Many things about Christmas have pagan origins. Does this mean that by participating we are opening ourselves to the occult? What about Christmas trees, yule logs, lights, mistletoe and even the date of December 25?
When we look deeper, huge parts of our culture have pagan origins, from the names of the days of the week, the months, common personal names and place names.
One pagan website points out that
- a bowl of cereal is named after Ceres, the god of agriculture
- Insomnia comes from Somnus the god of sleep
- Nike is the Greek goddess of Victory
- Cars are named Saturn, Taurus etc.
- (But note that this site is wrong about Easter)
Many people celebrate Halloween, which has much more obvious pagan origins, and some music and new-age practices have explicit connections.
I am going to suggest we can divide these cultural elements into three categories:
- Things where the pagan connection is effectively dead
- Things where there is some connection but if we clearly understand our freedom then we have no risk.
- Things where participation does risk opening us up to occult power.
The best way of answering these questions is to look at how the problem was addressed in the New Testament—after all, the world at that time was steeped in paganism.
Words with pagan origins
This was a non-issue.
- Paul casually remarked that “After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead.” Acts 28:11 (esv). The King James inserts the names of the gods, “Castor and Pollux”.
- Both Greek and Aramaic were languages born out of paganism. There is no evidence that Jesus or the writers of the New Testament tried to “censor out” words based on their origins.
- Names with pagan origin were in common use. E.g. The name of the Jewish Queen Esther comes from Asherah, the Canaanite mother goddess, yet God did not ask her to change her name before using her to save Israel.
My conclusion is that such words fall under category (A.) and we should not be concerned about days of the week, months etc.
Living in a pagan world
Simply to function in the New Testament world meant brushing up against paganism in every facet of life.
- Jesus argued that his followers should not avoid using Roman coins (that contained an inscription honouring Caesar as god) as long as they rendered to God what was his (i.e. they ignored the inscription).
Probably the clearest and most relevant issue was the “eating of meat sacrificed to idols”. The butcher’s shops of the ancient world were pagan establishments where the animals were killed as a sacrifice and the meat was then sold. This was a “hot” issue for the early church and Paul addressed this issue head on in 1 Corinthians 8 and Rom 14 where he laid down some clear principles. 1 Corinthians 8 (esv) reads:
- Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”
- For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—
- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
So is it always ok to eat such meat? Paul explains that love always trumps personal freedom:
- However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.
- Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
- But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
- For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?
- And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.
- Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
- Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Later in 15:18–21 Paul distinguishes between the meat itself, which is neutral, actually participating in the sacrifice, which is idolatry. In 15:28 he states that even giving the impression to an unbeliever that you are ok with such sacrifices should be avoided.
- Even though the food had been at the very centre of a pagan ritual, and had been devoted to a demonic deity, the Christian had nothing to fear from eating it.
- The only problem was this. It is actually a sin for someone to do something they believe to be wrong even thought it is not actually wrong. The best solution of course is knowledge, through good teaching. But in the meantime we should not cause those who are ignorant to sin.
- This would place eating meat offered to idols, and similar practices, under category (B.).
But Christmas is not “Biblical”
No, it isn’t in the Bible! I believe we have freedom to treat the day as special, or just like any other day, providing we don’t try and impose those beliefs on others. Paul addressed this specifically in Romans 14:
- Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
- One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
- The one who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
The problems come when we start giving spiritual significance to items that are at best, purely cultural. For example, developing spiritual rituals around these objects, or putting pressure on others to do so.
Objects from pagan worship
A good example would be from Acts 19
- And a number of those who had practised magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.
In ancient times, magic books were not merely informational, but were supposedly invested with power. They had to be burned.
All through the Scriptures idols have to be destroyed, not re-purposed as decorative trinkets. The reason for this is that an idol is part of the ritual for invoking demonic powers. The demons see the process of worship and sacrifice to the idol as a symbolic invitation. Exactly the same could be said today of Ouija boards or other occult artifacts. To keep such an artifact around is asking for trouble. They fall under category (C.).
- Most of the pagan links with Christmas fall under (A.)—they are dead and not worth worrying about.
- Even if there was a direct connection with paganism, if it was safe to eat meat that had been at the centre of a demonic ritual, then we should not worry about putting up a Christmas tree (providing we don’t worship it!).
- If a Christian does have a real problem with any practices, the answer is good teaching, not to scorn their “ignorance”.
- Some cultural events have a real and live connection with the occult, e.g. some New-Age healing practices, or Halloween celebrations. A Christian should take care to avoid these.
- If an object has been used as a tool for invoking the demonic (e.g. a wooden mask), then it is not harmless and should be destroyed.
- One of the worst demonic sins is lack of love for fellow Christians: “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10 esv)