Flawed Reasons to Abandon Christmas — #2 “It is Pagan/Catholic!”

We’ve already looked at a silly reason often given to abandon Christmas — that it is the Roman Catholic Mass, the “Christ-Mass.”  A second argument (it is better to say “flawed” instead of “silly” for this one) is the most common argument against Christmas.  It appears more substantive at first, but it won’t bear historical or doctrinal scrutiny, either.  Because this is so prevalent, this article is longer than the last.  (I WILL get to substantive concerns about aspects of Christmas before I’m done).

“It is Pagan / Roman Catholic Syncretism”

The argument (with variations) is as follows.  Christmas was a pseudo-Christian adaptation of a popular pagan/Roman idolatrous celebration — perhaps Saturnalia, which began 17 December in honour of the god Saturn, maybe the Winter Solstice (21 December), or a celebration of the Sun’s birthday on 25 December begun in 274 AD by Emperor Aurelian.

Allegedly, one of these was adopted and “Christianised” by Emperor Constantine after he converted from paganism to something like Christianity in 312 AD.  Historical records suggest he was very involved in what is known as syncretism.

The Problem of Syncretism

Syncretism is combining differing beliefs or practices, so the result becomes neither fish nor fowl.  In politics, our current coalition government is an example.  The Tories and Lib Dems stand for far different things (if they really stand for anything 🙂 ). The government, as constituted, is fine for those who want power but completely unsatisfactory to anyone who supports either party on principle.  When you merge two opposites to try to please everyone, you please no one.

Syncretism in politics is one thing, but combining false worship of idols with the worship of the one true God is abhorrent to Him.

I Corinthians 10:19-21

19 What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?
20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.
21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.

Combining idolatry with the worship of God goes back at least to Exodus 32, when Israel chose idolatry and called it worship to the Lord, bringing God’s judgment:

4 And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
5 And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the LORD.

Syncretism in worship is condemned by Scripture.  The Roman Catholic Church has often used syncretism, adopting and “Christianising” the idolatrous practices of different cultures to make their religion more acceptable to people.  But the power of Biblical Christianity lies not in becoming acceptable to people, but in changing people to be acceptable to God.

Thus, at first glance, the argument against Christmas as something that should be rejected as Christian / idolatrous syncretism seems compelling.

Historical Murkiness

The first set of problems with this argument is historical.  To make this argument, you have to give historical proof of the syncretism — but here, it gets a little murky.

A Suspicious Agenda

Read religious literature or news and you’ll soon encounter people who see syncretism everywhere.  They call the Flood a Mesopotamian myth that Israel adopted — syncretism.  You soon “learn” from them that a god returning from death is originally a pagan belief.  So is the virgin birth, etc.  Our beliefs couldn’t be true, they couldn’t have been revealed by God (and often counterfeited by false religions), they have to be syncretism.  It is a favourite argument of the skeptics.

They say the same of Christmas.  It couldn’t be that early Christians, out of pure motives, commemorated Christ’s birth.  It couldn’t be that Aurelian, out of concern over a rapidly growing religion, counterfeited one of its observances with his new holiday in 274 AD to give people an alternative.  It has to be “Christian” syncretism.  They know this, because this is the way they view all of Christian history.

Colour me skeptical.  I’ve read enough things attributing other Christian beliefs and practices to syncretism to doubt the claims in this case.  Those who hate Christ want to either banish Christmas or strip it of Christian significance, not because they care about paganism but because they hate Christ.  The syncretist approach to Christian history leaves me cold.  Hearing it applied to Christmas doesn’t feel warmer, it just makes me think, “Haven’t I heard this song somewhere before?”  Many singing the song aren’t skeptics, but they are singing from a sheet written by skeptics.

Colossians 2:8

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

Paul said, in II Timothy 3:5, “From such turn away.”  We shouldn’t sing the syncretic song lightly.  Belief that Christmas was syncretic in origin requires hard evidence, not of mere similarities in date or practice, but evidence that the similarities came because Christians adopted them intentionally to mirror pagan practice.

No “Smoking Gun” / Uncharitable Assumptions

Which early Christians say they started this holiday to make Christianity tolerable to pagans?  What is the evidence that Christians borrowed ideas from paganism, rather than the other way around?  How can we assume that motives were syncretic?

Yesterday, I posted about “invented significances,” things we invent about other people.  As I mentioned, it violates love, as defined in I Corinthians 13, to draw negative conclusions about other people without hard facts.  It is a general point, but I posted it yesterday to lead up to this — we do wrong to uncharitably “invent a significance” which accuses early believers of ungodly syncretic motives.  Those who want to bind you with this argument need to bring real proof, or stop inventing significances, especially inventing motives.

Uncertain Timeline

Christians under severe persecution by pagans wouldn’t adopt a pagan holiday.  So the syncretic argument requires a timeline — Christmas can’t have started before Constantine, or the argument runs into trouble.  But here, we run into difficulty.

Biblical Archaeology Review is no friend of Biblical Christianity or Christian / religious traditions, and even they ran an article questioning this historical timeline:

Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.

…The persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays.

A more reliable source (from a Biblical Christianity perspective) finds evidence not long after 200 AD that some Christians were looking at 25 December:

Some of the sources, Hippolytus and Julius Africanus, were born around the middle of the second century and made apparent references to the December 25 date in the early third century.

We don’t know the reasoning behind the apparent acceptance of the date by the Donatists, but the reasons Hippolytus and Julius Africanus give have nothing to do with borrowing from paganism.

If that last quote is true, it destroys the syncretism argument.  At best, the argument is historically unproven.  No one knows exactly what people did 1700 years ago, and why.  The evidence is insufficient to accuse early Christians in this case.  The “pagan / Catholic syncretism” argument fails historically — but has even greater doctrinal problems.

Doctrine by Speculative History

II Timothy 3:16-17

16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

Yes, I keep coming back to that verse.  It says Scripture has everything we need to be completely equipped for righteousness.

Scripture tells us to pursue righteousness and avoid evil, to be alert to spiritual danger and Satan’s tricks.  God warned Israel about the gods of people near them.  But He never said to use ancient history to discern right and wrong.  It doesn’t take expertise on events of 284 AD, or 312, or 397 to please God.  This “syncretism” argument violates the sufficiency of Scripture by demanding ancient historical knowledge which is not in Scripture.

Millions of believers, through the centuries, read their Bibles.  They had no way to research ancient Roman history.  The Scriptures didn’t tell of Roman syncretism.  Did the Scriptures fail them, when in ignorance they observed Christmas?  Is Scripture insufficient, leaving all those believers in error, or is doctrine by speculative history the problem?

No Scripture even hints that knowing ancient extra-Biblical history is necessary to discern right and wrong.  Yet, this argument is based entirely on allegedly precise knowledge of events 1700 years ago.

Doctrine of Discernment by Origins

Those who forbid a holiday because of its origins practice an unbiblical doctrine of discernment of good and evil by origins.

Violates the Sufficiency of Scripture

You can probably guess which Scripture I have in mind again — II Timothy 3:16-17.  The Bible simply doesn’t tell us to find past origins of a thing or practice to assess right or wrong.  Doctrine based on origins (pagan or otherwise) violates the sufficiency of Scripture.

Contrary to Specific Scriptural Examples

Jerusalem, a place of idolatry, became a place of true worship.  God appeared, and Jacob named the place “Beth-el” (“house of God”), but the time came when God said, “Come to Bethel and transgress” (Amos 4:4).  Samuel, a true prophet, sacrificed in a high place (I Samuel 9:12-14), but the high places became places of idol worship.  Things which had a bad history or origin became good, and things which had a good origin became bad.

Idolatrous Origins are Irrelevant

I Corinthians 10:25-29

25 Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:
26 For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.
27 If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.
28 But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof:
29 Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?

In this passage, Paul talks of meat sacrificed to idols.  Believers did not have to worry about the origin of the meat — they could eat freely.  They weren’t even to ask!  The “asking no question” statement entirely discredits the importance of pagan origins.  Pagan / idolatrous origins simply isn’t something we need to know.  They might abstain, if a host at a feast knew they wouldn’t want to take part in idolatry and warned them, but only for his sake, not because there was anything wrong with the meat.

Whether a particular date, or meat, or anything else, used to have an idolatrous connection is irrelevant.  The meat was still good, and the day is still good.  There is nothing wrong with 25 December!  It belongs to the Lord, and there is nothing wrong with remembering any of His benefits (including the birth of the Saviour) on that day.

The doctrine of discernment by origins contradicts Biblical teaching.  God wants us to look at what is, not what was.  We should assess the way we spend 25 December, and every other day, by what is, not by what someone might or might not have done 1700 years ago.

Inconsistency

Most Christians, even those who argue against commemorating Christ’s birth by referring to pagan / Roman Catholic syncretism, are inconsistent in avoiding pagan origins.  They think nothing of meeting to worship on the day of the Sun, and calling it Sunday.  No one seems concerned about mid-week church meetings on Woden’s Day (Wednesday) or Thor’s Day.  Many churches will announce annual meetings for the sixth, or thirteenth, of January — the month of the god Janus.

No one lives by a doctrine of discernment by origins.  We shouldn’t.  “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.”  The month of January is the Lord’s, no matter what it is called, or what pagan observations took place around its naming.  If you want January to be a special month of prayer and fasting for your family, you aren’t honouring Janus or pagan origins, even if you say you are fasting in January.

Resurrecting Dead gods

Idols such as Janus, Woden, and Saturn are dead.  Their only power came in the worship of people who were demonically influenced to follow them — they no longer even have that.  No one worships Saturn.  Even if we knew Christmas was an attempt to “Christianise” Saturnalia, Saturn died and Christ won.  (My uncle wrote on this years ago.)  Some may think Christmas used to be about Saturn, but no one thinks it is now.  No one worships Saturn and calls him “the reason for the season.”  Even Wikipedia (!) says it is “an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ.”  Saturn is a silly, dead legend.  RIP.

Doctrine by speculative history and doctrine of discernment by origin resurrects dead gods.  The sun is still there, but Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, is dead.  His birthday means nothing to anyone.  If 25 December was his date, he lost it, and the birth of the day’s true Owner is now remembered on that date.  Even if early Christians chose it to try to pacify pagans, their bad motives are gone, too.  No one, Christians or modern secularist pagans, or anyone else,  celebrates to honour Saturn or old Sol, or to appease ancient Roman pagans.

Christmas isn’t about paganism and syncretism now, if it ever was.  There is nothing in Scripture that says you have to celebrate Christmas, but if you choose to, you don’t have to listen to anyone who says you can’t because it is a pagan holiday, or an example of Roman Catholic syncretism.  That argument is broken, both historically and doctrinally.  Be thankful for their desire to do right and help you do right, but remind them that it is Scripture that has authority, not doctrine by speculative history or discernment by origins.

Previous:  Silly Reasons to Abandon Christmas — #1 “Christ-Mass”

Next:
Misused Reasons to Abandon Christmas — #3 “God Didn’t Command It”
Silly Reasons to Abandon Christmas — #4 “It’s the Wrong Date”

Solid Reasons to Scrutinise Christmas

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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15 Responses to Flawed Reasons to Abandon Christmas — #2 “It is Pagan/Catholic!”

  1. Pingback: Laudable Linkage « Stray Thoughts

  2. Elle says:

    Thank you for this article! I’ve been personally studying about Christmas and the ancient pagan winter festivals off and on for the last two years. About two weeks before Christmas 2011, a loved one told me they were no longer going to observe the holiday because it was “never truly a Christian holiday, but a pagan festival repackaged in Christian ideals.” They had been told by a friend of their’s that it was wrong and idolatrous for any Christian to celebrate it. It actually caused a big argument between us because I felt like there was more to the story.
    In fact, my loved one’s convictions and condemnation of the holiday began to make ME feel guilty about celebrating it and caused me to question if it was wrong. I should have realized that the guilt I was feeling was not as a result of it being wrong, but a result of allowing someone else’s PERSONAL legalism make me feel less righteous in God’s eyes. I’m so happy to have found articles like this one that have debunked the urban legend that Christmas is a pagan holiday and I’m looking forward to this Christmas whether my loved one celebrates or not.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, Elle. Romans 14 warns against doing something when you don’t have a clear conscience about it. So your loved one must not celebrate unless/until he/she is persuaded it is acceptable. You will probably have more peace between the two of you if you encourage them to live by their convictions.

      But I hope your loved one comes to a more Biblical understanding, whether or not he/she ever celebrates Christmas. It is good and necessary to live by our convictions, but we must study diligently to make sure our convictions are Biblical.

      I’d be glad to correspond with your loved one on any questions they have on this. My goal in these articles is not to get people to celebrate Christmas, but to help them sharpen their Biblical thinking on the topic.

  3. Thomas Ross says:

    Dear Bro Gleason,

    Sola Scriptura does not mean that we cannot discern what is pagan. Scripture says:

    “Take heed to thyself that . . . thou enquire not after [false] gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32)

    Imagine if someone, on Holloween, came in wearing a demon costume. You said to him, “that isn’t Biblical.” He said, “I’m not wearing a demon costume. It has a red tail, pointed horns, and it looks exactly like what many people think is one, but it really isn’t. We can’t know what a demon costume looks like.” Then another person came in who practiced rituals that were identical to those of the Church of Satan. He said, when confronted, “we can’t know if these rituals are really associated with the Church of Satan. The Bible never says what their rituals are, so I get to do whatever I want on this, because we can’t know.” Then a lady came in wearing the attire of a harlot. She said, “I’m not wearing the attire of a harlot. We don’t know that what I’m wearing is really what harlots wear. To say this is the attire of a harlot is an attack on sola Scriptura.” I don’t think either of us would buy any of it. Scripture says in Deut 12:30-32 that we can know what pagan rituals are, even pagan rituals not specifically recorded in Scripture. We can’t say it is impossible to know the roots of Christmas.

    Thanks.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Well stated. Sola Scripture does not mean we are stupid.

      In this case, though, the argument is based on murky history which is in dispute. And the fact remains that the doctrine of discernment by origins is contrary to Scripture.

      The things that you describe in this comment are things that are, not things that were in the past or might have been. We do not know what a demon looks like, but we know what the world’s idea of it is. The boy in the “demon” costume is wearing something that, in our time and place, right here, right now, brings to mind “demon” to those who see it. He is thus identifying himself with those who either ally themselves with demons or treat demons lightly, as something which is not a deadly danger to be treated with a healthy fear and loathing.

      But harlots wear different things than they used to. Tamar appeared to Judah as a harlot because her face was covered. This is not what harlots do today. Do we say that a woman who covers her face with a veil today is wearing harlot’s attire because three millennia ago that is what harlots did? Surely not.

      The paganism God warned about in Deuteronomy 12 was not ancient paganism around which there was doubts as to origins. It was the paganism of the people of the land, who God said He would drive out slowly so that wild beasts wouldn’t multiply. This was living, current paganism, and there was no doubt about it, just as there is no dispute about what prostitutes wear today, and what people think is meant by costume with a red tail and pointed horns.

      The fact that Scripture tells us to avoid current paganism does not in the least validate discernment by origins, and as I have noted above, Scripture refutes it. Even if you could prove that Christmas was thoroughly pagan in origin, that would in no way prove that what is observed today, which differs drastically from any ancient pagan rituals, is pagan in the same way. Certainly, I could understand someone who believes it is pagan in origin declining to participate.

      I fear we are not going to reach agreement on this.

  4. Thomas Ross says:

    Dear Bro Gleason,

    Thanks for the reply. If you have the time, I would be interested in finding out if you believe it is acceptable for a church or a family to celebrate Holloween as a civil holiday as long as one doesn’t wear a demon costume, etc.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, Brother Ross. I’ve written on that question here: https://mindrenewers.com/2012/10/31/trick-or-treat/. It’s relatively short, but I can condense it more.

      I do not think there is good Biblical basis for saying this is forbidden, but I consider it very unwise for a family, and so unwise for a church that I would have serious reservations about joining a church which did this. However, this is not because of any ancient pagan origins for Halloween or the Roman Catholic “All Saints Eve” stuff, but simply because of the associations which surround it today. In other words, it is not what Halloween was, or how it came into existence, but what it currently is today that concerns me. I’ve addressed that very briefly in the article above from 2012 (which I reposted last year as well).

  5. Rev TH says:

    The “Pagan copycat” theory for the dating of Christmas falls flat when one points out that Christmas is also celebrated in early Jan. by the Eastern Church. A pagan copycat theory might possibly explain one date, but it cannot explain both dates. However, the idea that the birth of Jesus can be calculated to fall somewhere in late Dec or early Jan explains both dates.

    We now have the Temple Rota from the DSS. We know when John the Baptist was born. By the simplest of calculations it makes the traditional dating of the birth of Jesus stick.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Thank you for the comment. I agree that the traditional dating is more likely to be correct than not, and that it fits well with the temple rota. Of course, we don’t know that the records we have of the temple rota are accurate — they aren’t Scripture, after all.

      I discussed the date, including the priestly courses and other factors such as lambing season in Israel, in this article: https://mindrenewers.com/2012/12/15/silly-reasons-to-abandon-christmas-4-its-the-wrong-date/.

      I wouldn’t try to convince someone the traditional date is right, we don’t have Scripture for that, but certainly anyone who argues that it is wrong, or that it was chosen because of paganism, is not on firm footing. The traditional date could easily be right, and there is more evidence for it than for any other date.

    • Theron says:

      Actually the different date in the Orthodox church is because dates of Orthodox festivals are based on the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar, so that’s not a great argument to use. Christmas in Russia is celebrated on December 25 by the Julian calendar, which is currently January 7. Only in Armenia Christmas is celebrated on January 6 by the Julian calendar.

      • Jon Gleason says:

        That’s true, but it illustrates that it isn’t at the winter solstice, or a few days off of it, so the difference in dates is a little problematic for those who claim the date proves a pagan origin.

  6. Rod says:

    Hi Jon,
    For many years my views on Christmas was shaped by what others said about it. That to even acknowledge it, I was somehow giving approval to the false Roman catholic system who invented it and God would not be pleased with me.

    Did Rome invent it in the first place or did they come up with their own version ? Regardless of its origins — do us christians not have that liberty in our Lord Jesus Christ to make up our own minds on these matters ? (Gal 5:1 & Rom 14:5-8)

    If I desire to make Christmas day a holyday to acknowledge our Saviours birth or even his death, burial, and resurrection then I believe I have that right (Col 2:16) If some of my fellow christian brothers in Christ feel differently– and lets be honest some get nasty about it ! – then so be.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      I agree, Rod. Though Romans 14 also tells us to be charitable to those who would disagree, and I suppose that applies even if they disagree uncharitably.

      The response to this series of articles was interesting.

  7. blackie3 says:

    Yes, uncharitable is the word I should have used !

    Thanks.

  8. Pingback: onjuist argument tegen kerstmis | Elswintha

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