“And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.” Such is the way J.R.R. Tolkien described how the One Ring was lost in the lore of Middle Earth, yet the same could also be said about of the traditions we celebrate each year around Christmas. Truth has a way of becoming clouded with the passing of time. Facts that were once well known become distorted and obscured so that after years of revisionism and historical amnesia we are left with a canon of mythology.
The same has happened to Christmas. As time has passed Christmas, and the traditions that go along with it, has changed shape. The bloated and commercialized holiday that extends from Black Friday to the end of December has taken on a form today that is product of imagination from the Victorian era and clever marketing from retailers.
How did a holiday which was originally celebrated to commemorate the birth of Jesus get turned into Santa Claus, ornamented evergreens and gift giving? Have you ever stopped long enough during the holiday mania to investigate some of the traditions that we unconsciously perpetuate each year?
A few years ago, I decided to do some investigating into the historical roots of Christmas. What I discovered simply blew me away, especially since I was coming from a Christian worldview. In my research I found out how much rich meaning has been lost and replaced by fairy tale. While I don’t have time to cover everything, but I thought it would be fun to debunk some of the biggest Christmas myths our culture has ignorantly imbibed.
Myth #1: Santa Claus was just a jolly, fat guy.
Believe it or not, St. Nicholas was an actual person of history. Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in what is today modern-day Turkey to a wealthy couple. He was raised in a Christian home and his uncle Nicholas (after whom he was named) who happened to be the bishop of Patara, had a great influence on him.
When His biological parents died during a plague he was left with an incredible sum of money, which Nicholas was quick to eschew. Instead, he donated much of it to the feed the poor and take care of the needy in his hometown.
Nicholas is most notably remembered for helping the family of a nobleman in Patara who had gone bankrupt. Ruthless creditors not only took the nobleman’s property, but also threatened to take his three beautiful daughters as well. The father’s only hope was to marry off his daughters before the creditors could take them, thereby saving them from a life of slavery and prostitution. Unfortunately, he did not have money for the girls’ dowries, which were necessary for them to marry.
Nicholas heard of this dilemma and late one night threw a bag of gold in the family’s window to save the daughters. When Nicholas threw the gold, a few coins supposedly landed in one of the daughter’s stockings that she had set out by the fireplace to dry. The father ran outside and caught Nicholas in the act, but Nicholas made the man swear not to tell anyone of his charity. Thus, began the tradition, of secret gift-giving.
Nicholas grew to be a well-loved Christian leader and was eventually voted the Bishop of Myra, a port city that the apostle Paul had previously visited (Acts 27:5-6). However, to be a Christian during this time was dangerous business. In 303 AD, the Roman emperor, Diocletian, issued a formal edict to destroy all Christian churches, burn the Scriptures and imprison or kill those who preached Christ. The storm of persecution which led to the deaths of hundreds of Christians, eventually reached Myra. Despite threats of imprisonment Bishop Nicholas continued to preach boldly the deity of Jesus. He was soon seized by torturers and confined to prison for several years, bearing severe suffering and enduring great hardship in an overcrowded dungeon.
As providence would have it, Constantine eventually took the seat of power over the Roman Empire. Shortly after his ascension to the throne, in 313 AD Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and issued the Edict of Toleration, officially giving Christianity tolerance throughout the Empire. Constantine ordered the release of those imprisoned for Christ, and so Nicholas was granted his freedom.
Afterward, Nicholas reportedly also traveled to the Council of Nicaea, where he helped defend the deity of Jesus Christ in A.D. 325. The council ended the “Arian heresy,” which demoted Jesus to a “less-than-God” status. During the debates Nicholas became so enraged with Arius for formulating his detestable doctrines that he slapped the monk in the face!1
Nicholas eventually died in 343 AD and was eventually was canonized into sainthood by the Catholic Church. Now I ask you, which version of the story is more exciting—the preacher who was persecuted for his faith or the guy who comes down the chimney bearing gifts? Why don’t Christians tell their kids about the real St. Nicholas—a man who preached Christ, suffered for his faith, and smacked down heretics—rather than the fairy tale version?
Myth #2: December 25 is Jesus’ birthday.
Contrary to popular opinion Jesus was not born on December 25th. In fact, historians and Bible scholars are not certain when exactly Jesus was born. The New Testament does not state the year, month or day of Christ’s birth. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (Why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?) Why then if neither history nor the Bible pinpoints the date of Christ’s birth do we celebrate on the 25th?
The origin of winter celebrations goes back to before the time of Christ when many ancient cultures celebrated the changing of the seasons. The Romans had a festival called Saturnalia to observe the winter solstice on Dec. 25th. This festival was a pagan holiday dedicated to the god of agriculture—Saturn.
Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome.
When Christianity found a foothold in the Roman Empire, the Christians wanted to commemorate the birth of Christ so they took this pagan holiday on Dec. 25th, changed its meaning inserted Jesus in place of Saturn and observed Jesus’ birthday on the day that Saturn supposedly went into hiding for a season. So in 440 AD the pope Julius I declared December 25th as the official day for celebrating Christ’s birth.
The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday. “It's just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow,” naysayers argue. But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted in 320, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it."2
Myth #3: The Virgin Birth is a pagan idea that Christians stole to elevate the status of Jesus.
Some critics of Christianity teach that the Christian religion was not based upon divine revelation but that it borrowed from pagan sources. In recent times the virgin birth has come under intense scrutiny because revisionist historians and skeptics claim that many religions around the time of Christ believed in a something like a god being born in a miraculous way.
The Greeks believed that Alexander was the son of Zeus. The legend goes that Zeus took the form of a serpent and slithered into the bed of Olympia, Alexander's mother, where he seduced and impregnated her. The ancient Egyptians had a goddess by the name of Isis who miraculously produced a son named Osiris when she was impregnated by a sun-beam.
Many Buddhists believe that their founder was born when his mother Queen Maya had a dream that a white elephant with 6 tusks entered her side and months later brought forth a son which would become Buddha.
Hinduism has its tradition that Krishna, after going through several reincarnations, including that of a fish and tortoise, eventually descended into the womb of a virgin princess named Devaki and was miraculously born.
In reality Christmas was God’s plan, not man’s fiction because the nativity and Calvary and Easter were all predetermined before the foundations of the world by the triune God. We can easily understand that Christians did not invent Christmas or hijack ideas from other religions because we have the announcement of the virgin birth at the outset of human history. If you will remember the first prophecy of Scripture was given by God in Gen. 3:15, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (KJV).”
This prophecy is called by theologians the protoevangelion, the gospel before the gospel. God announced to Adam and Eve that the "seed of the woman" would eventually crush the head of the serpent. That term "seed of the woman" refers to a virgin birth, because in the Hebrew mind the seed referred to the male sperm.
How could there be a seed of a woman? The only way possible is if the seed was supernaturally generated and the virgin conceived without a man. God later confirmed this to the prophet Isaiah in Is. 7:14, “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.”
Remember that Adam and Eve were not the only ones there in the Garden on this day, but so was Satan. The Father of lies knew at the very beginning of human history what was going to happen and hearing this prediction of an incarnation and a virgin birth he began to counterfeit God's truth claims with own distortions.
Another reason why the Christians could not have invented Christmas from pagan myths is because of the vast qualitative difference between the Gospel accounts and pagan myths.
The pagan stories are filled with debauchery and crass human sexuality, whereas the Gospels are saturated with the holiness of God. Mary is overshadowed by the invisible Spirit of God, whereas in all these other myths there are stories of seduction or fantastic stories involving animals impregnating women.
Lee Strobel quotes historian Edwin Yamauchi in his book, The Case for the Real Jesus:
Some of the supposed parallels between paganism and Christianity break down upon close examination. Some of those that are cited—like Zeus, for example—are gods who lust after women, which is decidedly different from Jesus’ story. The mythological offspring are half gods and half men, and their lives begin at conception, as opposed to Jesus, who is fully god and fully man and who is also eternal but came into this world through the incarnation. Also, the Gospels put Jesus in a historical context, unlike the mythological gods. On top of that, even if a story of an extraordinary birth in mythology predates Christianity, that doesn’t mean Christians appropriated it . . . This is a perfect example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). Plato wrote about the existence of God long before Paul authored his epistles, but the latter is no way depended upon the Greek philosopher. The argument of pagan derivation assumes too much in the way of parallelism and overlooks the radical differences.”3
Unlike mythical accounts the New Testament accounts are based on eyewitness testimony. In 2 Peter 1:16 we read, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
1. William J. Federer, There Really Is A Santa Claus (New York: Amerisearch, 2003)
2. Elesha Coffman, "Why December 25th ?" Christianity Today, 8 August 2008 <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2000/dec08.html>
3. Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 179.