by Rusty Osborne
It is not uncommon to hear in some Christian circles that many Christmas traditions have their roots in ancient pagan traditions. Some posit that the day December 25th was adapted from a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, while others state that is was a birthday celebration of an ancient pagan deity. The Christmas tree tradition is sometimes likened to pagan tree worship, and recently I was instructed that it is like the Israelites worshipping the asherah-poles in the Old Testament!
To be frank, I have little interest in the ancient reasons why Christians came to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Messiah on December 25th. Historically, there is little to go on in reconciling these touted claims (read the fascinating historical survey provided by Andrew McGowan “How December 25 Became Christmas”). However, the point is that it does not matter. Words and cultural artifacts are defined primarily by their context more than by their historical “roots.”
Many students of the Bible are familiar with the common exegetical fallacy known as the “root” fallacy. This principle basically states that the meaning of a word is found largely in its surrounding context, not its etymological history. (Yes, there are times when etymology is a necessary tool to try to discern rare words.) To use an English example, the word “nice” originated around the fourteenth century and meant “foolish” or “silly,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact it comes from a Latin root nescius, which means “ignorant.” Now to be sure, no one using the word “nice” today has any of these ideas in mind when they employ the word. I have never called someone nice and then thought “I hope they don’t think I mean that they’re foolish!” This is ridiculous. And that is my point.
When people say that Christians should be leery of Christmas traditions because of their supposed pagan origins, they are in essence saying we should stop using the word “nice” to talk about pleasant things because it really means “foolish” or “stupid.” The Christian church has been celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25th for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And I am not really worried about where the date came from, because the thought of a pagan deity’s birthday never enters my mind. Our family deliberately decorates our tree with lights, and symbols of life, love, and peace in an effort to explain to our children the beauty and splendor of the good news proclaimed in angelic song so long ago. Regardless of the ancient origins of these traditions, Christians should take these enduring seasonal vestiges and fill them with the joy found in knowing that God became flesh and dwelled among us. To relegate Christmas traditions to the sidelines because of their supposed roots would simply be nice, in the original sense of the word.
Rusty Osborne is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at College of the Ozarks in Branson, Missouri, and is the editor of the Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament. He frequently writes on the Old Testament at www.lawprophetsandwritings.com.
The views expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Academic, Lifeway Christian Resources, or any employee thereof.