft — anything usually against the law really. But although a lot of people blew off steam by taking advantage of the lawlessness, Saturnalia could also be a time for kindness. During Saturnalia, many Romans practiced merrymaking and the exchange of presents — another practice you may find familiar.
In the early days of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was set on the last day of Saturnalia by the first Christian Romans in power to approach pagans, even though some scholars assert Jesus was born nine months later, or a few years earlier, but that’s not a point. It was a clever political ploy, some say, which in time transformed Saturnalia from a frat party marathon into a meek celebration of the birth of Christ.
While a lot of ancient cultures used evergreens around Christmas time, historical records suggest that the Christmas tree tradition was started in the 16th century by Germans who decorated fir trees inside their homes. In some Christian cults, Adam and Eve were considered saints, and people celebrated them on Christmas Eve.
During the 16th century, the late Middle Ages, it was not rare to see huge plays being performed in open-air during Adam and Eve day, which told the story of creation. As part of the performance, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a “paradise tree” hung with fruit. The clergy banned these practices from public life, considering them acts of heathenry. So, some collected evergreen branches or trees and brought them to their homes, in secret.
These evergreens were initially called ‘paradise trees’ and were often accompanied by wooden pyramids made of branches held together by rope. On these pyramids, some families would fasten and light candles, one for each family member. These were the precursors of modern Christmas tree lights and ornaments, along with edibles such as gingerbread and gold-covered apples.
Already, a link between trees and Christmas was becoming established. But another key religious figure played a role here.
Some say the first to light a candle atop a Christmas tree was Martin Luther. Legend has it, late one evening around Christmas time, Luther was walking home through the woods when he was struck by the innocent beauty of starlight shining through fir trees. Wanting to share this experience with his family, Martin Luther cut down a fir tree and took it home. He placed a small candle on the branches to symbolize the Christmas sky.
What’s certain is that by 1605, Christmas trees were a thing as, in that year, historical records suggest the inhabitants of Strasburg ‘set up fir trees in the parlours … and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.’
During these early days of the Christmas tree, many statesmen and members of the clergy condemned their use as a celebration of Christ. Lutheran minister Johann von Dannhauer, for instance, complained that the symbol distracted people from the “true evergreen tree” — Jesus Christ. The English Puritans condemned a number of customs associated with Christmas, such as the use of the Yule log, holly, and mistletoe. Oliver Cromwell, the influential 17th-century British politician, preached against the “heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.”
They were largely successful, and the Christmas tree remained a niched celebration. Until Queen Victoria came along.
The modern Christmas Tree
In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. German immigrants had brought the custom of Christmas trees to Britain with them in the early 1800s but the practice didn’t catch on with the locals.
But after Queen Victoria, an extremely popular monarch started celebrating Christmas with fir trees and presents hung on the branches as a favor to her husband, the layfolk immediately followed suit.
Across the ocean, in the 19th century, Christmas trees weren’t at all popular, though Dutch and German settlers introduced them. Americans were less susceptible to the Queen’s influence. However, it was American civic leaders, artists, and authors who played on the image of a happy middle-class family exchanging gifts around a tree in an effort to replace Christmas customs that were seen as decadent, like wassailing. This family-centered image was further amplified by a very popular poem written by Clement Moore in 1822 known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. The same poem conjured the modern picture of Santa Claus.
It took a long time before the Christmas tree became an integral part of American life during this faithful night. President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House, during the mid-1850s. President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.
Though traditionally not all Christian cultures adorned their homes with evergreens and presents, the influence exerted by the West and rising consumerism has turned the Christmas tree into a ubiquitous symbol. In fact, many people of other faiths have adopted the Christmas tree (See Japan for instance).
The Christmas tree has gone a long way from its humble, pagan origins, to the point that it’s become too popular for its own good. In the U.S. alone, 35 million Christmas trees are sold annually, joined by 10 million artificial trees, which are surprisingly worse from an environmental perspective. Annually, 300 million Christmas trees are grown in farms around the world to sustain a two-billion-dollar industry, but because these are often not enough, many firs are cut down from forests. This is why we recommend opting for more creative and sustainable alternatives to Christmas trees.
- Science Santa History: The origins of Christmas Customs
- Creative and sustainable: How to Green Your Christmas Tree
- Science Santa History: The Pagan Origins of Christmas
- Wooden alternatives to green up your Christmas Tree
- The different species of Christmas tree – and how to pick the best one
Four Reasons Christmas Is Not a Christian Holiday
Should Christians celebrate Christmas? Is Christmas Christian? Is Christmas biblical? Read on to learn why Christmas is not a Christian holiday.
As millions of people around the world decorate trees, wrap and give gifts, and tell their children the story of Santa Claus—a fundamental question must be answered. Is Christmas really “Christian”?
Because of the attention paid to the story of Christ’s birth and the carols celebrating the baby Jesus, many may be shocked to hear a Christian say: “I don’t celebrate Christmas because it is not Christian to do so.”
Why would a Christian—someone who strongly believes that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior—make a conscious decision to reject Christmas? Isn’t Christmas biblical?
Why would Christians not celebrate Christmas?
Is Christmas an evil holiday?
Four reasons Christmas is not a Christian holiday
Let’s consider four reasons why Christmas doesn’t meet the criteria of being “Christian.”
1. Christmas is not Christian because it is associated with many pagan birth myths—and Dec. 25 was not the date of Christ’s birth.
Though Dec. 25 is considered the birthday of Jesus by a large segment of Christendom, there is no evidence that this was actually the date He was born. The Bible does not give us Christ’s date of birth, but it gives some clues that it was at a warmer time of the year.
Dec. 25 wasn’t assigned to be the date of Christ’s birth until about 300 years after He was born. Why, you may ask, would this date have been chosen so long after the fact?
The basic answer is, Dec. 25 was chosen to encourage followers of a variety of pagan religions that celebrated that day to convert to Christianity. Those pagan celebrations included the Roman Saturnalia and the birthday of the Persian god Mithra.
To take a deeper dive into what we do know about Jesus’ birth, read “The Birth of Jesus” and “The Birth of Jesus: Myths and Misperceptions.”
2. Christmas is not Christian because most Christmas traditions come from paganism, not the Bible.
The time of year chosen, starting a week before Christmas, correlates with the pagan festival of Saturnalia. This was celebrated in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. Two of the traditions of Saturnalia that live on today in Christmas include gift giving and fabulous light displays.
However, God instructs us to never worship Him with pagan practices: “You shall not worship the LORD your God with such things” (Deuteronomy 12:4).
Historians also connect Dec. 25 with the Roman festival of dies natalis solis invicti (“the birthday of the unconquered sun”).
According to Academus Education, “The date of December 25th specifically likely comes from the Roman festival of dies natalis solis invicti (‘day of the birth of the unconquered sun’), a festival specifically celebrating the birth of the sun. This festival was more specifically religious than the general merriment of Saturnalia, and it is noted that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was brought up in the cult of the Sun, so it is possible that the date of Christmas was designed to replace this festival specifically rather than the more ambiguous dates of Saturnalia” (Mansi Dhoka, “How Saturnalia Became Christmas: The Transition From Ancient to Present and Pagan to Christian,” Dec. 29, 2021).
Since the term pagan is not used as much today, it is important we understand its meaning. Paganism refers to religious worship of gods other than the true God of the Bible. Pagan worship often involves polytheism (worship of multiple gods) and often centers on worshipping elements of nature.
To learn more about the pagan origins of Christmas, read “Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?” And to learn why it should matter to you, read “Does It Matter That Christmas Is Pagan?”
3. Christmas is not Christian because lying is not Christian. There is no Santa Claus. Parents shouldn’t lie to their children.
One of the most popular Christmas customs involves telling children that there is a jolly, potbellied man named Santa Claus who delivers Christmas gifts to all good children around the world.
The custom practically makes Santa Claus into a godlike being—with the ability to hear children’s wishes (prayers) and visit all the good children of the world in one night (supernatural powers). And he’s portrayed as always staying the same age (immortal).
Of course, this myth is found nowhere in the Bible.
Is it Christian for parents to teach this myth to their children? The Bible is very clear that lying is a sin: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
How can we exclude children from this commandment? Is telling a lie not a lie if we tell it to children? Obviously, no. A lie is a lie. (To learn why being truthful is so important, read “Ninth Commandment: You Shall Not Bear False Witness.”)
For more insight about the lies told to children during Christmastime, read “Christmas Is Not for Kids.”
4. Christmas is not Christian because there are Christian holy days that Jesus Himself kept—and Christmas is not one of them.
Leviticus 23 lists seven festivals that God calls His feasts. God’s holy days were created by God for His people. The Bible records that Jesus Christ kept these festivals (Luke 22:15-16; John 7:10). (To learn more, read “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Festivals Jesus Celebrated.”)
Many around the world celebrate these special days every year—to rejoice in and learn of their deep Christian meaning. Instead of keeping pagan holidays—repurposed and labeled as “Christian” hundreds of years after the Bible was written—why not keep the holy days found in the Bible?
To learn more about the deep Christian meaning of the biblical festivals, read “Festival Meaning: What Are the Meanings of Each of God’s Festivals?”
Answering the question: Is Christmas Christian?
So, getting back to our original question: Is Christmas Christian? Let’s answer this by asking four similar questions based on the points above:
- Is it Christian to worship Christ’s birth on the birthday of the ancient sun god?
- Is it Christian to keep ancient pagan worship practices alive by calling them Christian?
- Is it Christian to lie to children about a mythical figure’s existence?
- Is it Christian to ignore the festivals sanctioned in the Bible to keep holidays found nowhere in the Bible?
The answers to these questions point to the answer to the original question: No, Christmas is not Christian.
Consider the words of the Man that Christmas is supposed to celebrate: “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:9).
This year, instead of celebrating Christmas, why not study the true festivals that God reveals in the Bible and learn about their deep meanings?
No, Christmas is not Christian and never has been. But there are special days that are.
Topics Covered: Holidays