Christmas History

December 18, 1998

With Christmas just a week away, I thought I would spend a minute talking about the origin of Christmas. The early church marked the birth of Christ at different times, including January 6. By the fourth century the date selected was December 25, in part to divert attention from the celebration of the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and Kalends.

Saturnalia was a weeklong religious feast which began on December 17 and continued through the winter solstice. Candles were given as gifts, as were clay images or charms, meant to encourage the return of the sun's power after the winter solstice.

Like our modern Christmas celebrations, it involved parties and merry-making. The Roman writer Lucian said Saturnalia involved "drinking and being drunk, noise and games, appointing of kings and slaves and clapping of tremulous hands."

Kalends occurred on January 1. On this day, the new Roman consuls were sworn and houses were decorated with evergreens and lights, and celebrations also took place.

And since the time of the Romans, Christmas has picked up many traditions--a great many of them pagan in origin. For example, hanging mistletoe. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids. During the winter solstice, they would go out and cut the most potent mistletoe with a golden knife, and then they would sacrifice a white ox.

By the 17th century, the Puritans were so concerned over the weaving of secular with religious traditions that they proposed doing away with the holiday. When Oliver Cromwell took power, he banned the public celebration of Christmas in England from 1652 to 1660, but the ban proved too unpopular.

So today we are left with a holiday that's part-Christian, part-pagan. And perhaps that's the best argument for making sure that we know the reason for the season. Christmas shouldn't just be about parties or Santa Claus; it should be about the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ.

I'm Kerby Anderson of Probe Ministries, and that's my opinion.

© 1998 Probe Ministries International