I celebrate Christmas. Growing up as an atheist, December 25th was about a lot of things, but not the birth of Jesus. For many centuries before the birth of Christ, December 25th was similarly non-Christian. The present date for Christmas traces back to the 4th Century. When Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, he introduced the faith to a culture already deeply committed to the pagan worship of Roman gods. Christian leaders were in for a real challenge as they wrestled with prior cultural commitments to these gods. Pagan festivals and celebrations abounded throughout the year, celebrating and honoring Roman gods of one variety or another.
One of Rome’s biggest religious festivals occurred in the winter. The festival was called “Saturnalia”, and it was a celebration coinciding with the winter solstice. It occurred over a period of time corresponding to December 17th – 24th, ending on December 25th. This date, declared by Emperor Aurelian in 274AD to be “Dies Natalis Invicti Solis” (“Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun”), was a celebration of the Roman god, Saturn. The winter solstice also occurred around this time, celebrated when the sun reached its most southerly declination (when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees from the sun). This marked the beginning of a number of pre-Roman pagan festivals and Roman holidays.
It shouldn’t surprise us this important pre-Christian holiday season would eventually take a Christian form. As a strategic consequence of those who wished to advance the truth of the Gospel, or simply as a cultural inevitability, December 25th became a Christian celebration. St. Augustine of Hippo (the early church theologian of the 4th and 5th Century), wrote about the newly adopted celebration, and said:
“We hold this day (December 25th) holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it”
Christmas eventually grew to overtake a number of other cultural holidays across the world. As each culture has added its own bit of folklore to the tradition, it eventually became the holiday we know today. Many of our present traditions have little to do with the Bible story of the nativity, and little to do with the scriptural evidence. For this reason, many devout and sincere Christians believe celebrating Christmas is the equivalent of celebrating the ancient pagan mythologies and gods. Christians throughout the centuries have sometimes come to the same conclusion about Christmas. The holiday was slow to catch on in America and gain the acceptance of the first settlers to the colonies. In fact, the celebration of Christmas was even banned by law in Massachusetts in the colonial days of our forefathers. For many Christians (both historically and currently), there is great discomfort about the Christmas celebration and its connection to Rome, the early evolution of Catholicism and the inclusion of a number of non-Christian cultural elements. In spite of all this, I still celebrate the holiday without hesitation.
When we co-opt an ancient celebration, symbol or word and give it a new meaning, we abandon the first meaning in favor of the second. Several English words, for example, originally had a very different meaning than they do today. In fact, these words meant exactly the opposite of what they presently mean. The word brave, first meant “cowardice”. The word luxury first meant “a sinful self-indulgence”. Even the word nice first meant “stupid” or “foolish” in the 13th Century! None of us hesitate to use these words, even though their original meaning was very different. We’re not committed to the origin or original meanings of these words. We embrace their contemporary meaning, and our knowledge (or ignorance) of past expressions does not invalidate what they mean to us today. These words are still useful and practical in our everyday lives.
For another example, consider the cross. In Roman times, the cross was an ugly, brutal instrument of death. The outskirts of large cities were often landscaped with crosses lining the roads to the city. Criminals were brutally executed on these crosses and displayed publicly. The message of the cross was clear. It was a symbol of the power, authority and bloody brutality of the Empire. The cross was filled with meaning in the days before Jesus. But that changed after the resurrection, as Christianity adopted the cross as a new kind of symbol. For Christians, the cross demonstrates the gift of Jesus who died to provide eternal life for all those who believe. For us, the cross symbolizes the sacrifice God made for our sin. The cross has a new meaning we ascribe as believers, superseding the old symbolism of the Roman Empire. The cross is now our symbol of the grace, mercy and gift of God.
That’s what Christmas is for my family. It’s our symbol of the grace, mercy and gift of God. The prior ancient meanings of the holiday don’t matter to me. Hey, as a guy who was saved in 1997, the meaning I gave the holiday in 1996 doesn’t matter either! Christmas now has a new meaning for our family, and this new connotation has power and practical use in our daily lives. So, if your family celebrates Christmas and a Christian holiday, enjoy it, even though it’s probably not Jesus’ real birthday.