Is Christmas Pagan or Christian?

12 Questions for Jehovah’s Witnesses Challenging Common Objections Against the Christmas Holiday

Christmas Wreath on Frost Covered Tree
Christmas Wreath on Frost Covered Tree

Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups often abhor the Christmas season with its trappings and rituals. The basis for their rejection of this holiday stems from a focus on the alleged pagan origins of some of the traditions used in Christmas celebrations, the overt materialism surrounding this holiday, the ambiguity regarding the time of the year in which Christ was actually born and the close connection of the date of December 25th to the pagan Roman Saturnalia and British Druid winter solstice celebrations of antiquity.  While these concerns have elements of legitimacy, a consideration of the Christian origins of many Christmas traditions are often neglected by those embracing a negative view of Christmas.  Our hope is that the following questions and information provided will offer a more balanced perspective on this holiday that will help those questioning whether the act of celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas time dishonors God:

1. At Luke 2:7-18, Scripture records how God celebrated the birth of His Son by sending the angels and shepherds to honor the baby Jesus and to make His birth known to mankind.  Since God became excited about the birth of His Son, why would it be wrong for Christians today to get excited about Jesus’ birth?

ARE BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS CONDEMNED IN THE BIBLE?

2. If birthday celebrations are evil simply because Scripture records evil acts that Pharaoh and Herod executed on their birthdays (Genesis 40:1-23 and Matthew 14:3-11), why doesn’t Scripture come right out and explicitly condemn birthday celebrations as pagan, rather than just condemning the evil deeds that these men carried out on their birthdays?  If birthdays themselves are evil, why does the Bible praise Job as a righteous man (Job 1:1) when he allowed his sons and daughters to celebrate their birthdays at Job 1:4?  Scripture records that Job’s only concern was over actions that might have occurred during these celebrations, not that the birthday celebrations themselves were evil (Job 1:5).  Furthermore, if these celebrations were indeed evil, why didn’t Satan point this out to God when they were discussing the blamelessness of Job and his blessed family at Job 1:8-10?
3. If birthdays should not be commemorated because evil events took place on Pharaoh and Herod’s birthdays, then wouldn’t we have to argue that celebrating the Lord’s evening meal (Lord’s Supper) during Passover is also evil because the evil event of Jesus’ betrayal and death is recorded as taking place during one of these Passover celebrations? Obviously, such conclusions would be flawed when we consider that Jesus commanded His followers to commemorate the redemption offered in His death by observing His Passover meal (Matthew 26:2, 17-28 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).  Therefore, shouldn’t we conclude that it is not the birthday celebrations themselves that are condemned by Scripture, but rather the evil acts that took place during these events?
WHAT ABOUT CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS AND ANCIENT PAGAN CUSTOMS?
4. It is true that similarities exist between some of the customs of the Christmas holiday and traditions of ancient pagans, but did you know that most wedding ceremonies today use traditions that were once immersed in pagan superstition? The use of a bridal party, bridesmaids, bridal veils, wedding cakes, carpet, shoes, and rings all come from paganism.  Why is it permissible for Christians to use these symbols if they  originated from ancient false religion?

“Although for Americans covering the bride’s face with a veil has come to represent innocence and purity, the practice was originally used in other cultures as protection from harm or molestation and was one of many rituals adopted out of concern for the happiness, safety, and fertility of the bride and groom. …raised chairs, red carpets, special shoes and other forms of insulation or protection have been used to defend against malicious spirits on the ground. …The current Western practice of having a bridal party to attend the couple evolved from a Roman tradition, in which the bridesmaids and ushers dressed exactly like the bride and groom, to protect the wedding couple by confusing evil spirits.” — Something Old, Something New—Ethnic Weddings in America, (Philadelphia, PA: The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, 1987), p. 8

“The custom of giving a wedding ring dates back to the ancient Romans. …Wearing the wedding ring on the ring finger of the left hand is another old custom. People once thought that a vein or nerve ran directly from this finger to the heart.” —The World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 13, 2000, p. 221

“The wedding cake has its origins far back in time. …In Rome the early marriage rite was called conferreatio from the cake of wheat…which the couple first offered to the gods, then ate together.” — The Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 28, 1999, p. 565

“There is not a single point connected with marriage which is not shrouded in innumerable superstitions, some of them dating back to hoary antiquity.” — A Short History of Marriage, by Ethel L. Urlin, (Detroit Singing Tree Press, 1969), p. 201

5.  If God abhors the use of Christmas traditions that may have originated from ancient pagan rituals, why does the Jehovah’s Witness religion claim that Christians who practice other traditions rooted in paganism do not dishonor God as long as these traditions have lost their pagan significance? Isn’t it hypocritical for Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept other pagan traditions while rejecting all Christmas customs even though most of these Christmas traditions are no longer linked to ancient paganism?
A Balanced View of Popular Customs… Customs have been profoundly influenced by religion. Many, in fact, arose from old superstitions and non-Biblical religious ideas.  For instance, giving flowers to bereaved ones may have had its origin in religious superstition. In addition, the color blue—often associated with baby boys—was thought to frighten away demons. Mascara served as a protection against the evil eye, while lipstick was used to discourage demons from entering a woman’s mouth and possessing her. Even a custom as innocuous as covering the mouth while yawning may have arisen from the idea that one’s soul could escape through a wide-open mouth. Over the years, however, the religious associations have faded, and today these practices and customs have no religious significance.  …But what about customs that may once have been linked to questionable practices but that today are primarily viewed as social etiquette?  …Does this mean that Christians are forbidden to observe such customs? Are Christians required to scrutinize meticulously each custom of the community to see whether somewhere or at some time it had negative connotations?  …Although there may be reason to examine the origin of a particular custom, in some cases it is more important to consider what the custom means to people at the time and in the place where one now lives.” —Awake!,January 8, 2000, pp. 26-27 (emphasis in the original)
6. Did you know that the Bible allows Christians to eat meat offered in sacrifice to pagan idols as long as the Christian eating the meat does so with a heart of gratitude toward God and does not cause a weaker brother to stumble by doing so? Since God allows Christians to eat pagan meat if their heart-motives are pure, why would God be displeased with Christians today who would choose to honor God by focusing on Christ during the Christmas holiday?  Isn’t the heart motive what is most important to God?

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. … But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” —1 Corinthians 8:4, 7-8 1.

“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. …He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. …As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.”  —Romans 14:1-3, 6b, 14-15

SHOULD WE CELEBRATE EVENTS THAT ARE NOT COMMANDED BY GOD?
7. Some object to Christmas on the basis that Scripture does not provide a clear command for Christ’s followers to annually celebrate Jesus’ birth, but neither does Scripture command the annual observing of wedding anniversaries.  Yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who reject Christmas celebrate their wedding anniversaries.  Why?
8. If it is wrong to commemorate an event that Scripture does not command to be observed, why did Jesus celebrate the Hanukkah holiday by being in the temple for the Feast of Dedication aspect of this holiday at John 10:22-23?  Since it is permissible for Jesus to celebrate a holiday that God did not command to be observed, why can’t Christians likewise commemorate Jesus’ birthday by putting their focus on honoring Christ during the Christmas holiday?
9. Did you know that in keeping with Christ’s practice of freely celebrating Jewish holidays regardless of whether they were commanded by God, the Bible allows Christians to freely choose whether or not they want to observe religious holidays?
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.”—Romans 14:5-6a
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”—Colossians 2:16-17
IS DECEMBER 25TH A PAGAN DATE?
10.  If celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25th is dishonoring to God because it falls on a date that was once used by pagans to celebrate Saturnalia and the winter solstice, why did Jesus celebrate the Jewish holiday Hanukkah that falls on the 25th day of Kislev which is the ninth month in the Jewish calendar that corresponds to our December? 2. Since Jesus celebrated the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah near December 25th, why would it be wrong for Christians to celebrate a Christian holiday that falls on that date?  Why don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who have strong convictions against the Christmas holiday celebrate the Hanukkah holiday instead since Jesus celebrated that holiday?
11.  Jehovah’s Witnesses often object to celebrating Christ’s birth on Christmas because they believe His birth took place in the fall rather than the winter, 3. but did you know that Jehovah’s Witnesses used to celebrate Jesus’ coming on Christmas because a late September or early October birth would have required a late December date for Christ’s conception?  Since it is quite possible to conclude that Jesus’ conception took place on or near December 25th, why would celebrating the beginning of Jesus’ coming on Christmas day dishonor God?
“…we could not be certain that the exact day might not be in September about the 27th, but October 1st, B.C. is about correct. Nine months back of that date would bring us to about Christmas time, 3 B.C., as the date at which our Lord laid aside the glory which he had with the Father before the world was made and the taking of or changing to human nature began. It seems probable that this was the origin of the celebration of December 25th as Christmas Day. Some writers on Church history claim, even, that Christmas Day was originally celebrated as the date of the annunciation by Gabriel to the virgin Mary.” — The Time is at Hand, Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 2 p. 61

“Even though Christmas day is not the real anniversary of our Lord’s birth, but more properly the annunciation day of the date of his human begetting (Luke 1:28), nevertheless, since the celebration of our Lord’s birth is not a matter of divine appointment or injunction, but merely a tribute of respect to him, it is not necessary for us to quibble particularly about the dateWe may as well join with the civilized world in celebrating the grand event on the day which the majority celebrate—‘Christmas day.’ ” — Zion’s Watch Tower, December 1, 1904, pp 363-365 [Watchtower Reprints, p. 3468]

12.  Throughout Scripture we read how God transformed the hearts of pagan non-Christians who turned to Christ in faith and repentance and sought forgiveness for their sins. If God can transform ancient pagan hearts into God-honoring Christians, why condemn the decision of Christians and Catholics who chose to transform the date of December 25th into a Christ-honoring holiday by setting up a rival Christmas holiday to replace the pagan Saturnalia and winter solstice holidays of antiquity?  While these pagan celebrations are largely unknown to today’s culture, this holiday is now surrounded by materialism.  Why would it be wrong to follow the example of past Christians by turning this materialistic holiday into an opportunity to reach out to a lost and dying world with the message of hope in Jesus Christ?  Why not focus on the Christian message of God’s salvation in Christ by implementing the following Christ-honoring Christmas traditions?

HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THE CHRISTIAN ORIGINS OF THESE CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS?

christmas-tree

CHRISTMAS TREE:

There are many accounts of evergreen trees and branches being used in ancient pagan celebrations long before the practice of decorating an evergreen tree in the home became a Christmas tradition, but legend points to the Middle Ages as the timeframe for the origin of this custom.  While some assert a pagan origin for the Christmas tree simply because evergreens were used in pagan ceremonies before the Christmas tree became a widespread tradition, such theories are no more convincing than claiming that the pagan teaching that the false god Tammuz resurrected from the dead proves that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection originated in paganism. It is obvious that such similarities between traditions do not prove a pagan origin for the Christian tradition.

Likewise, some mistakenly point to God’s condemnation of cutting wood from a tree and decorating it at Jeremiah 10:2-3 as an injunction against the Christmas tree. But this Scripture has been misapplied and the Watchtower admits that the context speaks of decorating an idol, not a Christmas tree. 4.   Thus, there is no condemnation given in Scripture against the use of evergreen trees in celebrating Christ’s birth.  Here is a legend that attests to a Christian origin for the Christmas tree:

“There are several stories about the origin of the Christmas tree. People in Scandinavia once worshiped trees. When they became Christians, they made evergreen trees part of Christian festivals. One legend tells how the first Christmas tree was shown in a miracle to an English missionary named Winfrid (later called Boniface). About 1,200 years ago, Winfrid traveled through northern Germany. One day, he found a group of heathens at an oak tree near Geismar. They were preparing to sacrifice little Prince Asulf to the god Thor. Winfrid stopped the sacrifice and cut down ‘the blood oak.’ As the oak fell, a young fir tree appeared. Winfrid told the people that the fir was the tree of life, representing Christ.” — World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 3, 1968, p. 415

Just as Winfrid (1,200 years ago) explained to the people of Germany how the evergreen tree represents eternal life in Christ, Christians today use the evergreen Christmas tree to illustrate Christ’s eternal gift of salvation.

CANDY CANE:

The following story has been circulating in the Christian community for a long time. No one knows the author who originally transcribed the account of this story, but it has been consistently reproduced under the title “A Candymaker’s Witness.”

“A candy maker in Indiana wanted to make a candy that would be a witness, so he made the Christmas Candy Cane. He incorporated several symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ. He began with a stick of pure white hard candy. White to symbolize the Virgin Birth and the sinless nature of Jesus, and hard to symbolize the Solid Rock, the foundation of the Church, and firmness of the promises of God. The candy maker made the candy in the form of a ‘J’ to represent the precious name of Jesus, who came to earth as our Savior. It could also represent the staff of the ‘Good Shepherd’ with which He reaches down into the ditches of the world to lift out the fallen lambs who, like all sheep, have gone astray. Thinking that the candy was somewhat plain, the candy maker stained it with red stripes. He used three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received by which we are healed. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the Cross so that we could have the promise of eternal life. Unfortunately, the candy became known as a candy cane—a meaningless decoration seen at Christmas time. But the meaning is still there for those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear.’ I pray that this symbol will again be used to witness to the wonder of Jesus and his great love that came down at Christmas and remains the ultimate and dominate force in the universe today.”

Another aspect of the Candy Cane that is representative of Christ is its peppermint taste.  Peppermint is an herb that is known for its many digestive healing qualities. Its use in the Candy Cane not only represents Jesus as the Great Healer but also the herbal gifts of Myrrh and Frankincense that the ancients gave to Jesus as they were also used as medicine for physical ailments in ancient times.

christmas-lightsCHRISTMAS LIGHTS:

The custom of using Christmas lights to represent the Light of Christ is attributed to Martin Luther in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s.

Lights at Christmas represent Christ as the Light of the World.  Martin Luther was perhaps the first man to use lights on a Christmas tree.  According to a popular story, Luther put lights on his tree to represent the glory and beauty of the stars above Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth.” —World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 3, 1968, p. 415

WISE MEN (ASTROLOGERS OR MAGI) AND THE STAR:

“The Star is used everywhere as a Christmas symbol. It represents the Star in the East mentioned in the Bible in Matthew 2:1-2: ‘Behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.’ ” —World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 3, 1968, p. 415

To villainize the Star of Christmas, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Star was put in the sky by Satan the Devil to alert King Herod to the birth of Christ so that he could attempt to destroy Him. They state:

“Who do you think provided the star that moved in the sky to guide the astrologers? Remember, the star did not guide them directly to Jesus in Bethlehem. Rather, they were led to Jerusalem where they came in touch with King Herod, who wanted to kill Jesus. And he would have done so if God had not stepped in and warned the astrologers not to tell Herod. It was God’s enemy, Satan the Devil, who wanted Jesus killed, and he used that star to try to accomplish his purpose.” — The Watchtower, July 1, 1985, p. 17

To this claim, we ask, “Where in the Bible does it say that the star led the Magi to Herod?  If you were expecting the birth of a king, wouldn’t you first look for the king in a palace of the ruling city?” Nowhere does the Bible say that the star led the Magi to Herod. Rather it states at Matthew 2:9-11 that the star led them to the child in Bethlehem:

“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”

If the star was really sent by Satan, why didn’t Satan send the star to guide Herod instead of the Magi who obeyed Jehovah by not telling Herod where to find the child (Matthew 2:12)?  If the Magi were sent by Satan, why did Jehovah prophesy that Jesus was to be sent into Egypt (Matthew 2:15) and then provide the Magi’s expensive gifts (Matthew 2:11-12) to help Mary and Joseph finance their trip with Jesus to and from Egypt? Isn’t the evidence is clear that instead of the Christmas Star being Satan’s Star, it was Jehovah’s Star sent to provide financially for the fulfillment of ancient Messianic prophecies?

SAINT NICHOLAS AND GIFT GIVING:

St. Nicholas served as bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, in the A.D. 300’s. He was famous for his generosity, and people came to believe that any surprise gift came from him. The people of The Netherlands chose St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children, and his fame gradually spread. …Whatever he is called, boys and girls throughout the world recognize him as the kindly symbol of Christmas.” —World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 3, 1968, p. 415

While legends involving Saint Nicholas (or Santa Claus) bear little resemblance to the pure story of Christ’s birth, one aspect that ties all of the legends about him together is the generous nature of this Catholic man.  His example in gift giving has become a symbol of the Christmas spirit that is often used by Christians as an opportunity to share God’s ultimate gift of love and salvation in Jesus Christ at Christmas time.  Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse ministry that delivers Christmas gift boxes stuffed with useful toys, hygiene items and Gospel message tracts to impoverished children across the world is one of the many ways Christians reach out with the Good News of Jesus Christ during the Christmas holiday. 5.

christmas-wreathCHRISTMAS WREATH AND HOLLY:

Christians traditionally view the evergreen Christmas wreath and holly as symbols of the eternal life that Christ offers because these do not brown or die in the winter.  The holly’s white flowers are representative of Christ’s purity and virgin birth, and the holly’s thorns and red berries symbolize the crown of thorns Jesus wore and the blood He shed to atone for our sins.

christmas-poinsettiaPOINSETTIA:

The poinsettia is a native of Mexico and it was brought to the United States over a hundred years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico.  Legend tells of a poor Mexican girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo who always looked forward to celebrating the birth of Christ at Christmas time. One year they were saddened because they had no money to buy presents or bring something special for the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve.  So, on their way to the church, they picked some weeds that were growing along the roadside.  Of course, other children teased them when they arrived with their gifts, but they placed their green plants around the manger anyway because these were all they had to give.  Miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals that soon surrounded the manger with these star-like flowers.  Since this time, the red, star-shaped poinsettia flower that blooms around Christmas time has become a Christian symbol of the love of Christ in coming to earth to atone for the sins of mankind.

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1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Bible.
2. See the Chart of the Jewish Calendar printed on page 1587 of the 1984 New World Translation Reference edition. This chart correctly places the “Festival of Dedication” for Hanukkah on the 25th of Chislev in December.  To try to avoid the obvious implications that a December date for the Jewish Hanukkah gives for a God-honoring origin of the December 25th Christmas date, the Watchtower Society later adjusted their chart to incorrectly change their “Festival of Dedication” date to November in their 1988 printing of the chart in Insight on the Scriptures, vol. 1, p. 391.
3. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Christ’s birth could not have taken place in the winter because the Bible states that shepherds were in the fields tending to their flocks when Jesus was born and they believe that they would not have been in the fields in the cold rainy weather of Israel’s winter. (See Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life, 1995, p. 126). Thus, early Watchtower literature pointed to a late September or early October date for Christ’s birth. (See The Time is at Hand, p. 61)
4. See The Watchtower, November 15, 1984, p. 31: “As a specific example (which has been misapplied to decorating a Christmas tree but actually refers to making an idol), Jehovah said: ‘It is the work of a craftsman’s hands. He cuts down a tree in the forest with an ax, he adorns it with silver and gold, he fastens it with nails and hammer.’ ”
5. To learn more about this ministry see www.samaritanspurse.org.

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