As we get closer to certain holidays, we start to hear a lot of noise. Noise about the secular parts of the holidays and noise about not forgetting the religious implications of those holidays. We hear voices shouting that the holidays are evil, while others state they are innocent. But which voices are correct? Is Easter about a bunny rabbit and egg hunts, is it really about the resurrection of Christ or is it about Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility? Is Halloween really about summoning evil spirits and the souls of the dead or is it about having fun dressing up in costumes while getting free candy? Is Christmas about the birth of Christ (who was likely born during another time of year), is it about the winter solstice, or is it just a special holiday for spending time with your family and exchanging gifts? I think there is truth to most of these, so the question then becomes...what are we, as Christians, supposed to celebrate?
Before I give you my opinions on the subject, I’d like to ask you to please not stop reading as soon as you feel justified. Instead, I’d like to ask you to take the entire writing into account, as a whole, and then make your conclusions based on that. With that said, let’s start with some of the pagan backgrounds of these days to set the foundation. We need to also establish here that there is a lot of misinformation out there about all of these holidays, so I’m going to do my best to sort it out here.
Easter was likely a celebration of the spring equinox, or the beginning of spring, when the flowers would start to bloom, the crops would start to grow, and the weather would be more pleasant. During this time, pagan religions often had ceremonies to worship their god or goddess of fertility in hopes to gain their favor, and thus, have fertile crops and livestock that spring.
There is a common misconception here that Easter was named after Ishtar (a Sumerian goddess who was hung on a stake naked and was resurrected later). This is likely not true. Most scholars seem to believe that it was named after Eostre (or Ostara), which was a Germanic fertility goddess, whose symbol was a rabbit. An egg is also a symbol of fertility. This spring equinox was actually celebrated, though, by many, many religions throughout history, so it’s hard to say that only one religion owns the day or its origins. The simple fact is that to many ancient religions, spring time was incredibly important and so they worshiped their gods in a special way during the equinox.
Personally, I think the pagan roots of Easter are mostly in the story of Attis. He was another god that would have been celebrated on this day. He was a Greek god of vegetation, whose mom became pregnant from an almond falling on her (no father), and was killed and resurrected later. He was supposedly born on December 25th, and his death/resurrection was symbolic of the death of fruits/plants in the winter and their rebirth in the spring, which would have been celebrated during the spring equinox. It’s likely that the ancient Christian church adapted these days (December 25th and the spring equinox) into their own celebrations and used it as a chance to explain how these ancient myths were actually a foreshadowing of Jesus. In religions that had this type of resurrection narratives (Ishtar, Horus, Mithras, Dionysus, Attis, etc.) Christianity found great success at converting them. I’ll explain more about why later.
Of all the holidays we celebrate, this is arguably the most pagan and cultish in origin. The origin is likely tied to the an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest time. It also marked the beginning of the dark, cold winter, which was often associated with human death. Later, in the eight century, Pope Gregory designated November 1st as a time to honor saints and martyrs. This was known as All Saints Day. The evening before was known as All Hallow’s Eve, later called Halloween. This was a time where Celtic druids believed the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead became blurred and they would burn bonfires to summon spirits and help them foretell the future.
Later on, the Roman Empire conquered the Celts and incorporated Samhain with two of their festivals. The first, Feralia, was in late October and celebrated the passing of the dead. The second was Pomona, and honored the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was an apple (which explains why bobbing for apples is often part of Halloween).
Christmas has its roots in several things, but is likely the least influenced by pagan religions. Still, it hasn’t escaped influence. Of course, we think of the birth of Christ and Santa Claus as main names dropped on this holiday. While Santa Claus was actually based on a real person (Saint Nicholas) who has an amazing story, the date chosen likely has ties to the winter solstice celebrated by pagans. Christmas trees also have some pagan roots in that pagan religions often would decorate their homes with branches during the winter solstice to remind them that spring would be coming after the winter. The Romans also used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia (which ran from Dec 17th through the 23rd). Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.
So, how does this pertain to Christians? Obviously some of the traditions many of us celebrate have pagan origins, but does that mean we are actually worshiping another god by practicing them or have they simply taken on a new meaning over time? To answer this, I think we should first look at the reason these things were incorporated.
First, God has the ability to foreshadow His Son. It was done throughout the Old Testament and I believe God also revealed parts of Himself to other cultures in order to prepare them for the truth of the gospel that would come later. These stories we have of death and resurrection in other religions were a beautiful foreshadowing of Christ, so is it wrong to use these stories to point to Christ when witnessing to people who believe them? Paul certainly didn’t think so. In fact, Paul openly used a pagan religion to point to the real God.
Acts 17:22-31 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
Missionaries all over the world understand the power of showing people how God has already revealed Himself to them. They will often use things people already understand to convey truths of God to them in a way they will understand. In the same way, when the church was first reaching out to people in these religions, they used things these people were familiar with and simply reinterpreted them to convey the truth of the gospel.
See, the church was already going to celebrate the birth of Christ, but they chose to place the date during a time where people were watching the death of all their crops and were doing rituals to remind them that the plants would be back in the spring. The early church used the date to celebrate Christ’s birth (even though he was likely born during another time of year) as a reminder of the promise of life to come and they used the spring equinox as a day of celebrating Jesus return from the dead and the defeat of death. The church adapted some of the rituals these pagans did, but reinterpreted them. For instance, they took eggs from the pagan rituals and dyed them red to represent the blood of Christ. They took the fir trees from the Roman temples and used them to show everlasting life in God...and now, churches are even taking Halloween and using it as a way of reaching out to children to share the gospel.
So, the real question is this: Should we be taking things that were meant for another god and consuming them in an attempt to witness to others? Again, I would refer to Paul on this matter. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul talks about eating food that had been offered to idols. This is a perfect illustration. Paul’s point seemed to be that there is only one God and that the idols the food was offered to weren’t real. Because of this, there was absolutely no harm in eating the food because the gods they were offered to don’t really exist. In the same way, Ishtar is fictional. So is Attis. So are all the Roman gods and goddesses as well as all the Sumerian, Egyptian, Germanic, etc. There is only one God. So, anything offered to those gods doesn’t belong to those gods because those gods simply do not exist.
The only warning Paul gives afterwards is that we must be clear that we are not actually worshiping those gods when we consume of the things that were offered to them in the past...just in case there is someone who might fall into actually worshiping those gods by following our example.
The simplest way I know how to explain it is in this way. Just because someone used something for one thing doesn’t mean that no one else is allowed to use it for something else. The meaning of things changes over time and culture. The spring equinox, winter solstice, Easter eggs, Easter bunnies, Christmas trees, etc. all used to mean something else, but that doesn’t mean those things have the same meaning now. They just don’t. Even if there were still some people who celebrated those things the way they used to be celebrated, it does not somehow change what the meanings of those things are to us. The significance of the things we do to celebrate these holidays and others is in the meaning they have to us, not the meaning they had to others centuries ago. Paul had no problem reinterpreting another religion to explain the real God and neither should we.
So, if you want to hunt for Easter eggs, feel free to do so without condemnation. If you want to let your kids dress up in costumes and get free candy, go ahead...and don’t forget to visit a church for a harvest party. Want to put up a Christmas tree and some lights? Go all out and make your home look beautiful...just remember to share with your family the real meaning behind the celebration.
Colossians 3:17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
I hope this writing has been beneficial for you.