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Have Yourself a Very Pagan Christmas

Earlier this week on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart brought up the all-too-predictable "war on Christmas" that creeps into December news stories, as alarmist commentators bemoan the erosion of Christmas as a Christian holy day and whimper aloud about how the separation of church and state prevents them from the good old-fashioned fun to be had occupying their town square with a nativity scene.

"For years now Christmas has been under attack, defended only by the brave souls at Fox News," Stewart quipped, pointing out the absurdity of the now-annual holiday tradition of conservative Christians proclaiming that our godless, secular culture is trying to erase the holiday. Last month, for example, atheists protested when an Arkansas public school had a field trip to a local church to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, complete with Linus's moving rendition of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

"There's a war on Christmas?" Stewart asked. "Has anyone told Thanksgiving? Cause this year, Black Friday, a.k.a. 'Christmas's opening bell," got moved back a day to Black Thursday -- or as we used to call it, Thanksgiving."

I can understand, to a point, the concern that encroaching consumerism removes Christians' focus from Christ's birth to the many other delightful things about the holiday -- presents, decorations, special foods, and vacation time. But the way for Christians to solve that problem is to deepen their own spiritual understanding of the holiday as a holy day, not to tear their hair out because some secular Americans have rightly protested the requirement that kids in public school sing songs about Jesus' birth.

It's never been constitutional to force religion into the public square (well, at least since the Fourteenth Amendment), and just because more Americans are standing up for their rights in this matter doesn't mean there is a "war on Christmas."

In fact, let's be clear: Christmas has always been a pagan holiday. This came up on my blog last week when a commenter took a very dim view of the celebration's history:

If one does a “google search” on the pagan origins of Christmas (and most other holidays) you would find that “Christmas” has been celebrated for thousands of years and predates Christianity. It was the winter solstice and other pagan beliefs that were “adopted” by the early Catholic church and “sanctified” and renamed and rededicated to (supposedly) honor Christ. Look into it with an open mind and ask yourself if a true Christian can honor God by these things… read 1 Corinthians 10:21-22

Historically, the commenter is correct. Just about every aspect of this holiday has pagan origins. Adam English's new book The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, which traces the development of legends around Nicholas of Myra (now regarded as jolly old St. Nick), demonstrates many of these juxtapositions. When the Roman Empire was sweeping the world during the lifetime of Nicholas of Myra (ca. 260-335), its leaders had to make decisions about how to deal with the many beloved pagan holidays that people celebrated in the regions where Christianity had recently won allegiance. The final dating of Christmas on December 25 (after earlier celebrations on March 25 and January 6) was selected because it could be observed on the winter solstice, consecrating the pagan worship of the sun god for Jesus while not expecting the people to give up the joy of a festival long-held on that date.

So historically, the comment is accurate, but it is theologically misguided. It seems to presuppose that there should be such a thing as a "pure" Christian holiday, when I can't think of a single example of that in Christian history. Easter, for example, placed the resurrection of Christ smack dab on top of the pagan spring fertility festivals of the ancient world, which is why we still traumatize our children to this day with mixed messages about eggs and giant rabbits.

So let's lighten up about Christmas. People who want to celebrate it as the birth of Christ can always do so in church, at home, or wherever they please so long as they're not imposing religion on others in the public square. And people who want to celebrate it as a pagan winter festival with nog and parties and cards ... well, God bless us, every one.


The blog post is part of a Patheos Book Club Roundtable discussion of Adam English's book The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus. You can read other perspectives on the book here, watch an interview with the author here, or read an excerpt here.

The image of Santa is used with permission of Coca-Cola not included.

Topics: Faith, Beliefs, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Christian, Christian - Catholic, Christian - Orthodox, Christian - Protestant, Amish & Mennonite, Evangelical, Freethought (Atheist, Humanist, Agnostic), Interfaith, Mormon
Tags: adam english, atheist protests of christmas, flunking sainthood, freedom from religion, jana riess, jon stewart, patheos book club roundtable the saint who would be santa claus, the daily show and the war on christmas, the pagan origins of christmas, the pagan origins of easter, the saint who would be santa claus, war on christmas


  1. The search for pure and unadulterated Christian traditions is illusory and ultimately frustrating. Jana is correct that there are very few purely Christian holidays, and I would add, there are very few Christian traditions that do not have roots in or associations with other religions or cultures. Baptism itself, for example, was practiced by Jews and other faiths prior to the Christians. The question is not - is the holiday or practice free of any disagreeable associations or histories—but is it honoring of God and compatible with the Christian gospel? Does it reflect the love of Christ? Does it build up the body of believers?

  2. Could you please provide some ancient primary sources to support your claims regarding the reason for selecting December 25 as the date of Christmas?

  3. “It seems to presuppose that there should be such a thing as a “pure” Christian holiday, when I can’t think of a single example of that in Christian history.”

    Jana, this statement completely misses the point of what the post meant. The point is not having a “pure” christian “holiday”. The point is this; Would GOD find these practices acceptable?

    The scriptures cite how the ancient Hebrews continually mixed with other pagan religions through their practices and traditions which REPEATEDLY brought Gods displeasure. Since these practices are pagan in origin, they should have no place in a christian’s life at all. Any real christian could see that the Devil makes these holidays popular and fun so as to fool people into think theyre honoring God when in actuality they are offending him en masse.

    Real eyes realize REAL LIES.

  4. Excuse me, but this issue isn’t whether or not Christmas is purely Christian or not. Of course it isn’t. This issue is whether public displays of religiosity should be suppressed.

    I don’t see why they should. Religion is fun! The more of it the better, and I don’t care what kind it is, as long as it involves celebrations, processions, rituals, and such. As a Christian I’d like to see as much public religiosity as possible—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Wiccan—whatever. I’m a Christian because I like religion.

    So what is the problem of kids singing about Jesus if they don’t believe in him? I sing about Santa Claus and I don’t believe in Santa Claus? What is the worry of secularists—that people will find the celebrations and ceremonies such fun that they’ll join the church to get more?

  5. While noting the origins of Christian holidays as resting in pagan traditions, the real point Fox News and others is making is that the atheists and others are so anti-religion that they want to suppress our constitutional right to practice our religion.
    By the way, you don’t see them protesting the Muslims or other religions, but when it comes to Christianity, the secularists say it must be eliminated, especially from any public expression. And so, this “war” on religion, particularly, Christianity, grows each year, but our lap-dog media doesn’t get it or doesn’t care.

  6. L.K. I like your point, and I tend to agree.  While I can see where some might be coming from as far as singing certain songs in schools or whatever—and I certainly feel that people have a tendency to panic a bit about the War on Christmas—at the same time, it does seem to be exclusively Christianity that gets shunted to the side, while other religions (whether because they are “minor” religions in this country compared to Christianity or some other unknown reason) are perfectly acceptable.  I think, too, that the “war” in question is actually more of a Christianity-as-a-whole thing, but somehow comes out more during the Christmas season.

  7. I think you are right, after reading I would really love to know more details about pagan Christmas. I was really not aware of this facts.
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