Christians are often surprised to learn that December 25th was associated with sun worship, the Mithras cult, and the emperor cults of the Roman Empire long before it was ever thought of as Jesus’ birthday. Christmas day comes from ancient pagan religions, and would have known to the early Christians as Sol Invictus (Latin for the Invincible Sun).Even before Roman times, the Greeks honored Helios (the Greek sun god) on December 25th. The Coin of Rhodes bears this god's image, and several Seleucid and Ptolemaic rulers associated themselves with this god. In Rome, emperor cults became the chief religion of the land. Some emperors were not content to wait until the senate deified them after death, and associated themselves with gods while they were still alive. Nero, Constantine, and Julian the Apostate all chose the sun god and continued to give priority to the pagan feast held on the day we now call Christmas.
The Philocalian Calendar shows that some time before A.D. 336 Christians began to celebrate the birth of their God incarnate on this day. Christians adopted this day, and some of the pagan imagery, and gave new meaning to the ancient holiday. For a while, both the Christian and pagan traditions were practiced alongside of each other, but the growth of Christianity and official sanction from the government eventually succeeded in making December 25th a very Christian holiday. Decorating with evergreens, giving gifts to others, and even the old English word “yule” remain faint echoes of the season’s origins.
Many Christians throughout the ages have viewed Christmas with great suspicion or hostility. The Puritans were very uncomfortable with the holiday and called it “popish.” In fact, in 1659 the Massachusetts General Court outlawed its celebration! And the Puritans were not the only religious group to reject Christmas. In The Baptist Heritage, Leon McBeth notes that some Baptists considered both Christmas and Easter “the superstitious relique of the scarlet whore.”
However, we do not need to reject Christmas merely because it originally comes from a secular or pagan culture. Baptism was practiced by Greek mystery religions long before Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize converts. Organs and other instruments were originally barred from church worship because some thought their association with secular music made them bad. Even the English word “church” comes from the German kirche which refers to any ritual gathering place, Christian or pagan.
The gospel of Christ does not compel believers to isolate themselves from the surrounding culture. Culture has been defined as the sum total of learned behavior of a group of people. Because of the fall, if every person in a specific group was a follower of Christ, that culture would still not be perfect. Also, because of common grace, the culture of a group of non-believers will still contain glimpses of the image of God. Therefore, believers are not called to reject culture as a whole, but to engage it with the goal that it would conform to the truth of Christ.
Like a cross-cultural missionary, modern believers need to identify which parts of culture must be rejected (like worshiping a pagan deity), which can be redeemed (like the December 25th holiday), and which can simply be accepted (like using an organ in church). Christmas is an example of the power of the gospel to reform culture. It demonstrates the strength, not weakness, of the Christian message.
So go ahead and deck the halls with boughs of holly. Enjoy the yuletide carols, too. I am all for keeping Christ in Christmas. Just remember to make Him the center of everything else as well.