Christmas and Saturnalia?

By Rick Booye

 Conversations at Christmas time often come around to the question of the date and provenance of the holiday itself.  Critics love to question Christian traditions.  Was Christ really born on or about December 25th?  Wasn’t Christmas originally a pagan holiday? Should Christians celebrate Christmas?  Here are some simple answers:

 No, Jesus was probably not actually born on Dec 25.  Some scholars hold out for that date, but most agree that we don’t know for sure.  Some speculate it might have been in late summer.  It really doesn’t matter.  Celebrating Christ’s birth is a valid thing and the Lord knows what we’re doing it for.

 And yes, the Church did decide to convert the existing pagan winter solstice holiday (Saturnalia) to Christmas sometime in the early 4th century.  There were so many Christians in the Roman Empire by then that it seemed the right thing to do.  Conversion is the way of the gospel.  We are all converted from paganism to Christ.  It has been a long-standing tradition among Christians to take what is meant for evil and use it for good.  I know of a group that turned a defunct porn theater into a church.  It’s what we do.  It’s called redemption.

 Sometimes people think that just because the Lord did not command us to celebrate his birth, to do so is wrong.  This is not true.  Israel was allowed to create “extra” feasts beyond those commanded in the Torah.  They added Hanukah (feast of lights/dedication) to their calendar in the 2nd century BC and Jesus himself celebrated it (see John 10:22).

 Others think that all human traditions that do not find their origins in Scripture are automatically evil by definition.  This is also untrue.   God told us to cultivate the earth, which means to create culture, write music, live together, make good traditions etc.  What makes a cultural tradition good or bad is not simply the fact that we created it, but what we do with it.

 Still others delight to point out that when the Pope instituted Christmas there were many un-converted people who simply retained their carnal and pagan practices under the guise of Christian celebration.  This is true, but quite beside the point.  The presence of hypocrisy in this age is no surprise and does not negate true worship among real Christians.

 When real Christians celebrate the birth of Christ they are worshipping the Lord.  Of course many do not worship the Lord at this time. They just buy stuff and party.  But that is true every day of the year anyway.  We Christians should not stop worshipping Christ simply because there are hypocrites or unbelievers in the world.  Nor should we stop creating traditions of praise simply because ancient pagans (or current pagans for that matter) had crude parties at the same time of the year.

 So, yes, it’s OK for Christians to celebrate Christmas and sanctify it as a true time of praise to God for the incarnation (see Romans 14:5-10).