Why Some Christians Are Forsaking Christmas - Atlas Obscura
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Why Some Christians Are Forsaking Christmas

To them, Jesus is not the reason for the season.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst.
Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern/Public Domain

With four days left until Christmas, people around the world are preparing for the celebration. The Christmas trees have been decorated with ornaments and lights, stockings have been hung, presents have been wrapped, and images of Santa Claus and the nativity scene have been put up.

Of course, there are millions of people who will not be celebrating Christmas, from followers of other faiths to atheists. Among these people, however, there is one particular group you would not have expected to find: fundamentalist Christians.

Given “Jesus is the reason for the season,” followers of the faith are usually enthusiastic to celebrate the birth of their Messiah. Some criticize the commercialization of the holiday, which has placed an emphasis on presents rather than the birth of Christ. But there is a group of Christians that takes the sentiment a step further and has declared outright that Christmas is actually un-Christian.

Decorating trees with lights and adornments is a practice inherited from paganism.
Decorating trees with lights and adornments is a practice inherited from paganism. Stephen Fulljames/CC BY 2.0

It is difficult to say what percentage of Christians shares this view of Christmas, but blog posts and comments on Christian websites show that the sentiments can be strong. Rejection of the holiday is also an official doctrine followed by several churches, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the Restored Church of God.

Why would any Christian be against the celebration of the birth of Christ? The answer lies in interpretations of the Bible, and a rejection of the pagan origins of the holiday. One of the main arguments against Christmas is that early Jews and Christians did not celebrate birthdays. Pagans, on the other hand, believed that on the day of one’s birth one was more vulnerable to spirits, so they celebrated with rituals such as wishing a good day, lighting candles, and eating cake—all of which were believed to help in warding off bad spirits.

The Bible is also used as an argument, as only three birthdays are mentioned in the sacred book, and they all end in disaster and death. In Genesis 40:1-23 the Egyptian King executes his baker to celebrate his birthday; in Matthew 14:3-11, Herod gets caught in the excess of his party and does good on his promise to kill John the Baptist; and in Job 1:4, Job’s 10 children are killed by Satan after celebrating their birthday with an assumably raucous party.

If birthdays were depicted negatively in the Bible, and if Jesus never celebrated his birthday, some Christians argue, then celebrating the birthday of the savior is not actually following his word.

Before Santa and Reindeer, most Christmas symbols were a mix of pagan and Christian traditions.
Before Santa and Reindeer, most Christmas symbols were a mix of pagan and Christian traditions. Souvenir Post Card Company/Public Domain

Besides, December 25 is most likely not the actual date of birth of Jesus. As Time pointed out last year, factors such as the shepherds being out with their flock have put to question the validity of the winter date. One astronomer used software to recreate the night sky at the time of Jesus’ arrival and claimed that his birth happened in the summer rather than the winter. Others say the big day was in autumn.

December 25 has long been a significant date, though. Occurring four days after the winter solstice, it marks the dawn of longer days and more sunlight. This has afforded it a special place in the hearts of people in several civilizations, including the Romans, who used to celebrate the feast of Saturnalia in honor of the god Saturn. This feast was surrounded by a spirit of joy, as families would gather together and present gifts to children.

Bas-relief of the Roman God Saturn, whose main feast was celebrated on December 25th.
Bas-relief of the Roman God Saturn, whose main feast was celebrated on December 25th. Jean-Pol Grandmont/CC BY 3.0

When Emperor Constantine I declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, it is said that the church purposefully co-opted the date of December 25 to incentivize pagans to convert. After all, it was better to ease them into the new faith by replacing their traditions rather than by changing them.

Thus, Jesus, who is supposed to bring new light into the spiritual state of the world, replaced the Roman god of literal light. His birth was seen by the early adopters of Christmas as a logical symbol for the birth of a new era whose positive change was reflected in the natural world. Some of the most iconic symbols of Christmas, like the decorated tree, the presents, and the date, are the result of syncretism between Christianity and pagan Roman rituals.

Sculpture depicting the feast of Saturnalia at the Botanical Gardens of Buenos Aires.
Sculpture depicting the feast of Saturnalia at the Botanical Gardens of Buenos Aires. Roberto Fiadone/CC by 2.0

Some Christians believe allowing these two to mesh is a mistake. Otoniel Morraz, who stopped celebrating Christmas five years ago, says: “As a Christian, if the lord warns me, ‘don’t do as the pagans did and say that you do it for me’ then I don’t do it.” Morraz has also stopped eating pig and tries to keep sabbath, in accordance to the scriptures. Rather than celebrating Christmas, he says, true Christians should celebrate the seven holy days that the scriptures command to be kept.

Many Christians argue, however, that Christmas symbols have long lost their association with paganism, making the celebration of December 25 perfectly reasonable. The significance, rather than the origin, seems to matter more to defenders of the holiday, who counter-argue that wedding rituals, months, and the days of the week are also a legacy of paganism—and no one objects to those.