During this time of year, I encounter people against pagan traditions who try to convince me that those celebrating Christmas are bowing to pagan Christmas trees and bringing idolatry into their homes. Seeking to maintain purity and rightness, they seek to expel every vestige of pagan influence, tradition, and custom from their lives. I admit that Christmas carries pagan trappings, but I think trying to establish a pure culture is not only unrealistic but impossible. We all engage in many pagan customs every day, not just on Christmas. If we eradicated every pagan element from our society, we would be left without any culture at all. So what are we to do?
As I read Scripture, I find God redeeming and drawing on many aspects of pagan culture. For example, winged guardian cherubs, altars, and sacrifices were shared with pagan cultures. Pagans had temple sanctuaries that were remarkably similar to the one built for God. Pagans’ had sacred trees, hills, and high places for worship which were also used by God’s people on occasion as well as using monthly calculations and names with pagan origins. I think the biblical logic is this: treating objects as sacred themselves is morally wrong and should not be sanctioned, but pagan expressions and cultural symbols are not necessarily bad. While Christmas traditions are not ordained in scripture and do have pagan roots, I think they can still serve a good and useful purpose.
When early Protestants began to jettison some traditions with roots in pre-Christian paganism, it was Luther’s passionate reform that repurposed the gift-giving tradition by focusing on Jesus Christ as the ultimate gift giver. Instead of discouraging this valuable cultural tradition, he used it to focus on Jesus (see The Oxford Handbook of Christmas, 2020, p. 32). Christmas may come with pagan trappings, but these connections do not make its celebrators pagan. Today, the holiday is generally a time to remember the birth of Jesus, and at its core are peace and goodwill. It includes joyful greetings, gift giving, happy carols, and gathering together to celebrate with family. Some Christians may be wary of such traditions, but tradition itself is not necessarily evil. God does not condemn traditions, only the errors and wrongdoings associated with them.
Before you write me off as a pagan, let me explain where I’m coming from. Before the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, the pagan cultures in the surrounding area had erected stone pillars—imagine Stonehenge—to honor their deities. God instructed the Israelites to tear down these pillars at pagan worship sites and not to erect more because He “hates” them (Deuteronomy12:3; 16:22). That’s pretty strong language that should discourage us from allowing pagan elements to displace biblical teachings. We could stop there, concluding that observing pagan traditions is a great evil because God hates them, but there’s a problem: we find God’s people erecting such pillars all over the place. On several occasions, God even specifically instructs His people to erect them as monuments, not for pagan worship but to commemorate His power and presence (Joshua 4:2–3, 8, 21–27).
It seems to me that adopting elements from the surrounding culture is not bad as long as they do not contradict the Bible or violate its truths. I am aware that the Bible tells us to separate from paganism and discard certain practices. I know that God condemned idolatry, and I understand how the Israelites wrongly replaced Him with the golden calf (Exodus 32:4-5). We must always reject actions that break God’s commandments, but we should also recognize that God has sanctioned some customs similar to those of other nations. The critical consideration is that God’s commandments always differ from pagan traditions. However, God provides ways to use similar elements, modifying them to infuse different meanings and avoid any semblance of paganism. These differences matter, but so do the similarities. It’s not about copying other cultures’ customs or sanctioning pagan practices but using the forms and customs people are familiar with, altering them to reflect true theology.
What I find most fascinating is that the Bible concludes by assembling the best of human culture and tradition in the hereafter. The closing chapters picture a great city where human cultures and God’s healing presence come together (Revelation 22:1-2). As stated in the Book of Revelation, “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Revelation 21:26, NRSV). It seems that God takes an interest in existing cultural expressions and national heritages, choosing to redeem these valued traditions as treasures redirected towards God in worship rather than expunging them to create a new, sterile culture. As philosopher Jacques Ellul says, “God does not annul history and the work of man but, on the contrary, assumes it.” (Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation, 1977, pg. 216)
If God gave His people traditions modified from pagan customs, how could it be inappropriate for Christians to adopt surrounding customs to glorify God? Infusing redemptive meanings into valued traditions in ways consistent with biblical values may not be easy, but I think it illustrates an important point. Instead of banning Christmas for its pagan roots, we can encourage alternative meanings that direct our focus to God through Jesus. The only error is in observing customs in ways inconsistent with biblical commandments. This error includes returning to pagan requirements in “observing special days and months and seasons and years,” in order to perform all the proper behaviors and rituals to ensure escape from capricious deities (Galatians 4:9–10). While practices with pagan roots can—if we’re not careful—replace God’s commandments, if Christmas traditions, such as decorating trees and gift giving, are not placed in the service of idolatry, there is no basis to declare them pagan practices. It is up to us to align our actions with Christian values and biblical worship.
Many who celebrate Christmas have made the day about selfishness and material gain—expressed in the desire for sparkle and amusement. Jesus has spoken to the problems of commercialism, and we should heed His message as Christmas approaches, lest we sacrifice to the shopping gods of consumerism. Spending money on frivolous things and filling our homes with unnecessary items while others suffer poverty and starvation do not honor Jesus. There is a deep need to simplify our lives and honor the message of Jesus, not that of Santa Claus. For the most part, today’s celebration of Christmas is not about the spirit of Jesus’ birth.
I think the best solution would be to create some fruitful alternatives. I’ve built a life size nativity for my family and spread hay around the manger. There is no biblical basis for celebrating Christmas as a holy day. Christmas is not a sacred day set apart like the Sabbath (Exodus 20:9–11). While I have succumbed to the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas, I have always been honest with my kids, never allowing credit to go to Santa Claus. I purposefully pass on the merrymaking and drunkenness typical of the holiday. I also refrain from other Christmas traditions, such as eating ham, for after all, Jesus was Jewish, an essential element in the story of the incarnation. Since Jesus’ birth envisions creation-wide peace on earth, I also choose to be vegetarian.
Though the holiday lacks biblical support, I think it’s good to dedicate time during the Christmas season to contemplate the birth of Jesus—even if December 25 is not His exact birthday. We should seek the sparkle in the wonder and mystery of God becoming human in the person of Jesus. This story beckons us not to overly deify God to the point that He cannot understand us, because He has become one of us, as He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). At the same, however, He remains God, who is always present to us, brining redemption to anything in our lives that remains ungodly, pagan, or broken.
If this season reminds us of the incarnation, let this picture of God become the ultimate Christmas message. Celebrate God as a selfless giver, not simply a gift-bringer. This understanding suggests a God so humble and self-giving that it calls us to look to Jesus, who reveals God and brightens the world around us. Jesus came to bring hope, peace, and great joy to all people, and His message is not just for Christians; it’s for pagans, too. May Christmas be an opportunity for you to recognize the truth about God as a self-giving Person, so you will be filled with the peace and hope He brings.
Craig Ashton Jr.