It seems almost inevitable at this time of year that an earnest friend, family member or perhaps someone at your church will announce—with all the breathless enthusiasm and urgency of one who has just discovered a dark secret—the pagan origins of what we have come to know as Christmas. After some years of being only mildly troubled by such “warnings,” this year I have a better response: “Thanks be to God.”
Perhaps the “pagan origins” of Christmas are kind of the point. That, because of the incarnation of Jesus, everything can be redeemed. That we can begin practising today the promise of Revelation that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, NIV). And that this was enacted not in the hermetically sealed purity of a distant heaven but amid the mess and the ugliness, the dirt and blood, the profane and the pagan of our world.
That’s what incarnation is.
It is not like we need to protect the purity of God. While the angels sang “Glory in the highest” (see Luke 2:14), the embodied truth of Christmas is that Glory was now found among the lowest: “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”1
Consider Paul’s description of what was happening in the Christmas story: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Philippians 2:6, 7, NLT). The risk is that we keep this story too clean. The truth of Christmas is a jarring revolution in our understanding of the nature and reputation of God. It is far more disturbing for God to become human than a formerly pagan celebration to become a time to remember and celebrate this remarkable story of God and His love.
Such adaptations by the people of God are not without biblical precedent. In Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? Adventist scholar Alden Thompson points out a number of sanctified appropriations made by the people of Israel from their surrounding pagan nations. He cites archaeological discoveries that point to parallels between the layout of the Israelite temples and those of surrounding nations. God used imagery and practices familiar to that time and place, and any foreign visitor to the sanctuary God designed would have recognised its purpose for sacrifice and worship.
Thompson also notes a number of Psalms—particularly Psalms 18, 29 and 93—that were largely adapted from hymns to Baal, with the name of Yahweh inserted in place of the pagan gods. In doing so, the people of God emphasised the superiority of their God, that He was able to displace the lesser gods of the surrounding nations, that He was truly the one who is “my rock, my fortress, and my saviour” (Psalms 18:2, NLT), for example.
Significant among this survey are the Old Testament festivals and their borrowings from the pagan festivals that pre-figured them at the Spring (Passover) and Autumn (Feast of Tabernacles) equinoxes. “God did not command abstinence from all festivals just because the Canaanites had evil ones,” Dr Thompson observes. But “the primary thrust of these two great festivals pointed to those very deeds that separated Israel so completely from her neighbours, namely God’s great saving acts in Israel’s history.”2
What makes us different—in the most worthwhile sense—at this time of year is not that we don’t celebrate Christmas but that we celebrate Jesus and all that He means to us.
God used imagery and practices familiar to that time and place, and any foreign visitor to the sanctuary God designed would have recognised its purpose for sacrifice and worship.
Yes, aspects of Christmas as we know it have been drawn from many sources and traditions apart from the Bible story of the birth of Jesus. And it is highly unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25, the timing of Christmas more likely borrowed from ancient celebration of the Winter solstice. But this is precisely the point. In Jesus, God is found in the backblocks of humanity, and the story of Jesus offers redemption, transformation and hope to all people, to all cultures, to all history.
Amid the echoes of ancient pagan festivals and the din of a hyper-commercialised secular holiday, we discover, re-tell and celebrate the story of the birth of Jesus. This is incarnation. This is redemption. This is how God works.
“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15, NIV).
- As Lucy explains it in C S Lewis’ The Last Battle.
- Alden Thomspon, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? Pacesetters Bible School, 1989, page 79.