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Is Christmas Pagan?

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Is Christmas Pagan?

Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #24
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Summary: The Watchtower Society teaches that Christmas is a pagan holiday and therefore that Christians should not observe it in any way. To the contrary, Christmas is a Christian holiday that replaced a pagan holiday. Christians are not obligated to observe Christmas, but they may do so as long as they honor Christ.

This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.

What the Watchtower Teaches about Christmas

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society considers the celebration or observance of Christmas to be a pagan practice. It teaches Jehovah’s Witnesses that any observance of the holiday, whether as a secular activity or as part of one’s Christian faith, is an act of sinful disobedience to Jehovah God. In support of this strong stance against the holiday, the Society has marshaled a number of arguments from Scripture and history. Examining some of these objections to Christmas will enable us to reach an informed decision as to how we should view the holiday. It will also be a useful opportunity to learn from Scripture some important principles of wider significance.

Christmas Is a Birthday Celebration, and Birthday Celebrations Are Bad

A basic premise of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ objections to Christmas is that any celebration of a person’s birthday, even that of Jesus Christ, is contrary to biblical teaching. Hence, the Watchtower Society states flatly, “Christmas is a birthday celebration, and early Christians did not follow that pagan custom.”1 However, as we showed in the previous article in this series, birthday celebrations originated in pagan culture, as did other customs that the Watchtower’s teaching permits (such as wedding rings), but is not inherently pagan in a religious sense. Nor does the Bible condemn the celebration of birthdays.2

Ironically, one of the reasons Jehovah’s Witnesses give for objecting to birthday celebrations is that they give undue attention and honor to the person whose birthday it is.3 The criticism is ironic because it implies that celebrating the birth of Christ gives him undue honor. As we will see, the Watchtower Society has made that very claim explicitly.

Christmas Was Not Taught or Practiced in the Early Church

The Watchtower Society’s arguments against Christmas are often parallel to their arguments against birthdays. Most fundamentally, they point out that the Bible does not command Christmas or other holidays. To celebrate Christmas, then, is to “go beyond the things that are written” (1 Cor. 4:6).4 They ask, “If Christmas were important for Christians, would not Jesus or his disciples have mentioned it?”5 Likewise, they point out that “the Bible does not mention that Jesus or anyone else celebrated Christmas.”6

The Date of Christmas on December 25 Originated from Pagan Religion

The Watchtower employs a three-punch argument against Christmas based on the date of its traditional celebration in the West, December 25.

First, they point out that the New Testament fails to specify the date of Jesus’ birth. “Surely, if Jesus wanted his followers to celebrate his birthday, he would have made certain that they knew the date of his birth.”7

Second, the Society asserts that the actual date was almost certainly not December 25 and not even during that time of the year. According to the Watchtower Society, Jesus “was born about October 1.”8 Their rejection of the December 25 date is based on the argument (common in much of the literature on the subject, not just that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) that shepherds would not have kept their flocks out in the fields at night (Luke 2:8) during the cold winter months.9

Third, the Watchtower has repeatedly objected to Christmas on the grounds that December 25 was originally a pagan holiday associated with the Roman sun-god festival known as Saturnalia, as well as the celebration of the “birthday of the Invincible Sun” (dies natalis Solis Invictus), identified as the god Mithra.10

The Watchtower likens the church celebrating Christ’s birthday on December 25 to a group of people who claim to be celebrating a man’s birthday but “pick the birthday of one of the man’s enemies as the date for the celebration.”11

Scripture Condemns Mixing Paganism into the Christian Faith

The Watchtower Society argues that Christmas and other Christian holidays come under condemnation from the New Testament, which sharply warns against adopting pagan customs into the Christian faith (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:21; 2 Cor. 6:14-18; Eph. 5:11).12

Christmas Music Contains Falsehood and Promotes the Worship of Jesus Christ

The last objection to Christmas we will consider focuses on Christmas carols, those that are explicitly Christian. According to the Watchtower, even these carols are bad, especially because they have contributed to the worship of Jesus Christ. An article in the Watchtower claims that this effect of Christmas, including carols, is “dangerous”:

Furthermore, the celebration of Christmas has promoted the worship of Jesus in place of his Father, Jehovah God. This is another form of idolatry since the glorified Lord Jesus Christ is “the beginning of the creation by God.” (Revelation 3:14; see also Romans 1:25.) Carol-singing has served to entrench this wrong idea in billions of young hearts.13

The History of Christmas

Since so much of the Watchtower’s case against Christmas depends on claims about its history and origins, we will address those issues before presenting a biblical response.

December 25 and the Birth of Jesus

Although there are exceptions, most biblical scholars and historians agree that Jesus was probably not born in December or January. Even if we could make a plausible case for a December birth, we do not have any information that would confirm the 25th as the actual day of Jesus’ birth. Does this mean there is something wrong with celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25? Not really. Assuming birthday celebrations are not in and of themselves bad (as we have already shown in the previous article in this series), there seems nothing wrong with choosing a day of the year to hold such a celebration if the actual day is unknown.

Of course, the Watchtower’s objection goes beyond the trivial matter of us not really knowing the day of Jesus’ birth or even having good reason to think it was probably not even in December. The seeming strength of their objection is that December 25 was the day of prominent pagan religious observances prior to the institution of Christmas. There are, however, problems with this part of the Watchtower’s argument.

First, Christians had concluded that Jesus was born on December 25 long before anyone was celebrating Christmas. Gerry Bowler, in his excellent history of Christmas published by Oxford University Press, gives some of the details. The evidence indicates that Christians were celebrating the birth of Jesus by or before the year 336.14 By that time, Christians had been discussing the day of Jesus’ birth for well over a century:

By the year 200, Christian writers had begun to speculate about when the birth of Jesus had taken place. Clement of Alexandria noted that some in his city had calculated that Jesus had been born in the twenty-eighth year of the reign of Caesar Augustus, 3 b.c. by our calculation. As for the exact date, there were said to be those who favored May 20 and others either April 19 or 20…. In Carthage, Tertullian placed the time of the year as either December 25 or January 6. The widely traveled Julius Africanus stated that the conception of Jesus took place on March 25, making a late December birthday likely, and in his Commentary on Daniel, Hippolytus, writing in Rome in the early 200s, pinpointed December 25.15

As Bowler points out, Christians in the late second and third centuries were not trying to determine the day of Jesus’ birth in order to celebrate it. This means that their attempts to pin down the day of the year were free from any vested interest in assigning it to the same day as some particular pagan festival or celebration. Those early church scholars who settled on December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth were most likely mistaken, but there was nothing “pagan” about it.

December 25 and Roman Holidays

But what about the fact that December 25 was the day of major pagan festivities in Roman society? Doesn’t this mean that the early church simply took over the pagan holiday and gave it the veneer of Christianity by calling it Jesus’ birthday? Not at all.

Saturnalia was a popular Roman holiday that ran from December 17th to the 23rd. December 17 was the beginning of the Kalends of January, and the eighth day of the Kalends, December 25, was the Roman New Year. (It was also the festival called Brumalia, focused on the Roman deities Saturn and Bacchus.) As you might guess, our English word calendar derives from the Latin term Kalends. In addition, “the Roman emperor Aurelian had instituted a new holiday on December 25, Dies Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”16 December 25 was a key date for these events because it was the day of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere (it is now generally December 21 due to changes made later to what we call the Gregorian calendar). The winter solstice is the date on which the daytime is its shortest, so that it marked the beginning of the sun’s increasing appearance in the sky—which was why Aurelian made it the sun’s birthday. Aurelius, by the way, was the Roman emperor from 270 to 275, which was decades after Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Julius Africanus were arguing that Jesus was born in late December or early January.

Much like the modern secular New Year tradition in America and elsewhere, the Roman New Year was celebrated by staying up late at night drinking and staying in bed the next morning. Saturnalia (in honor of Saturn, a Roman god of agriculture), the holiday preceding the New Year, commenced with a sacrifice to Saturn in the Roman Forum, followed by feasting, temporary suspension of the usual class distinctions (such as between masters and slaves), drunkenness, and licentious behavior.17

It should go without saying, but must be stated and emphasized here, that the early church did not endorse or tolerate idol worship, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, or any other immoral conduct. Far from it: the church’s leaders preached countless sermons and wrote numerous books denouncing all these things. These are the same leaders who in the fourth century endorsed the celebration of Christmas, which in their context meant making it a special day of religious devotion to Christ, not a day of ungodly revelry. They certainly were not adopting a pagan festival as part of the church’s life while simultaneously preaching against everything such pagan festivals represented. The only thing that remained unchanged was the date.18

Is Christmas Too Pagan—or Too Christian?

Ironically, while Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few other groups condemn Christmas as too pagan, most opposition to Christmas in our day comes from those who think it is too Christian. Notoriously, atheists in America oppose Christmas specifically because it is Christian.19 Brian Flemming, the movie director responsible for the film The God Who Wasn’t There (which argued that Jesus never existed), in 2005 announced that his company Beyond Belief Media was formally declaring war on Christmas. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has proclaimed that the winter solstice, not Jesus, was “the real reason for the season.” This atheist organization has paid for billboards and other public ads promoting atheism during the Christmas season. Beginning in the late 1980s, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the FFRF, and (most notoriously) the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began successfully forcing local and state governments to remove Nativity scenes and other visual representations of religion in public places. Such religious displays have survived legal challenges mainly by being placed alongside secular elements such as a Santa Claus display or even alongside elements representing other religions, such as the Jewish menorah. Such measures have not satisfied the atheists, who have objected even to such religiously neutered displays as a tree decorated with mittens and designated as a “Giving Tree” where people could provide gifts to the needy. Christmas wreaths, which were once considered pagan by oversensitive church leaders centuries ago—and are still condemned as pagan by zealous Jehovah’s Witnesses today—are now considered too overtly Christian by oversensitive secularists.

Those religious groups that are opposed to Christmas today generally are those that are hostile to the traditional Christian belief in Jesus Christ as God incarnate. This includes not only Jehovah’s Witnesses but also several other offshoots of Adventism, all of which condemn Christmas for supposedly being pagan rather than Christian. As Bowler points out, “it is not uncommon for non-Trinitarian churches to reject Christmas.”20 Christmas is also opposed—often violently—in countries that are predominantly Muslim, specifically because Muslims perceive Christmas as a holiday honoring Jesus as the Son of God.21 Here again, the problem with Christmas is apparently that it is too Christian, at least in the traditional understanding of Christianity.

Biblical Response

As noted toward the beginning of this article, the Watchtower Society charges that the celebration of Christmas violates the principle enunciated by the apostle Paul that believers should not go “beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). Their reasoning is that if the Bible does not command or endorse the celebration of Christmas, those who celebrate it are going “beyond what is written” in the Bible in a manner the Society characterizes as “presumptuousness and disobedience.”22 However, in context Paul’s point was not that the Corinthians should do nothing except what was specifically approved in Scripture. Throughout 1 Corinthians 1–4, Paul was addressing the errors of a group of people in the Corinthian church who claimed a kind of “super spirituality” based on secret or special “wisdom” that was not available in the gospel teaching of the apostles (see, for example, 1 Cor. 2:1-5; 3:18-22). What he says here is that the Corinthians need to learn “not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another” (1 Cor. 4:6). Spiritual pride is the danger Paul was addressing.

The Watchtower’s stance is easily confused with the classic, evangelical Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (that Scripture alone is the final standard for Christian doctrine). Evangelicals agree that the church should not teach doctrines that have no basis in Scripture or require believers to do things that have no warrant in Scripture. That is different from claiming that activities not specifically commanded or approved in the Bible are thereby forbidden or disapproved. Such is not the case. We mentioned in our article on birthdays that the Watchtower Society admits that wearing wedding rings should not be condemned even though they are not mentioned in the Bible. At the same time, the Society, fairly enough, points out that no one is required to wear a wedding ring. The same reasoning applies here. The lack of any mention of Christmas in the Bible means that Christians are free to celebrate it or not according to their individual conscience. The church should neither require nor forbid the observance of Christmas. To require or to prohibit the celebration of Christmas goes “beyond what is written,” whereas freely choosing to observe it does not.

Jehovah’s Witnesses cite a variety of biblical texts warning against mixing pagan religion with the Christian faith. All Christians can and do agree with this principle. The problem is that the Watchtower teaches Jehovah’s Witnesses to apply this principle to elements of Christianity that are not really “pagan” in a religious sense. The Society does this in some instances by quoting the Bible in a highly selective, misleading fashion. Here is an example from one of their polemical articles against Christian holidays, in this instance Easter:

Although exposed to many pagan customs while traveling through the Roman Empire, he [Paul] never adopted any of them to give people a better understanding of Jesus. On the contrary, he warned the Christians: “Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers. For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness? ‘Therefore, get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing.’”​—2 Corinthians 6:14, 17.23

One must look closely here to notice that the Watchtower has quoted two verses from Paul (verses 14 and 17) while omitting two verses from the middle of the passage (verses 15-16). They did not even bother using an ellipsis (…) in their quotation. One gets a rather different message when the omitted portion is restored:

14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
17 Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
18 and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:14-18 ESV)

A serious problem when the Christian movement was brand new in predominantly Gentile churches, as notably in Corinth, was that it was countercultural to them to think that becoming a believer in Christ required them to abandon all participation in other religions. The average Greek saw absolutely nothing strange about worshiping one deity today and offering religious devotion at the shrine of another deity tomorrow. Indeed, they saw something strange (or even offensive!) about restricting one’s religious practice to the honoring of only one deity. Against this cultural assumption, Paul found it necessary to remind Gentile believers that coming to Christ meant renouncing all other deities and all idolatry. You could not honor Christ alongside the gods of the idolatrous nations. You had to “go out” from the temples of pagan religion in order to become part of “the temple of the living God” that was the Christian church.

When the Christian church in the fourth century began celebrating Christmas on December 25, it was not adopting Saturnalia, sun worship, or some other pagan Roman holiday and masking this fact by calling it the birthday of Jesus Christ. The church was telling people to make a choice between the idolatrous and licentious celebration of Saturn and other Roman gods on the one hand, and the spiritual and holy celebration of Jesus Christ on the other hand. Their strategy was to replace the pagan holiday with a Christian one—to supplant the ungodly celebration with a godly one.

Faithful Christian churches present the same sort of choice today. You can treat Christmas Eve as an excuse for drunken “Christmas” parties at the office or as an opportunity to focus gratefully on the incomprehensibly wonderful gift that God gave when he sent his Son into the world for our salvation. You cannot have it both ways.

Finally, the Watchtower’s complaint that Christmas, including the singing of Christmas carols, unduly honors Jesus Christ assumes that he is merely a creature and not deserving of the honor due to God. The Society misrepresents the issue in a highly slanted way by claiming that “the celebration of Christmas has promoted the worship of Jesus in place of his Father, Jehovah God” (emphasis added).24 Of course, that is simply not the case. Christmas honors the Son and the Father, just as Jesus said we should do (John 5:23).

It is supremely ironic that the Watchtower cites Revelation 3:14, one of its favorite proof texts for their doctrine that Christ was God’s first creature, to buttress its objection to worshiping Christ.25 As we explained in an earlier article in this series, Revelation 3:14 does not mean that Jesus Christ was God’s first creature but rather that, as the crucified and risen Savior and Lord, he is the Head of the new creation.26 Just two chapters later, the Book of Revelation presents a vision in which all creatures from heaven and earth will worship God the Father and Jesus Christ “the Lamb”:

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea,
and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
                        Revelation 5:13-14

The Watchtower Society’s view of Christmas displays a fundamental inconsistency in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the one hand, they attack Christmas because it is supposedly not Christian enough, due to its alleged compromise with ancient pagan religion and culture. On the other hand, we may fairly say that they also attack Christmas because it is too Christian, due to the fact that it honors, exalts, and worships Jesus Christ.

The truth is that Christmas—the real holiday, not the secular appropriation of it—epitomizes what is good and true in Christianity. The Christmas carols of the Christian faith honor Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, the hope of all nations, the Lord who brings freedom, light, and life to all who hear his message. Some of the most biblically informed, theologically rich, and Christ-honoring hymns ever composed are Christmas carols.

Hail the Heav'n-born Prince of Peace
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and Life around he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.
Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born that Men no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of Earth,
Born to give them second Birth.
Hark, the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King!
                        “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”
                        Charles Wesley, adapted by George Whitefield




1. “Is Christmas for Christians?” Watchtower (Public), 2017, no. 6, 15.

2. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Does God Disapprove of Birthdays?” Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #23 (Cedar Springs, MI: IRR, 2020).

3. E.g., “What about Celebrating Birthdays?” Awake! July 8, 1976, 28; Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom (Watchtower, 1993), 201.

4. “Is Christmas for Christians,” 15; “What Does Christmas Music Really Teach?” Watchtower, Dec. 15, 1983, 6.

5. “Christmas—Is It Christian?” Awake! Dec. 8, 1988, 17.

6. “Is Christmas for Christians,” 15.

7. “Is Christmas for Christians,” 15.

8. What Does God Require of Us? (Watchtower, 1996, 2006 printing), 22.

9. “What Does Christmas Music Really Teach,” 4–5.

10. “What You Should Know about Christmas,” Awake! Dec. 8, 2002, 17. See also “Do You Care?” Awake! Dec. 8, 1970, 3; “Keep Yourselves in God’s Love” (Watchtower, 2014), 146.

11. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 179.

12. E.g., “Is Easter Really a Christian Celebration?” Watchtower, March 1, 2015, 8.

13. “Christmas—Why Is It Dangerous?” Watchtower, Dec. 15, 1984, 7.

14. Gerry Bowler, Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5.

15. Bowler, Christmas in the Crosshairs, 4.

16. Bowler, Christmas in the Crosshairs, 6.

17. Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 7–10, 28.

18. Bowler, Christmas in the Crosshairs, 7–8.

19. For what follows here, see Bowler, Christmas in the Crosshairs, 106–228.

20. Bowler, Christmas in the Crosshairs, 127 (see 116–27).

21. Bowler, Christmas in the Crosshairs, 148–51.

22. “What Does Christmas Music Really Teach,” 6.

23. “Is Easter Really a Christian Celebration,” 8.

24. “Christmas—Why Is It Dangerous,” 7.

25. “Christmas—Why Is It Dangerous,” 7.

26. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Is Jesus Christ God’s First Creature?” Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #8 (Cedar Springs, MI: IRR, 2018).