Do you know the true origins of Christmas? The Christmas tree? Or Santa Claus? In this edition of the Elders’ Corner, Elder Oscar Owens reveals the origins of the Christmas celebration, as well some of its myths and traditions.
Santa Claus and Christmas trees, holly wreaths and poinsettias, colored lights and joyous carols, endless shopping and gift giving…these are the many sights and sounds of the beloved holiday called Christmas.
For most Americans, the Christmas season is a heart-warming time filled with delicious foods, wonderful fragrances, colorful fantasies and family fun. Yet, Christmas has also become a time of crass commercialism, consumer debt, crowded malls and crushing depression.
Yearly, faithful Christians wonder if the true message of Christmas is forever obliterated and tainted by the cultural expressions associated with the religious celebration. Is Christmas a pagan holiday? Or is it a Christian Holy Day meant to be honored and respected?
Here’s a list of the top 5 myths about Christmas, as revealed in the history of the celebration:
MYTH#1: Christmas was once a pagan holiday. The idea of celebrating Christmas began in Rome in 354 A.D., when Bishop Liberius declared December 25 as the day for Christians in the western part of the Roman Empire to acknowledge Christ’s incarnation. This day of the winter solstice was a Roman holiday called The Feast of Sol Invictus. Christians were still a persecuted minority in the pagan, non-Christian Roman society of the day; therefore Bishop Liberius brilliantly seized upon this time of Roman celebration as a cover for the Christians to rejoice in the birth of Jesus Christ. The besieged Christian community could now be protected and allowed to worship their Savior in safety. Interestingly enough, the strategy worked: the world does not remember the celebration of Sol Invictus, but each year is reminded that Jesus Christ, the Son of God was born as a little baby in Bethlehem!
MYTH #2: Christmas trees are mentioned in the Bible and prohibited. Is Jeremiah 10:3-4 a biblical injunction against the Christmas tree tradition? No. Further examination of Jeremiah 10 reveals that God is actually condemning the creation of wooden idols carved from trees. In fact, the Christmas tree originated centuries after Jeremiah 10 was written. In the 8th century AD, St. Boniface, an English missionary to Germany, cut down “the sacred oak tree in the city of Gelsmar.” According to The Christian Book of Why by John C. McCollister, St. Boniface, in an attempt to rid Germany of idolatry, instead gave the people an evergreen fir tree to demonstrate their break with paganism and subsequent turn to Christianity. The evergreen symbolizes the eternal life we receive by faith in Jesus Christ. The book also states that on a beautiful Christmas eve night, the great German preacher and Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, saw a fir tree silhouetted against a starlit sky. The beauty of the sight so overwhelmed him that he could not find the words to adequately describe it to his wife and children. Impulsively, he cut down the tree, decorated it, and is perhaps the first person to bring an evergreen tree, representing Christ’s eternal life, into the home for Christmas.
MYTH #3: “Xmas” was adopted to take Christ out of Christmas. The XMAS abbreviation is really not a slight on Jesus Christ at all. The “X” is actually the Greek letter “chi” which is the first letter in the Greek spelling of Christ. The “X” represents Jesus’ title, “Christ” or Messiah. This “x” or “chi” has been used by Christians for thousands of years as an abbreviation for “Christ” seen in the church symbol “Xp” or “Chr” in English.
MYTH #4: Santa Claus is based on a mythical figure. The tradition of Santa Claus stems back to the celebration of the feast day of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia. Nicholas was an important Bishop in the 4th century, known for his generosity to the poor, especially children. His feast day, celebrated December 6, was a time to give presents to children. St. Nicholas, or “Santa Niklaus” in the Dutch language, eventually became Santa Claus in American English. The current image of the chubby man in a red suit was popularized by Rev. Clement Moore, a professor of theology at New York Theological Seminary, who published the poem, “The Visit of St. Nicholas” on December 23, 1923. The poem later became known as “The Night Before Christmas.” We can tell our children that the real Santa Claus, Saint Bishop Nicholas, was a Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian who did so much good helping poor children that he is remembered to this day in the mythical jolly man we call Santa Claus. We all can follow his example of helping to make life better for children and adults who are poor and oppressed.
MYTH #5: Many symbols of Christmas have no real Christian meaning for the Holiday. The Christmas tree is just one of the many popular symbols used by earlier Christians to communicate the message of the gospel:
- The word “Christmas” is actually a contraction of Middle English words for the phrase “Christ’s mass,” a worship celebration and Holy Communion service honoring Jesus Christ’s nativity or birth.
- The “merry’ in Merry Christmas is an old English term meaning “blessed” or “happy.”
- The star on top of the Christmas tree symbolizes the star of Bethlehem which led the wise men’s journey to the Christ child.
- The candle lights, according to Martin Luther who first placed them on the boughs of his own Christmas tree, are symbolic of Jesus as the Light of the world.
- Holly wreaths are symbolic of the crown of thorns Jesus Christ wore at his crucifixion. Christians hung wreaths on their doors to let their neighbors know a Christian believer lived there.
- Poinsettias came into the Christmas celebration through an American minister, Dr. Joel R. Poinsett, who brought the flower-like plants from Mexico to the northern United States. The deep red flower which peaks in December as striking in contrast to the drab foliage of the wintery north and was emblematic of the birth of Jesus – beauty in the midst of bleakness. Additionally, the brilliant red petals portray the blood of Jesus shed for all humanity during His sacrificial death on the cross.
Although commercialism has taken over the symbols of Christmas, at the heart of most Christmas traditions is a Christian message. For Christians, Christmas is indeed a Holy Day of celebrating the historic fact of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Share with your friends and loved ones the Good News of Jesus, God’s Love in human form, given for everyone who will receive Him this Gift.
In I Corinthians 9:22, the apostle Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” Christmas is a sacred time for us to spread joy and God’s free gift of salvation to a world eager to enjoy the warm feelings of the holiday season, and to all people who consent to believe.
Elder Oscar Owens has a passion for helping others deepen their connection to the Bible and to the Lord. He currently serves as West Angeles’ Minister of Christian Education, as well as President of the West Angeles Bible College, where he teaches Systematic Theology. He is currently studying for his Doctorate of Ministry in Christian Spiritual Formation at Azuza Pacific University’s Seminary in Los Angeles, where he also teaches Urban Spirituality. He’s been married to the powerful singer and Tony-nominated playwright Lita Gaithers Owens for 31 years. Read more about Elder Oscar Owens HERE.
 Jeremiah 10:3-4 (NIV) 3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. 4They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.
 Hank Hanegraaff, “Is Christmas Christian?”, Christian Research Institute.
 “The Christian Book of Why” by John C. McCollister.