There are those who try to discredit Christmas as a Christian holiday because some aspects of the modern celebration are imported from pagan holidays that existed prior to Christianity. Even the Puritans had the celebration of Christmas outlawed for several years. The reason was because they thought that the Christmas celebration borrowed to much from pagan religions and was therefore no longer Christian. They considered that this made it ungodly to celebrate Christmas, for fear that they would be guilty of actually be worshiping a false god. That is a strawman argument.
Cultures all over the world and in different time periods have always had an impact on other cultures when they came into contact. Even the dominant cultures have been affected by those of whom they have conquered and absorbed customs and even beliefs. Rome was undoubtedly influenced by the many cultures that it met with, including the Christian culture. In return, ancient Rome has had a great impact on the whole world. This impact has reached all the way into modern societies, and with it has come it’s version of Christianity. As the Roman Empire flourished it affected, art, architecture, language, and even legal systems and military strategies. With this came the other influences that came from the pagan societies that impacted ancient Rome. The catalyst for this particular season of joy is the winter solstice.
The winter solstice was celebrated by many ancient cultures including the Celts, Romans, and Druids. They would celebrate winter solstice (or the shortest day of the year) in December. With this celebration and Christmas being adopted during the same timeframe we will see many similarities between the pagan traditions of Rome and that of Christmas.
The winter solstice was extremely important to the agricultural life of the pagan. This solstice marked the end of the long harvest season and gave a momentary rest from the harvest labors and the planting season ahead. It also marked the onset of winter. Long hard days surviving the isolation and scarcity of food and interaction lay ahead. The celebration was a chance to celebrate and enjoy the company of family and friends and wish them well through the winter. The Roman celebration was referred to as Saturnalia.
Saturnalia was dedicated to the Roman god Saturn. Saturn is like the Greek god Cronus. The Roman and Greek gods have been so interlaced that many confuse them for being the same gods. This is an example of the cultural influences that occurred over time. This festival’s influence is still felt throughout the modern world. While the Winter solstice is generally the 22 of December, the Roman’s celebration was originally on the 17th of December.
Saturnalia was the most popular festival in Rome and lasted for seven days. It was originally celebrated for one day and was eventually extended to seven days. With the extension of the celebration, we can see how this is like our Christmas to New Year celebration in the United States. All work and businesses were suspended, and slaves were temporarily free during this time. In fact, the roles of master and slave were temporarily reversed. Slaves were allowed to order their masters around, within reason of course. The end of the festival culminated with the giving of a gift, presents like candles, fruit, or statuettes were primary gifts. The gift was usually given from one person to another, and were meant as a means of obtaining favor from the god Saturn
Another cultural influence on Christmas came from the Roman honoring of Saturn with mistletoe. To appease Saturn, they would perform fertility rites beneath branches of mistletoe. Other pagan cultures used mistletoe as a sacred plant and associated it with a stay of hostilities or a truce, much like we see the use of a white flag. Enemies would meet under a mistletoe as a sign of truce. Along with that the Romans would exchange wreaths made of holy as a sign of good luck and well wishes. Ornaments in the forms of idols also decorated the exterior of the Roman homes during this celebration. This custom was also seen in the Germanic areas where they would decorate trees in honor of Odin during the winter solstice. This custom of ornaments and lights on the Christmas tree was undoubtedly adopted from their influence.
It is no wonder that when Rome took over Christianity and converted their holidays into Christian holidays that they would take the traditions they used to and apply them into the official state religious celebration of Christmas. However, this does not take away from the current or Christian meaning for celebrating Christmas. The pagan meanings and worship of false gods have long lost their meaning and have been overtaken by either Christendom or commercialism. Frankly I am more concerned with the commercialism as this does specifically go against Christian values. However, this does not diminish Christians who celebrate Christmas, nor does it mandate that the holiday be renamed from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” to be inclusive or more historically accurate.
Christians do not lose their Christianity just because the Romans (Catholic Church) have incorporated aspects of pagan traditions into the holiday. Christians actually celebrate the arrival of God in the flesh, the birth of Jesus Christ, his death, burial, and resurrection through out the year, every Sunday. In addition, having a special day to celebrate his birthday is a great remembrance of this miracle event, when God became his own creation. It does not even really matter if it is on his actual birthday. I am sure that God appreciates the time of remembrance and celebration for his amazing gift to mankind. In addition, this gives us a venue to invite pagans and atheist into our homes and churches, our Christian culture. We have an opportunity to let them experience the grace of God the Father in Jesus Christ, God the Son, and to experience the presence of God the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. Christians should celebrate Christmas with all humility and generosity that they can. We need not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Who cares if they unsuccessfully tried to discredit our celebration? We celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let them see Jesus!