A Pagan Festival?
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.
As we continue our journey to the heart of Christmas, let’s pause for a moment to consider a common concern raised each year regarding the validity of celebrating Christ’s coming—namely, that when Christmas was originally instituted, December 25 was a pagan festival commemorating the birthday of a false god.
In response we should first acknowledge that this is substantially true. As noted by Dr. Paul Maier, eminent professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, “The Romans of the time not only celebrated their Saturnalia festival at the close of December, but they also thought that December 25 marked the date of the winter solstice (instead of December 21), when they observed the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, which was just in the act of turning about to aim northward once again.”
While this is indeed a historical fact, what is frequently overlooked is the reason the early Christian church chose December 25 as their day of celebration. The purpose was not to Christianize a time of pagan revelry, but to establish a rival celebration. As such, Christmas (from Old English Crῑstes + mœsse “Christ’s festival”) was designated as a spiritually edifying holiday (holy day) on which to proclaim the supremacy of the Son of God over superstitions concerning such gods as Saturn, the god of agriculture, and Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun god.
While the world has all but forgotten the Greco-Roman gods of antiquity, it is annually reminded that two thousand years ago Christ, the hope of humanity, invaded time and space. But as Christians we perceive an even greater reality. Each year as we celebrate the First Advent of Christ, we are simultaneously reminded of the Second Advent in which the old order of things will pass away and Christ our Lord will put all things to right. As the prophet Zechariah put it, “‘Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,’ declares the LORD. ‘Many nations will be joined with the LORD. in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you’” (2:10–11).
If you cannot celebrate this, pray tell, what can you celebrate?