The (Pagan) History and (Christian) Meaning of Christmas — The Think Institute (2024)

By Joel Settecase / December 17, 2021

Christmas is a Christian holiday which in a sense has pagan origins, but which upon further investigation represents the Christian takeover and redemption of heathen celebrations, co-opting them and bringing them under the authority of Christ. Further, Christmas fulfills what the pagan holidays were longing for but could not provide, i.e. real peace, light and hope in a dark and hopeless world. Today, we are faced with two alternatives: the chaotic cacophony of “Xmas” and its rampant commercialism, and the solid, true, peace of real Christmas, which commemorates the coming of God in human flesh to save His people from their sins and transform the world.

In 1889, Church historian Philip Schaff* wrote that Christmas,

is the celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God. It is occupied, therefore, with the event which forms the centre and turning-point of the history of the world. It is of all the festivals the one most thoroughly interwoven with the popular and family life, and stands at the head of the great feasts in the Western church year. It continues to be, in the entire Catholic world and in the greater part of Protestant Christendom, the grand jubilee of children, on which innumerable gifts celebrate the infinite love of God in the gift of his only-begotten Son. It kindles in mid-winter a holy fire of love and gratitude, and preaches in the longest night the rising of the Sun of life and the glory of the Lord. It denotes the advent of the true golden age, of the freedom and equality of all the redeemed before God and in God. No one can measure the joy and blessing which from year to year flow forth upon all ages of life from the contemplation of the holy child Jesus in his heavenly innocence and divine humility.

Although we take it for granted that Christmas comes around every December nowadays, it was not originally part of the church calendar.

So, where did Christmas come from?

Challenge 1: No Corresponding Old Testament Festival

The holidays known as Easter and Pentecost make sense for a religion like Christianity, that sprung from biblical Judaism. These holidays have corresponding feast days established by the Lord in the Old Testament. Easter (celebrating Christ's resurrection from the dead) corresponds to Passover, and Pentecost (when God sent the Holy Spirit to Christians) corresponds to Shavuot. However, unlike those other holidays, there does not seem to have been an Old Testament feast day corresponding to the birth of the Messiah.

Challenge 2: Unknown Date of Jesus's Birth

"The day and month of the birth of Christ are nowhere stated in the gospel history, and cannot be certainly determined."

Dating the birth of Jesus, and indeed the birth of Jesus itself, was not a focus of the Early Church. They focused primarily on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the redemption He accomplished, which became the "centre of the weekly worship and the church year."

However, a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ was inevitable.

John Chrysostom (c. 307–407 A.D.), one of the great Christian preachers of Church history, remarked that "without the birth of Christ there were also no baptism, passion, resurrection, or ascension, and no outpouring of the Holy Ghost; hence no feast of Epiphany, of Easter, or of Pentecost."

In other words, without the birth, there would be no life, death, and resurrection. So it makes sense that a holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus would eventually find its way into the church calendar.

At first, the holiday known as Epiphany fulfilled this need. (Epiphany means "manifestation," and it is a holiday celebrating "the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the magi" each year on January 6."**

The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation.” Thus, the holiday celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the magi (see Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:32). Epiphany was established in the East and moved westward.

When Did Christmas Begin, and How Did It Spread?

Whereas Epiphany had spread from the East to the West, the spread of Christmas went the opposite direction.

The first historical mention we have of Christmas is in Rome, in the year 360, by a bishop named Liberius. According to Schaff, Liberius was consecrating a woman named Marcella as a nun, or "bride of Christ," and said to her, 'Thou seest what multitudes are come to the birth-festival of thy bridegroom.' Schaff says, "This passage implies that the festival was already existing and familiar."

Christmas reached Antioch (in modern Turkey) about 380. It continued east and reached Alexandria, Egypt, by 430.

Christmas quickly became seen as one of the most, if not the most important Christian holidays.

Schaff records that on December 25th, 386, John Chrysostom preached a Christmas sermon in Antioch and called Christmas "the fundamental feast, or the root, from which all other Christian festivals grow forth."

Christmas Had Pagan Origins (But That's Okay)

So let's get down to brass tacks. It is a common trope to hear around Christmastime that Christmas has pagan origins. Is this true? In short, yes it is. However, this is not a problem. And it does not mean that Christians should not celebrate Christmas today.

First, let's talk about where the church got the pattern and practices of Christmas from. Schaff says that Christmas,

"was probably the Christian transformation or regeneration of a series of kindred heathen festivals—the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia, and Brumalia—which were kept in Rome in the month of December, in commemoration of the golden age of universal freedom and equality, and in honor of the unconquered sun, and which were great holidays, especially for slaves and children."

The church fathers saw in those pagan festivals a deep desire for real, true things, which desire the pagan worldview could not satisfy. By celebrating the "unconquered sun" at the time of year when the shortened days begin to grow longer, the pagans revealed their longing for light and hope in a world they knew was filled with darkness and hopelessness. For Christians, that light and hope is not found in the seasonal lengthening of the daylight but in the incarnation, atoning death, resurrection and ascension (return to Heaven) of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the eternal life that He gives to all who receive Him as Savior and Lord.

So the church seems to have co-opted those pagan winter festivals and transformed them—we might say, redeemed them—into what we now know as Christmas. This all took place at a time when the people of the Roman Empire were converting to Christianity en masse. As they were converting, so were their festivals and holidays.

Schaff says that the connection between Christmas and the former, pagan holidays, explains some of the traditions bound up with Christmas, "like the giving of presents to children and to the poor, the lighting of wax tapers [whatever those are!], perhaps also the erection of Christmas trees, and gives them a Christian import."

And the fact that Christmas arose from heathen festivals also explains, and even indicts, the problems that come along with Christmas, even to this day: over-indulgence, commercialism, etc. In a sense, these are a return to the pre-Chrstian, pagan days of the winter festivals, and they are perversions of the true meaning of Christmas, which those festivals unwittingly pointed forward to.

So the fact is that Christmas is a shining example of God's people taking something created by the world, conquering it, and re-establishing on the foundation of Christ. This is what the ancient Hebrews did in the land of Canaan. It's also similar to how the Christians took over the Roman Empire through mass evangelism and built Western Civilization on its ruins. And I'm sure we could point to a number of similar examples throughout history.

One last note about the connection between Christmas and pagan celebration: it is fascinating (to me, anyway), to consider on the one hand the relatedness of Christmas and the pagan festivals, and on the other hand the fact that the precursor of Christmas was Epiphany, which celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the (pagan) Magi from the (Gentile) East. Christmas and Epiphany mark the beginning and end of the so-called 12 Days of Christmas, and this is a great time to remember that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, came to be "a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32, emphasis added).

The Meaning of Christmas Today

Today, there seem to be two parallel Christmas seasons running side-by-side. These two are set in opposition to each other.

One is the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas during which the church prepares to observe Christmas and commemorate the Incarnation of God in the flesh.

The other, is what C. S. Lewis called Xmas, which in its most innocent form is a kind of Charles Dickensian throwback to the era of traditional carolers, Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchet, and such nostalgia, and in its most abominable form is a massive, chaotic, stressful commercial event stretching from Black Friday through to Christmas Day. Certainly "Xmas" can be a time of both wonder, childlike innocence and hope, as well as family togetherness, but these things are often swallowed up in the purchasing, planning, and traveling.

The rush and cacophony of Xmas competes with the stable, simple truth that lies at the heart of the true Christmas holiday: the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This is the biblical message that God the Father sent His Son Jesus as light into the dark world to save His people from their sins, as the angel Gabriel announced to Jesus' adoptive father Joseph in Matthew 1:21). The Second Person of the Trinity became a man, lived a sinless life, died for the sins of His people, was buried, and was raised from the dead. And of course Christmas points to the powerfully encouraging truth that Jesus Christ now rules over all of Heaven and Earth (Mt 28:18), and one day He will return to set the world to right, punish evil and usher in the glorious eternal state.

Yeah, the message of Christmas is about a lot more than warm tinglies, gingerbread cookies, and adorably ridiculous Hallmark Channel romantic comedies. The question facing Christians and non-Christians alike this year, like every year, is whether we will make the necessary effort to break through the pandemonium of Xmas and set our hearts on the true meaning of Christmas, that awesome, formerly-pagan-but-now-transformed holiday celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection transforms both the world and every soul who believes Him.

*All Schaff quotations are taken from Schaff, Philip, "§77. The Christmas Cycle," Christian Classics Ethereal Library,

**"What Is Epiphany / Three Kings Day?" God Questions, accessed 17 December, 2021, at

The (Pagan) History and (Christian) Meaning of Christmas — The Think Institute (2024)
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