This time of year brings back memories of childhood and family, at least for those of us who were blessed to have parents who made Christmas a special time. As parents ourselves, there was a special joy in creating similar Christmas memories for our daughter when she was young.
However, a belief has been growing in recent years among Christians that Christmas is based on pagan celebrations. December 25 was selected for Christmas, it’s believed, because it was the date of the winter solstice, or perhaps because it coincided with Saturnalia, the most popular feast on the annual Roman calendar, celebrated with a sacrifice in Rome’s Temple of Saturn followed by a big party—a public feast, private gift-giving, and temporary suspension of social rules with masters waiting on slaves, gambling, and general drunkenness.
It’s probable that the church sometimes adopted days celebrated by pagan religions and Christianized them—which is not to say the pagan holy days were made Christian; they were just given a Christian veneer. For example, All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day, which likely developed out of the Celtic festival of the dead, Samhain. So, the logic goes, it must also have happened with Christmas—the “Christ mass”—and Saturnalia.
Or Christmas might have been an attempt to hijack the birthday celebration for Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun” god of Rome.
Some take the rites back even farther in time and claim that December 25 was celebrated in the ancient Near East as the birthday of the world’s first emperor, Nimrod. The belief is that Christmas originated as a celebration of the birth of Nimrod, king of Babylon, to his wife-mother, Semiramis. You see, she didn’t like the idea of giving up the lifestyle of a queen just because of Nimrod’s untimely and inconsiderate death, and so she produced another child—either Nimrod’s unborn son or through an affair—who she claimed was the resurrected Nimrod. She declared Nimrod a god, a sun god by most accounts, thus making herself a goddess. The yule log represents Nimrod, who’s also sometimes identified as Ba’al, and the Christmas tree represents Nimrod resurrected as his son, Tammuz.
On top of all that, we’re told that we also celebrate the birth of Christ on the wrong day. We can’t know for sure, but clues in the Bible suggest a birthday in the spring or fall. (There is an excellent analysis of prophetic clues in Revelation 12:1-5, the passages referring to “the woman clothed with the sun,” by E.L. Martin in his book The Star of Bethlehem: The Star That Astonished the World, pointing to the precise arrangement of the skies over Jerusalem on September 11, 3 BC.) Some feel that the birth of the Messiah, if it’s going to be celebrated at all, should at least be remembered on the correct day—or as correct as we can be, anyway.
So, should we just chuck Christmas out with the uneaten Thanksgiving leftovers? No. Not necessarily.
The questions we need to ask are these:
- Is Christmas really based on the worship of pagan gods?
- When did the early church begin celebrating Christmas?
- Why did they settle on December 25 for the holiday?
The answer to the first question is a resounding “no.” First of all, while it’s true that the winter solstice fell on December 25 on the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC, there is no evidence from Roman records that there was any religious significance to the solstice until the time of Emperor Aurelian in the late 3rd century AD.
As for Saturnalia, it was celebrated December 17–24. Besides missing on the date, the notion that Christians would appropriate a festival honoring a god who’d been banished to Tartarus, especially one whose best-known characteristic was demanding the sacrifice of children (his Greek counterpart, Kronos, was sometimes called Teknophagos—“Child-eater”), is hard to swallow.
Remember, this was during a time when many Christians were leaving pagan religions and far more sensitive to the influence of those beliefs than we are today. It’s one thing for modern, biblically illiterate American Christians to adopt New Age beliefs without realizing it (some 60%, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), but that just wasn’t the case 1,700 years ago when accepting Jesus Christ might cost you your status, job, property, and family.
That brings us to Nimrod: The concept of Nimrod as a god is a non-starter. Let us make this very clear: There is no evidence from the ancient Near East—none whatsoever—that Nimrod was worshiped as a god by any civilization, at any time, anywhere.
In fact, the myths that grew up around the memory of Nimrod were probably based on a Babylonian god, most likely the warrior god Ninurta, instead of the other way around.
Furthermore, Semiramis, the Assyrian queen Sammuramat, reigned between 811 and 808 BC or from 809 to 792 BC. She was one of the first women in history to rule an empire. However, if Nimrod was the builder of the Tower of Babel, he died at least 2,300 years before Semiramis walked the earth.
It’s tough to have children when you live 2,300 years apart.
Even if Nimrod was the historic king Sargon the Great, founder of the Akkadian Empire (as argued in a new book by Dr. Doug Petrovich), there was still more than 1,500 years between Nimrod and Semiramis.
Much of the information about Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz comes from Alexander Hislop’s 1858 book The Two Babylons. With all due respect, because he was no doubt sincere in his desire to warn the world about what he believed was the false religion of the Roman Catholic Church, Hislop’s scholarship was poor at best. He seems to have taken the names of dozens of ancient gods and goddesses and mixed them up into a sort of an ancient myth smoothie. Hislop may have meant well, but he’s misled Christians for more than 150 years.
In short, Nimrod was not a sun-god and he wasn’t Baal, either. Baal would probably be insulted you said so. Nimrod was only human, while Baal was a god of storms, rain, and vegetation. He was worshiped for a time as one of the ancient Near East’s “dying and rising gods,” like Tammuz—who, by the way, was worshiped as a god in Mesopotamia thousands of years before Semiramis was born. As such, Baal and Tammuz would have been mourned in the fall and celebrated in the spring. Neither of those seasons matches December 25.
So, when did Christians begin to celebrate Christmas? The earliest record of its observance comes from Clement of Alexandria around 200 AD. Clement wrote: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar].”
He added that others said that he was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi (April 19 or 20). Clement didn’t mention December 25 at all.
But neither Clement nor any other early church theologian, who lived at a time when many (or most) Christians had come out of paganism, thought that Christmas had any connection to the religions they’d just left. The first suggestion that Christmas might be linked to pagan worship didn’t come until the 12th century, about 900 years later.
In other words, as far as historians can tell, none of the Christians from the 3rd through 12th centuries seemed to think they were accidentally worshiping a pagan god.
The Donatist sect in North Africa celebrated Jesus’ birth on December 25 in the early 4th century, before Constantine became emperor of Rome (so we can’t blame him). And while it’s true that the emperor Aurelian made veneration of Sol Invictus the law throughout the Roman Empire in 274 AD, a collection of ancient writings called Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae puts the feast day during the reign of Licinius (Constantine’s co-emperor who reigned 308–324 AD) on the 18th of November.
Now, the earliest extant record of Christ’s birth being observed on December 25 is a document called the Chronography in 354 AD. This document was based upon a calendar that dated it to about 336.
The Chronography was a document of the Church of Rome that listed the various martyrs feasts for the year. By the time John Chrysostom was Bishop of Constantinople (398–404), Christ’s birth was being observed on December 25 throughout Christendom (except in the East; in fact, the Church in Armenia still observes Christmas on January 6).
Steven Ernst Hijmans showed in his book Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, the first connection of the 25th of December with Sol Invictus cannot be established until it appeared in a calendar in 354 AD and was subsequently proclaimed by Emperor Julian the Apostate in 362.
To summarize, Christians in the Mediterranean world were celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 by about 336 AD, while the earliest known feast of Sol Invictus on that date was around 354 AD, and not made official policy in the Roman world until 362.
In short, it’s more likely that Emperor Julian the Apostate moved the feast of Sol Invictus from November 18 to December 25 to hijack a Christian tradition.
So, given that nobody in the first century thought to write down the actual date of Jesus’ birth, how did the early church arrive at December 25? It’s a little complex, but it illustrates the motives of the church fathers—which, at the risk of repeating ourselves, was not to sneak pagan worship into the faith.
It seems that second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa wanted to determine the exact date of the Lord’s death. For reasons that escape us, they settled on March 25, 29 AD. (The reasons escape us because March 25 was not a Friday that year, nor was it Passover Eve, nor did Passover Eve fall on a Friday in 29 AD, or even in the month of March, for that matter. Still, there we are.)
Now, there was a widespread belief in Judaism back then in the “integral age” of great Jewish prophets. It was thought that the prophets of Israel died on the same day they were conceived.
It’s not biblical, but that’s not the point. The early church believed it and that’s what led to their conclusion: When you add nine months to March 25, you arrive at… December 25.
There you have it. No pagan influence, just a desire to know the dates that forever changed the history of the world.
Now, are there unbiblical, and even un-Christian, traditions in our culture that surround the Christmas holiday? Absolutely! And if they lead you to avoid Christmas, then by all means you are correct to do so.
But if you are satisfied in your mind that Christmas is a time to reflect, remember, and give thanks to a loving God who willingly came to Earth as one of us, ultimately to sacrifice Himself for our sins, then by all means celebrate the day without a trace of guilt.
If God judges us on accidental paganism, we’re all doomed. The wedding ring is a tradition that started in ancient Egypt. The English names of the days of the week come from the names of pagan gods.
The apostle Paul put it best:
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.Romans 14:5-6 (ESV)
Be convinced in your own mind. If you keep Christmas, or if you do not, do it for the Lord.
Merry Christmas, and may God richly bless you and your family.
- “How December 25 Became Christmas” by Andrew McGowan, Bible History Daily.
- “Christmas is Not Pagan” by Dr. Richard P. Bucher.
- “The Two Babylons” by Ralph Woodrow (Woodrow’s article for the Christian Research Institute explaining why he pulled his book, Babylon Mystery Religion, based on The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop–in a nutshell, because Hislop’s scholarship was poor at best).