Christmas is a popular December holiday celebrated by large numbers of people all around the world. Christmas (or “the Mass of Christ”) has long been known as the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the celebration first began to be observed in the early fourth century. However, some traditions associated with Christmas actually began as a part of pagan culture; these were “Christianized” and given new meaning by the church.
The exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, as the Bible does not give specifics as to the dates of either His birth or conception. But in the second century AD, a Roman Christian historian named Sextus Julius Africanus calculated Jesus’ birthdate to be December 25 (nine months after Jesus was conceived, according to Africanus). In spite of the assumptions made in Africanus’s line of thinking, the date of December 25 was widely accepted.
At the time of Christ, Roman culture already celebrated a holiday in December: Saturnalia honored the god Saturn and was celebrated from December 17 to about December 24. Later, the Romans began celebrating Sol Invictus or the “Unconquered Sun,” associated with the winter solstice and observed on December 25. When Rome eventually instituted Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century, the Roman church converted Saturnalia and Sol Invictus to a Christian holiday, the Feast of the Nativity, in order to commemorate Jesus’ birth, thus providing a spiritually positive alternative to a pagan celebration. The sinful customs and debauchery associated with Saturnalia were “cleaned up,” and some of the customs were absorbed into the celebration of Christmas. Christians have “redeemed” December 25 and have celebrated it as the birth of Christ ever since the fourth century.
Given the association Christmas had with the ancient pagan calendar, the question then becomes, “Since Christmas shares a date with a pagan holiday, is it acceptable for Christians to celebrate it?” It is important to note that Christmas, Saturnalia, and Sol Invictus were all distinct holidays; they were never identical to each other. Also, although some elements of Christmas celebrations (e.g., bells, candles, holly, and yule decorations) are mentioned in the history of pagan worship, the use of such items in one’s home in no way indicates a return to paganism. Christians simply celebrate Christmas to remember the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Celebrating Christmas is a matter of conscience (see Romans 14:5).