Incarnation Minus Paganism: A Christmas What-If

Incarnation Minus Paganism: A Christmas What-If


Let's suppose that Shrek's famous maxim about the parallel qualities of ogres and onions is also true for Christmas. I’m not suggesting that ogres are like Christmas, but rather Christmas and onions both have layers. Next, let us accept that those layers are composed of a variety of non-Biblical (sometimes downright pagan), sources. Suppose we could strip away all those yucky layers - what would we have left? Specifically, what would we be doing on December 25 (if we did it on December 25 at all)?

Let’s peel back the many layers of Christmas, and decide what to keep[2] (please note, although my attempt to provide the reader with historical facts will be genuine, my tone will be a bit playful).

LAYER ONE – Modern Commercialism

This layer is easy both to identify and to pick on.

The commercialization of Christmas has received a lot of attention. Dave Ramsey warns against going into debt for Christmas gifts.[3] National Public Radio warns about the dangers of Black Friday.[4] Our consumer Christmas is still religious, but in the wrong ways. Some have called modern Christmas “the civil religion of capitalism.”[5] The real danger of a consumer Christmas is not in being pepper-sprayed for $2.00 waffle irons or assuming mountains of debt. The real danger is spiritual: we emphasize “the materials that claim to be good instead of the Good that claims to be material [Christ’s incarnation].”[6]

So let’s shed that layer like a gaudy Christmas sweater.

LAYER TWO – The 19th Century

This layer will also be fun to toss (if you think it’s fun to make kids cry).

Christmas transformed into a children’s holiday in the nineteenth century. Christmas trees became ubiquitous. Here we also find the invention of our modern Santa Claus character (thankfully, a 1980’s Saturday Night Live skit warned me that if I rearranged the letters in Santa’s name I got “Satan,”[7] so I’ve kept my distance from the man in red ever since). We also find roots for Christmas’s modern commercialization in the blossoming 19th-century consumer economy.

Let’s trash ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas because it has all that Santa stuff (as well as some creepy, dancing sugar plums that are nowhere in the Bible).

LAYER THREE – The Puritans

As we peel back the layers, suddenly our onion has a sort of air bubble. Christmas celebrations disappear. The American and English Puritans actually outlawed Christmas during the seventeenth century. The way they purged the non-Biblical detritus was to toss out the whole thing. We hopefully won’t have to be quite that extreme. Besides, their efforts eventually failed, as the modern popularity of Christmas attests.[8]

LAYER FOUR – Northern Europe

Have you ever wondered how a holiday marking an event that happened in Israel got associated with snow? Well, here is our answer: when snowy northern Europe became Christianized, snowy scenes began to enter Christmas artwork.

And while we are in Europe, we are getting to the roots of that whole Christmas tree thing (yuk, yuk, yuk). According to one legend, Martin Luther was inspired one night when he saw stars shining through a fir tree. Not exactly environmentally sensitive, he cut it down, took it home, and decorated it with candles for his family to enjoy (poor Tannenbaum!).

But the reverence of trees predates Luther by a lot. Romans trimmed trees during Saturnalia (a particularly raucous pagan holiday that we will deal with in a bit), and those wacky Druids honored Odin by tying offerings onto tree branches. Speaking of Druids, mistletoe was used by Druids for winter solstice ceremonies. Remove this layer, and no more smooching under a tree parasite.

Santa Claus also has some (interesting) historical ancestors here. Santa is a mixture of figures. First is the Germanic Father Christmas who also has associations with Odin. Next is Knight Ruprecht, who takes care of kids on the “naughty” list. While Father Christmas rewarded good children, Ruprecht took care of the others with a stick. Third is St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was actually a Christian figure. Nicholas of Myra lived in the 4th century (when Christmas was being established) and died for his faith. Nicholas was famous for putting gifts in stockings.[9]

When we remove this layer, no more snow globes with Christmas scenes.

LAYER FIVE – The Manger Animals and The Wise Men

Here we lose the partridge in a pear tree. The 12 days of Christmas tradition arose from 6th-century French Christians, referring to the 12 days between December 25 and January 6 (probably a good thing we can drop this, as I can never get the words straight to that silly song). What’s the big deal with January 6? Some early Christians thought January 6 was the arrival of the magi, while others argued it was the birth date for Christ.

We also need to remove the ox, donkey, and camel from our manger scene. They aren’t in the original story, although they are in the Bible. Isaiah was a popular source text for early Christians as they looked for messianic predictions, and we have ox and donkey Isaiah 1:3Isaiah 60:6 mentions camels coming with gold and frankincense.

OK, strictly speaking, the animals are biblical, but they are also additions to the original story. So ox, donkey, and camels all look at us and ask, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Regarding the camel’s companions in our modern manger scenes, Matthew mentions the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). However he does not give a specific number of them. Early Christian interpreters noted the three gifts listed, and decided that one wise man per gift was appropriate. As far as the tradition of them being kings goes, Psalms 72:10 references Kings bearing gifts, so early Christian interpreters made that connection. For kings and camels together, see also Isaiah 60:10-11.

The wise men are tricky as far as “pagan” concerns go. The term magos would refer to Babylonian and Persian priests. So were they God-fearers? Hard to tell. Whatever their specific religious beliefs, the magoi (however many) were part of Matthew 2:1-12, so we will let them stay.

LAYER SIX – December 25

Your December calendar is about to become a lot less stressful. Why? Because this whole winter festival thing needs to go.

Early in the history of Christmas celebrations, bishops complained about excessive eating and drinking, often associated with the Roman Saturnalia festival. The seven-day festival (December 17-23) included supposed freedoms for slaves and lots of feasting and other raucous activities. The Roman Saturnalia also included candles on tree branches, celebrating the sun’s return to earth.

LAYER SEVEN – Birthday Celebrations

According to the Roman calendar, December 25 was the winter solstice. Since the sun appeared to grow in power every day after the solstice, ancients labeled the winter solstice as the “birthday” of the sun. Interestingly, the Bible uses the sun imagery in reference to Christ (see Matthew 17:2Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Mark 16:2  Revelation 1:16). With a growing appreciation for parallels between culture and text, combining reverential beliefs about the sun with reverential beliefs about The Son may have been inevitable.

Only two birthday celebrations are mentioned in the Bible, both pagan: Pharaoh and Herod. As early as ca. 200, Origen warned believers about mixing pagan and Christian traditions, celebrating Christ's birth as if Christ were a Pharoah. The actual celebration of Christmas did not officially begin until at least the third century. By then, Christianity became “Romanized,” and the Romans celebrated birthdays. So gradually, celebrating birthdays became "okay" for Christians.

Let’s remove this layer, and say good-bye to that “Happy Birthday, Jesus” song.

LAYER EIGHT – Holiday Meals

If you are not a fan of extended family dinners, I have some good news for you. There is a big difference between the Nativity (the actual birth of Christ) and the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). Especially considering all that Saturnalia stuff, we better get rid of the big Christmas dinner.


When we peel away all the layers of an onion, we suddenly appear to have nothing left. And at first, that is how our Christmas supposal may seem. If we strip away all the extra-Biblical layers, December 25 becomes a dark midwinter day. We leave the lights and the levity to the pagans.

So how can we celebrate Christ’s birth? Francis Schaeffer noted the gospel responses to seeing the Christ child included proclamation from the shepherds (Luke 2:17), worship from the Magi (Matthew 2:11), and joy assured (Luke 2:10).[10] So when we strip away all the other stuff that has attached itself to the Nativity, we still have something: proclamation, worship, and joy.

However, I suggest we don’t do the Nativity any favors by stripping the Incarnation holiday bare. We need sacred holidays on our calendar. Why? Because “to practice a sacred calendar is to save a date for the presence of God.”[11]

In the Christmas story, the peeled-back one, God used the forced census of a pagan empire to set the stage for His grand invasion of the human condition. Rather than remove a pagan influence, He redeemed it. I say rather than dismiss all of Christmas’s cultural detritus, let us invade it. How? Let’s saturate this mid-winter celebration with all-out proclamation, worship, and joy.

[1] I’m borrowing the term from C. S. Lewis, who calls the details of his book The Great Divorce an “imaginative supposal.”

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all the facts of this article are derived from one or more of six different sources: Owen Chadwick’s (1995) A History of Christmas, Donald Heinz’s (2011) “Christmas and the Clash of Civilizations” in Christian Reflection 41, Jonathan Hill’s (2005) What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us?, Joseph Kelly’s (2004) The Origins of Christmas and his 2011 article, “The Birth of Christmas” in Christian Reflection 41, and Herbert Weinicke’s Christmas Customs Around the World.

[3] or see this article:


[5] Heinz, 20.

[6] Heinz, 19. Apparently the excessive consumerism is not a new problem, though. Around 400, bishop Austerious of Amasea in Cappodocea complained about Christians going into debt because they wanted presents so badly.


[8] Henry Wadsworth Longfelow (1856), commenting on life in New England: “The old puritan feeling prevents Christmas from being a cheerful, hearty holiday, though every years makes it more so” (Quoted in Kelley, 2004).


[10] See volume three of The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview.

[11] Heinz, 24.

Stanley J. Ward is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, TX. He is also the author of Worldview Conversations: How to Share Your Faith and Keep Your Friends.

Publication date: December 5, 2011

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