Christmas – Christian Veneer on a Pagan Festival

“Shall we celebrate Christmas?”  This was a question asked by Protestants throughout America’s colonial history.  Few realize – and would be shocked to know - that Christmas was not officially celebrated by the Pilgrims, Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestant denominations until the second half of the 19th Century.  In fact, the first time that an American Baptist Church even celebrated Christmas was in 1772 in Newport, Rhode Island.  In reality, the Newport Baptist Church Christmas celebration was simply a bible study on Christmas day – nothing more.  The church’s minister, a Mr. Kelly, was conducting a series of bi-weekly bible studies that were scheduled on alternate Wednesdays.   Coincidentally, one of his bible studies fell on December 25th in that year.  So, Mr. Kelly adapted his message to “celebrate the birth and incarnation of the blessed Savior”.  This was the extent of the “Christmas celebration”.  We know this because a Congregationalist minister, Ezra Stiles, quietly attended the bible study and recorded his observations in his diary.  Ezra Stiles wrote, “This looked more like keeping Christmas than anything that ever before appeared among the Baptists or Congregationalists in New England…  It is probable this will begin the introduction of Christmas among the Baptist Churches about 150 years from the planting of New England and nearly one hundred and thirty years from the foundation of the first Baptist Church in New England.”  (See Christmas in America, page 30 by Penne Restad.)


The official rejection of Christmas by Protestant Christianity is clearly documented but not well understood.  Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a Puritan Pastor from New England, once called Christmas an “affront unto to the grace of God.”  His father, Increase Mather, who was also a Puritan Pastor and President of Harvard University, said, “Men dishonor Christ more during the 12 days of Christmas than in all the twelve months besides.”  In 1725, Anglican minister Henry Bourne said Christmas was “a scandal to religion and an encouraging of wickedness… a pretense for drunkenness and rioting and wantonness.”  In his book, The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum said, “the Puritans were correct when they pointed out – and they pointed it out often – that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival with a Christian veneer”. 


A pagan festival with a Christian veneer?  Strange as it sounds, this was the prevailing opinion of most Protestant denominations of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century who were all too familiar with the history of Christmas.  They knew that:

  • Christmas was established by the Roman Church as an attempt to Christianize the Roman Saturnalia Festival, celebrated December 17th through December 23rd. 
  • The Roman Church selected December 25th, the Winter Solstice of the Julian Calendar, as the birthday of Jesus Christ to coincide with the birthday celebration of Sol Invictus - the Invincible Sun even though there was no scriptural evidence to support such a date. 
  • The festivities, traditions, and trappings associated with the celebration of Christmas were nothing more than relics of ancient pagan worship covered with a Christian veneer. 


In their book, A History of Pagan Europe, Jones and Pennick said the following:


“The midwinter feast of Saturnalia (December 17), the winter feast of Brumalia on December 25 and the New Year Feast of the Calends of January persisted in their pagan form through an accident of church doctrine.  In theory they were pagan holidays, not Christian ones…  Why Bishop Liberius chose the winter solstice as the birth of Christ we do not know, but we can assume that his choice took account of the historical conflation of Christ, Mithras, and Sol.  What is certain is that once the choice was made the old Pagan celebrations were almost bound to attach themselves to the new date.  The name of Saturnalia died out, but it celebrations, such as decking houses with evergreens, giving presents and feasting, were attached to Christmas.”   

Puritan, Baptist, Presbyterian, and other Protestant denominations were well aware of the scriptural prohibition against incorporating pagan practices into the worship of God.  As such, they were familiar with God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 12: 1-4, 28-32.  Upon entering the Promised Land, Israel was to utterly destroy all of the high places, altars, sacred pillars, wooden images, carved images, and names associated with the false gods of Canaan.  Anything and everything associated with the worship of these gods was to be destroyed - nothing was to be preserved.  More importantly, none of their practices, traditions, or festivities was to be incorporated into the worship of Yahweh or Jehovah God or “Christianized” as a means of converting the nations of Canaan.  According to Deuteronomy 12: 4, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in their way.”  Verse 31 is even more explicit: “You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates.”  With these verses in mind, one wonders how the Roman Church could have rationalized its “Christianization” of the Saturnalia and birthday of Sol Invictus.   After all, God hates these festivals according to Deuteronomy 12: 30 and considers them detestable.  Furthermore, if the pagan practices of the nations cannot be incorporated into the worship of God, then the Roman Church should not have attempted to Christianize the mid-winter celebrations associated with the Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.  Protestant denominations in Colonial America through the mid-19th century understood all of this.  “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (verse 32).  

The Puritans called Christmas “a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer”.   Recognizing this fact, the Puritans actually passed a law in New England that forbad the celebration of Christmas.   Regarding the Puritan view on Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum said the following in his book “Battle for Christmas” (page 7): 

“The Puritans knew what subsequent generations would forget: that when the Church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, the decision was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the Church paid a high price.  Late-December festivities were deeply rooted in popular culture, both in observance of the winter solstice and in celebration of the one brief period of leisure and plenty in the agricultural year.  In return for ensuring massive observance of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to the resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it always had been.  From the beginning the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous.  There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority.  It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.  Little wonder that the Puritans were willing to save themselves the trouble.”

Joe Weicks

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