Last week, I published a three-part series on why the date of Christmas is not based on Roman or pagan holidays. While the claim is popular, history argues differently. As I said there, some want to believe in the paganism aspect so they can hold onto the trappings of a secular Christmas without any charge of hypocrisy.
The reaction I received was surprising. I expected several atheists or skeptics to doubt the claim, but there were quite a lot of people who identify themselves as Christians who were deeply offended that Christmas wasn't pagan and simply didn't want to give up on the idea. They pointed to things like Christmas trees, even ripping Jeremiah 10:1-10 wholly out of context as a command not to have them! They just KNEW Christmas was pagan and they were better Christians than I was because they didn't celebrate it!
While people of the 21st century tend to reduce the celebration of an event such as Jesus's birth to "Jesus's Birthday," Christians of the fourth century had an entirely different motive. They weren't focused so much on marking a birthday as we would be, but marking a pivotal point of history: the day the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The early church wanted to celebrate the incarnation of God into man, which is precisely what Christmas was meant to do. They wanted to uphold the foundational teaching of Jesus as the God-man.
The Heresies Against Jesus's HumanityPeople who are open to the evidence believe Jesus existed, even if they don't believe he was divine. Even strong critics of Christianity such as Bart Ehrman maintain that not only did Jesus exist; it is foolish to believe he was mythical. Ehrman even wrote that one shouldn't deny "what virtually every sane historian on the planet—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you—has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence. Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed."1
The bigger problem the early church faced was not as much whether Jesus lived or if he was in some way divine, but whether he was truly God and truly man at the same time. Many Gnostics taught that Jesus wasn't a physical being at all. He was a spiritual entity that would appear as physical. This view is known as Docetism, coming from the Greek word meaning "to appear."2 Interestingly, Bishop Serapion of Antioch condemns this view in a letter that is dated right at the same time Hippolytus offers the December 25th date for the birth of Christ.
The importance of celebrating Christ's entrance into the world is to recognize that Jesus who existed as God really did humble himself "being born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:7). Jesus was a real human being in every respect, and just like all humans, he entered this world by being born. Because Jesus was born, he is considered a kinsman of Adam, and thus the only one who could redeem all of Adam's offspring from sin, as Paul explains: "For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15:21). The book of Hebrews agrees, stating ""Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:17). Paul also tells Timothy "There is One God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5). We celebrate Christmas because of the miracle of God becoming man. That's a much different concept than simply having a birthday party.
The Danger Facing Christmas TodayBut even if it were true that December 25 was originally a pagan holiday, that doesn't taint the holiday. Taking the date from a pagan celebration doesn't mean those celebrations are pagan any more than it means I'm honoring the Norse god Thor by writing Thursday on my checks or honoring the Roman god Juno by calling the sixth month June. The names of June and Thursday have lost all pagan value and are simply common parlance.
The real danger Christmas faces today is a similar one. We've forgotten why it is absolutely crucial to our salvation that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. Those who can rail against the pagan origins of Christmas cannot seem to see the importance of underscoring Jesus's humanity. If we dismiss Christmas altogether, we are in danger of missing part of the story of our redemption. That's something I'm not willing to throw away.
2. González, Justo L., and Catherine Gunsalus. González. Heretics for Armchair Theologians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008. Print. 37-38.
Image courtesy Plum leaves and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.