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.

—Colossians 2:16–17

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?

Reading

While Paul was waiting for [Silas and Timothy] in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest
ideas.)

Questions

Why did the early church choose December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ?

How does the First Advent of Christ ensure that Christ will come again to put all things to right?

Christmas Carol

Angels from the Realms of Glory
—James Montgomery

Angels from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Shepherds in the field abiding,
Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing;
Yonder shines the infant Light:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen His natal star.
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Saints, before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear;
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear.
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.