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Is Christmas Based on a Pagan Holiday?

Ask Pastor Alex, Episode. 45

This is the Ask Pastor Alex podcast with your host, Pastor Alex. All right, welcome back, guys. We are here with another episode, and I just want to start this episode by giving a quick shout out to all of our listeners in Malaysia. Brothers, sisters, we see you, and we are praying that these episodes are helping to edify you in the faith and build you up, and we are praying that God will continue to bless the church there in Malaysia. So know that you are in our hearts and in our prayers. 

But we are here with another episode and another question. And the question for this episode is, is Christmas based on a pagan holiday? Now, that is a good question because it’s incredibly relevant for this time of year. We’re entering into the Christmas season, and around this time every year, there’s a good chance that you’ll begin to hear people say things like, Christmas is actually based on a pagan holiday. They say Christmas derives from the pagan holiday Saturnalia, which was an ancient Roman festival that celebrated the god Saturn. 

Now, Saturnalia was celebrated in mid-December, and since Saturn was the god of agriculture, the way people celebrated this holiday was by decorating their houses with wreaths and greenery. People also gave each other gifts, and they sang songs of merriment. They lit candles, they held festivals, and they enjoyed meals with friends and family. So because many of the practices related to Saturnalia also relate to Christmas, people have concluded and claimed that Christmas is a knockoff of Saturnalia. Now, it’s important to note that these same people say that Jesus was not actually born in December, but in the spring, and that the only reason Christians celebrate Christmas in December is because of Saturnalia. But is any of this true?

 Many historians believe it to be true. Many atheists and non-believers will claim that this is true. In fact, if you go to dictionary.com right now, or even history.com right now, both of them emphatically state that Christmas stems from Saturnalia. They write that, they put it out there, people consume it, and unfortunately, many Christians accept these conclusions as well. But again, the question is, is this true? I don’t think it is. And I think we have good reason to believe that it’s not true. And so I just want to pick apart this claim step by step.

 Let’s start with the fact that it’s unlikely that if Jesus was truly born in the springtime, Christians would have even considered celebrating His birth in December as an attempt to Christianize the pagan holiday Saturnalia. I mean, we can think of a modern example of this, right? For instance, take President’s Day. In America, we celebrate President’s Day on the third Monday in February, but that wasn’t always the case. President’s Day just started out as a celebration of President George Washington’s birthday, which is on February 22nd. Before 1885, there was no President’s Day. But in 1885, a national recognition and day of remembrance for Washington’s birthday was established, and it commonly became known as President’s Day. And it wasn’t until 1971 that an act was passed that President’s Day should be celebrated on the third Monday in February as a way of giving workers an additional three-day weekend. But here’s the point, all right? Here’s the point I want you to take away from that. The reason we celebrate President’s Day in February and not some other month is because George Washington was born in February. So for all those who like to say that it’s much more likely that Jesus was born in the spring, wouldn’t it be most likely that Christians would have chosen a springtime holiday to merge with their celebration of Jesus’s birth? I mean, there were plenty of Roman festivals that occurred in the spring from which Christians could have chosen to combine with their celebration of Jesus’s birth. However, think back to the example of President’s Day. They wanted to make it an official holiday, but since it started out as a celebration of Washington’s birthday, they made the holiday in the month of Washington’s birthday. Similarly, if Christians wanted to begin celebrating Jesus’s birth as an official holiday, which we know they didn’t do until the second half of the third century, and if he was born in the spring, as many say that he was, wouldn’t they have chosen to merge their celebrations with a springtime holiday if Jesus was born in the spring? It makes no sense to kick it all the way back to December when they had plenty of options available for them. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that just because two things occur closely in time does not mean that those two things are related or derivative. This means that it is entirely possible that Saturnalia and Jesus’s birth both occurred in December without having any relation to or dependence upon one another. 

In fact, here’s what’s really interesting is that the most common claim today by non-believers is that Christmas is based on a pagan holiday, but what’s interesting is that no one even accused Christians of taking over the pagan holiday of Saturnalia until the 12th century. People today claim that it’s a ripoff of Saturnalia because of all the similarities. Remember, when people celebrated Saturnalia, they decorated with greenery, wreaths, trees, candles, they sang songs and enjoyed meals together. But here’s what’s important to understand. The Christian celebration of Christmas as we know it today and as we practice it today, as we celebrate it today, did not look that way until much, much later in time. For instance, Christians didn’t start decorating with Christmas trees until the 16th century. Also, they didn’t start using candles on trees until the late 1800s. They didn’t even start using Christmas wreaths until the 16th century. So the celebration of Saturnalia and the celebration of Christmas would have looked nothing alike for the first few centuries. Actually, it would look nothing alike until much, much later in time. So these are pretty convincing reasons to believe that they’re not related, but all of this argument is for not unless we provide good evidence that Jesus was actually born sometime in December. If we can prove that Jesus was actually born in December, then it provides justification for celebrating Christmas in December in opposition to the claim that the only reason we celebrate it in December is because we hijacked Saturnalia. So is that possible? Is it possible to prove that Jesus was actually born in December? Well, I think it is. So let’s take a look. 

Matthew 1, 1 says that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the king.” Now here’s what we know. We know that Herod ruled from 37 to 4 BC. He died in 4 BC. In fact, we know that Herod died in the spring of March or April of 4 BC. So Jesus must have been born before 4 BC in order for him to be born in the days of Herod the king. Now, as we have this discussion, relevant to Jesus’s birth is his death. If we know about how old he was when he died, then we can better determine when he was born. And biblical scholars Andreas Kostenberger and Justin Taylor have argued convincingly that Jesus died on April 3, AD 33. And they’ve provided great historical and biblical support for this too. You can even find their article online. They come to this date based on a number of historical and biblical factors. For instance, the Bible says in Luke chapter 3 verses 1 through 2 that “John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius began his rule in AD 14.” So 15 years later would be AD 28, which means John the Baptist began his ministry in AD 28. Now, he must have been active in ministry for many months and possibly even a year in order for him to gain the reputation that he had and prepare the way for the Messiah, which was his God-given mission. We know that Jesus began his ministry shortly after John. So allowing for many months and even up to a year of John’s preparation, let’s say Jesus began his ministry early in AD 29. Now, Luke chapter 3 verse 23 says that “Jesus was about 30 years of age when he began his ministry.” Now, Luke’s a pretty precise guy. So if Jesus had been exactly 30, it’s likely that Luke would have said so. Also during this time, it was common to round the age up or down. So if Jesus had been 35 or older, Luke would have rounded up to 40. Therefore, Jesus was most likely between the ages of 30 to 34 when he began his public ministry. Not only that, but we also know that Jesus was active in ministry for at least three to four years, meaning he was between 33 to 38 years old when he was crucified. 

So now we can begin to put all this information together. Since Herod died in the spring of 4 BC, Jesus must have also been born before then. Also after Jesus’ birth, we have to allow time for Mary’s purification days, according to Luke 2.22. The presentation of Jesus in the temple, according to Luke 2.22 to 38. The visit of the wise men that we read about in Matthew 2.1-12. The flight to Egypt that we read about in Matthew 2.13-15. Inherit slaughter of the children who were two years old or younger, according to Matthew 2.16. To allow for all of those events, many months are needed and possibly even up to two years of time, which means this pushes Jesus’ birth back to 6 BC as the earliest possible date to allow for all the events. But here’s the key. It would need to be in late 6 BC. Now why is that? Why would it need to be late in 6 BC? Well, it’s because there are very interesting details in the Bible that we tend to read over but have significant impact on our understanding of history and theology. For instance, the Bible says that John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was serving with his priestly division, the division of Abijah, at the time when the angel Gabriel announced to him that his wife would conceive and bear a son named John. We read about that in Luke 1.5-25. Now if you’ll remember, shortly after this announcement, Elizabeth did conceive and then six months later, Mary conceived, according to Luke 1.24-45. Now according to Mishnah tradition, it states that there were in those days 24 priestly divisions, of which Abijah was eighth. Each priestly division served from Sabbath to Sabbath.And studies conducted by Paul Meyer have shown that the division of Abijah served one week during the months of February and July of 6 BC. 

Now in my own research, helped by the findings of Meyer’s research, I found that Zechariah’s division also served during the month of September in 7 BC. Now why is that significant? Why would that matter? Why would I need to continue to do research like this and find further dates that he was serving? Well, it’s because of this. If Gabriel announced to Zechariah in September of 7 BC that his wife was going to conceive and then six months later, Mary conceived, that would be March of 6 BC. And nine months from March would be December. So notice this, right? This is really important. Zechariah is serving in the temple with his priestly division of Abijah in September of 7 BC. And that’s when Gabriel announced that his wife was going to conceive. Six months after that time, Mary conceives, that would be March of 6 BC. Nine months from then would be December. Meaning Jesus traditionally, historically, and biblically most likely was born in December. Now whether or not it was actually the 25th, that’s another story entirely. But the point is this, I believe there is sufficient evidence to show that Jesus was born in December of 6 BC, began his public ministry at the age of 33 in AD 29, ministered for three to four years, and died on the cross Friday, April 3rd, AD 33 at the age of 37. 

This should encourage Christians. Christians should take heart because the quote unquote evidence that Christmas is a Saturnalia knockoff is superficial and speculative at best. And the fact that there are reputable sources like History.com who are publishing falsehoods without actually doing this type of research is embarrassing and shameful. The fact that both Jesus’ birth and Saturnalia both occur in December is nothing but coincidence. Christians do not need to accept the well-published lie that the only reason we celebrate Christmas in December is because of a pagan holiday. There is sufficient biblical, historical, and traditional evidence to show that Jesus Christ was in fact born in December. Christmas is not a knockoff. It is not based on a pagan holiday. It is a day where we rightly celebrate the birth of our Lord, our King, our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

So I hope that this answer has been helpful and now you understand why it is we celebrate Christmas in December and it has nothing to do with a pagan holiday. It is based on very good traditional, historical, and biblical evidence of the birth of Jesus. So thanks for the question. I will forward answer more in the future.