The Winter Festival

Christmas – December 25th – is the day designated in our calendars as the day of Christ’s birth. But is this really the day on which he was born? Are today’s customs at this season of Christian origin? Or is Christmas another example of mixture between paganism and Christianity?
A look at the word “Christmas” indicates that it is a mixture. Though it includes the name of Christ, it also mentions the “Mass.” When we consider all of the elaborate ceremonies, prayers for the dead, transubstantiation rites, and complicated rituals of the Roman Catholic Mass, can any truly link this with the historical Jesus the gospels? His life and ministry were uncomplicated by such ritualism. As Paul, we fear that some have been corrupted “from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3) because of pagan influence upon such things as the Mass. Looking at it this way, the word “Christ-mass” is self-contradictory.
As to the actual date of Christ’s birth, December 25th is to be doubted. When Jesus was born, “there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field during the middle of winter!” Adam Clarke has written, “As these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is presumptive that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields. . . . On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up.”
While the Bible does not expressly tell us the date of Jesus’ birth, there are indications it was probably in the fall of the year. We know that Jesus was crucified in spring, at the time of the Passover (John ). Figuring his ministry as lasting three and a half years, this would place the beginning of his ministry in the fall. At that time, he was about to be thirty years of age (Luke ), the recognized age for a man to become an official minister under the Old Testament (cf. Numbers 4:3). If he turned thirty in the fall, then his birthday was the fall, thirty years before.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary had gone to Bethlehem to be taxed (Luke 2:1-5). There are no records to indicate that the middle of winter was the time of taxing. A more logical time of the year would have been in the fall, at the end of the harvest. If this was the case, it would have been the season for the Feast of Tabernacles at Jerusalem which could explain why Mary went with Joseph (Luke ). This would also explain why even at Bethlehem “there was no room in the inn” (Luke 2:7). According to Josephus, Jerusalem was normally a city of 120,000 inhabitants, but during the feasts, sometimes as many as 2,000,000 Jews would gather. Such vast crowds not only filled Jerusalem, but the surrounding towns also, including Bethlehem, which was only five miles to the south. If the Journey of Mary and Joseph was indeed to attend to the feast, as well as to be taxed, this would place the birth of Jesus in the fall of the year.
It is not essential that we know the exact date on which Christ was born – the main thing being, of course, that he was born! The early Christians commemorated the death of Christ (1 Cor. ), not his birth. The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their list of feasts.” Later, when churches at various places did begin celebrating the birthday of Christ, there was much difference of opinion as to the correct date. It was not until the latter part of the fourth century before the Roman Church began observing December 25th.[3] Yet, by the fifth century, it was ordering that the birth of Christ be forever observed on this date, even though this was the day of the old Roman feast of the birth of Sol, one of the names of the sun-god![4]
Says Frazer, “The largest pagan religious cult which fostered the celebration of December 25 as a holiday throughout the Roman and Greek worlds was the pagan sun worship – Mithraism . . . . This winter festival was called ‘the Nativity’ – the Nativity of the Sun’.”[5] Was this pagan festival responsible for the December 25 day being chosen by the Roman Church? We will let The Catholic Encyclopedia answer. “The well-known solar feast of Natalis Invicti” – the Nativity of the Unconquered Sun – “celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date”![6]
As pagan solar customs were being “Christianized” at Rome, it is understandable that confusion would result. Some thought that Jesus was Sol, the sun-god! “Tertullian had to assert that Sol was not the Christians’ God; Augustine denounced heretical identification of Christ with Sol. Pope Leo I bitterly reproved solar survivals – Christians, on the very doorstep of the Apostles’ basilica, turning to adore the rising sun.”[7]
The winter festival was very popular in ancient times. “In pagan Rome and Greece, in the days of the Teutonic barbarians, in the remote times of ancient Egyptian civilization, in the infancy of the race of East and West and North and South, the period of the winter solstice was ever a period of rejoicing and festivity.”[8] Because this season was so popular, it was adopted as the time of the birth of Christ by the Roman church.
Some of our present-day Christmas customs were influenced by the Roman Saturnalia. “It is common knowledge”, says one writer, “that much of our association with the Christmas season – the holidays, the giving of presents and the general feeling of geniality – is but the inheritance from the Roman winter festival of the Saturnalia…survivals of paganism.”[9]
Tertullian mentions that the practice of exchanging presents was a part of the Saturnalia. There is nothing wrong in giving presents, of course. The Israelites gave gifts to each other at times of celebration – even celebrations that were observed because of mere custom (Esther 9:22). But some have sought to link Christmas gifts with those presented to Jesus by the wisemen. This cannot be correct. By the time the wisemen arrived, Jesus was no longer lying in a manger” (as when the shepherds came), but was in a house (Matt. 2:9-11). This could have been quite a while after his birthday. Also, they presented their gifts to Jesus, not to each other!
The Christmas tree, as we know it, only dates back a few centuries, though ideas about sacred trees were very ancient. An old Babylonish fable told of an evergreen tree which sprang out of a dead tree stump. The old stump symbolized the dead Nimrod, the new evergreen tree symbolized that Nimrod had come back to life again in Tammuz! Among the Druids the oak was sacred, among the Egyptians it was the palm, and in Rome it was the fir, which was decorated with red berries during the Saturnalia![10] The Scandinavian god Odin was believed to bestow special gifts at yuletide to those who approached his sacred fir tree.[11] In at least ten Biblical references, the green tree is associated with idolatry and false worship (1 Kings , etc.). Since all trees are green at least part of the year, the special mention of “green” probable refers to trees that are evergreen. The Christmas tree… recapitulates the idea of tree worship…gilded nuts and balls symbolize the sun…all of the festivities of the winter solstice have been absorbed into Christmas day…use of the holly and mistletoe from the Druidic ceremonies; the Christmas tree from the honors paid to Odin’s sacred fir.[12]
Taking all of these into consideration, it is interesting to compare a statement of Jeremiah with today’s custom of decorating a tree at the Christmas season. “The customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speaketh not” (Jer. 10:3,4).
The peoples in the days of Jeremiah, as the context shows, were actually making idol out of the tree, the word “workman” being not merely a lumberjack, but one who formed idols (cf. Isaiah 40:19, 20; Hosea 8:4-6). And the word “axe” refers here specifically to a carving tool. In citing this portion of Jeremiah, we do not mean to infer that people who today place Christmas trees in their homes or churches are worshipping these trees. Such customs do, however, provide vivid examples of how mixtures have been made.
In the sixth century, missionaries were sent through the northern part of Europe to gather pagans into the Roman fold. They found that June 24th was a very popular day among these people. They sought to “Christianize” this day, but how? By this time, December 25th had been adopted by the Romish church as the birthday of Christ. Since June 24th was approximately six months before December 25th, why not call this the birthday of John the Baptist? John was born, it should be remembered, six months before Jesus (Luke , 36). Thus June 24th is known on the papal calendar now as St. John’s Day!
In Britain, before the entrance of Christianity there, June 24th was celebrated by the Druids with blazing fires in honor of Baal. Herodotus, Wilkinson, Layard, and other historians tell of these ceremonial fires in different countries. When June 24th became St. John’s Day, the sacred fires were adopted also and became St. John’s fires’! These are mentioned as such in the Catholic Encyclopedia.[13] “I have seen the people running and leaping through the St. John’s fires in Ireland”, says a writer of the past century., “…proud of passing through unsigned…thinking themselves in a special manner blest by the ceremony.[14] It would seem that such rites would sooner honor Molech than John the Baptist!
June 24th was regarded as being sacred to the ancient fish god, Oannes, a name by which Nimrod was known.[15] In an article on Nimrod, Fausett says: “Oannes the fish god, Babylon’s civilizer, rose out of the red sea…”[16] In Latin language of the Roman church, John was called Joannes. Notice how similar this is to Oannes! Such similarities helped promote more easily the mixture of paganism into Christianity.
A day which in pagan times had been regarded as sacred to Isis or Diana, August 15, was simply renamed as the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary” and right up to our present time is still highly honored.[17] Another day adopted from paganism, supposedly to honor Mary, is called “Candlemas” or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin” and is celebrated on February 2. In Mosaic law, after giving birth to a male child, a mother was considered unclean for forty days (Lev. 12). “And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished”, Joseph and Mary presented the baby Jesus in the temple and offered the prescribed sacrifice (Luke -24). Having adopted December 25 as the nativity of Christ, the February 2 date seemed to fit well with the time of the purification of Mary. But what did this have to do with the use of candles on this day? In pagan Rome, this festival was observed by the carrying of torches and candles in honor of Februa, from whom our month of February is named! The Greeks held the feast in honor of the goddess Ceres, the mother of Proserpina, who with candle-bearing celebrants searched for her in the underworld.[18] Thus can we now see how adopting February 2 to honor the purification of Mary was influenced by the pagan customs involving candles, even to calling it “Candlemass” day. On this day all of the candles to be used during the year in Catholic rituals are blessed. Says the Catholic Encyclopedia, “we need not shrink from admitting that candles, like incense and lustral water, were commonly employed in pagan worship and in rites paid to the dead.”[19]
If the apostle Paul were to be raised up to preach to this generation, we wonder if he would not say to the professing church, as he did to the Galatians long ago, “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years, I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain” (Gal. 4:9-11). The context shows that the Galatians had been converted from the pagan worship of “gods” (verse 8). When some had turned “again” to their former worship (verse 9), the days and times they observed were evidently those which had been set aside to honor pagan gods! Later, strangely enough, some of these very days were merged into the worship of the professing church and “Christianized”!
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->________________________________
[1]<!--[endif]--> Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 5, p. 370, “Luke.”
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[2]<!--[endif]--> The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 724, art. “Christmas.”
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[3]<!--[endif]--> Ibid., p. 725.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[4]<!--[endif]--> The Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 6, p. 623.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[5]<!--[endif]--> Frazer, The Golden Bough, p. 471.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[6]<!--[endif]--> The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 727, art. “Christmas.”
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[7]<!--[endif]--> Ibid.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[8]<!--[endif]--> Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs, p. 242.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[9]<!--[endif]--> Bailey, The Legacy of Rome, p. 242.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[10]<!--[endif]--> Walsh, the Legacy of Rome, p. 242.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[11]<!--[endif]--> Urlin, Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints’ Days, p. 222.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[12]<!--[endif]--> Ibid., p 238.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[13]<!--[endif]--> The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol 8, p. 491, art. “John the Baptist.”
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[14]<!--[endif]--> Toland’s Druids, p. 107 (quoted by Hislop, p. 116).
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[15]<!--[endif]--> Hislop, The Two Babylons p. 114.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[16]<!--[endif]--> Fausset’s Bible Encyclopedia, p. 510.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[17]<!--[endif]--> Durant, The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, p. 746.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[18]<!--[endif]--> Urlin, Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints’ Days, pp. 27, 28.
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[19]<!--[endif]--> The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 246, art. “Candles.”
<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->