Pagan Origins: Should Christians Worry?

Updated on March 13, 2018
Roots: They're everywhere
Roots: They're everywhere

Yes, Our Holidays Are Pagan

If you've spent any time on the Internet - which I gather you have - you will have heard something like the following.

From neo-pagans, Wiccans, and sympathizers: "Neener, neener, neener, Easter and Christmas are pagan holidays!"

From worried Christians: "Oh my God, are Easter and Christmas really pagan holidays? Does that mean we can't ... "

Ha ha, Just kidding! Christians don't really say "Oh my God." But on hearing about the pagan roots of some of our practices, some thoughtful Christians might just think, Uh-oh.

Not So Fast, Though

There is a widely held, unexamined assumption among both Christians and neopagans who have grown up in a Christian or post-Christian society. It goes something like this: if we can show that some kind of Christian practice developed from a similar thing that was pagan, we have now shown that it is still pagan and therefore derivative (neopagan's interpretation), or tainted and unlawful (Christian's interpretation).

This assumption isn't necessarily valid.

Your thinking is not complete on this topic until you have read G.K. Chesterton's book The Everlasting Man. In it, Chesterton argues that human beings were created by God to do certain things. Human beings, wherever they live and whatever their religion, will do these things. They will have festivals and parties at certain times. They will pray. They will make beautiful clothes and dress up sometimes. When circumstances permit, they will bake cakes. This is part of the creation order and the cultural mandate, in addition to being lots of fun.

Festivals to mark the turning of the seasons. Ceremonies on the occasion of births, deaths, or marriages. Even the wearing of strange or scary or goofy masks. None of these are features of being Christian or pagan per se ... they are features of being human.

I don't have a picture of an actual idol, but this statue is supposed to look like a person.
I don't have a picture of an actual idol, but this statue is supposed to look like a person.

Everyone Started Out Pagan

If you think about the history of the world, every culture was first pagan if you go back far enough. Pagans, I need hardly point out, are human beings, and they do all the things human beings do.

This means that everything that human beings do, was first done by pagans.

Even the Jews, world's first monotheists, are no exception to this rule. When God first called Abram, He called him out of the context of ancient Sumeria, one of the earliest known pagan civilizations. (See Genesis 11:31 and following. Also Acts 7:2-3.) God told Abram a few things about Himself, but the information was scant at first. Abram (later Abraham) and his family became God's people, but they did not yet know much about Him. For the next 500 or so years, their nation would go on growing in a pagan context ... first in ancient Palestine, then in Egypt. At this point, before the giving of the law, they were of course not Christian, nor even recognizably Jewish - yet.

Only after Israel came out of Egypt did God give them His law, which outlawed all forms of what we now call pagan worship. The Israelites were enthusiastic pagans at the time the law was given. We know this because God had to tell them to stop doing the following things: cutting themselves for the spirits, trying to contact the dead, building altars "on every high hill and under every spreading tree," having orgies to celebrate fertility gods, sacrificing their children to ensure a good harvest. (See Leviticus 18:21 and 19:4, 26 - 31.)

(No, not all paganism involves human sacrifice. I get that. In their case, it did. See Jeremiah 7:30 - 31 and 2 Kings 16:2 - 4.)

Even after being given the law and agreeing to keep it, the Israelites found paganism to be such a default way of life that they had a very hard time giving it up.

Presumably, before receiving God's law, the Israelites already had wedding ceremonies, funerals, harvest festivals, and baby dedications. Presumably they kept following the same general scripts for these things after they received God's law, with the exception that they purged from them the forbidden elements mentioned above.

This means that there is literally no culture on earth whose lifeways and traditions did not start out as pagan.

How Much Should This Worry Christians?

Not at all.

This is what the God of the Bible is all about. He takes pagans, whom He loves, and calls them to worship Him, the creator, the one true God, the living God, the "one who sees me." (Hagar calls God this in Gen. 16:13.) When they become His, He demands that they stop worshiping other gods ... but He does not demand that they stop being human.

When we start following Him, we will still have our harvest festivals and our wedding ceremonies, our robes and our costumes and our cakes. God does not expect us to stop doing these legitimate and lawful things when we leave the pagan gods to worship Christ. He redeems these things! Now for the first time, we do them unto the true God. So once, we baked hot cross buns unto the Spring Equinox. Now, we bake them unto Christ, and eat with even more joy in our hearts. Once we sang songs and made art unto our pagan gods. Now we sing and make them unto Christ!

Of course, most pagan traditions can't be carried over into Christian practice in exactly the same form. (Let alone into Jewish practice. But this post is primarily about Christianity.) And, over hundreds of years of Christian culture, the practices will evolve until they become barely recognizable. But holidays and traditions are excellent vehicles for conserving little details even after we have forgotten what they once meant. Given what we now know about our own history, Christians shouldn't be shocked when someone comes along and points out the pagan origin of those little details. Nor should we worry that this means that we are still "really" pagan. If we were still pagan, we would know it. We might not be up on the historical development of every single Christmas decoration, but we have a pretty good idea of who and what we are, and are not, worshiping.

Christmas traditions: Content matters more than form.
Christmas traditions: Content matters more than form.

What Holidays Are Christians Supposed to Have, Then?

I have argued that it's legitimate, and even glorious, for Christians, who are after all former pagans, to repurpose their pagan holiday traditions. One might well ask where else Christians are supposed to get their ideas about how to hold a holiday.

There are two alternatives ... one unworkable, the other grim.

The first alternative is that Christians could try to create their own ceremonies and holidays ex nihilo. We will have a holiday that bears no resemblance, and owes nothing, to any former holiday ever known to man.

The problem with this is that human beings can't really come up with anything completely new. You can't jump off your own shadow. The most you can do is create something in reaction to the thing you want to avoid ... which generally means trying to do everything the opposite of how it was done before. When applied to holidays, we can see that this method would create a really repellent and unnatural feeling holiday. Pagans are - as I have said - human beings, and despite some wrong turns, they have spent thousands of years figuring out what kinds of holidays and traditions feel natural to human beings. In short, all the good holiday ideas have already been taken by pagans. We can admit that they didn't do everything wrong.

Or we could go with the second alternative, which is to try, as far as possible, to have no celebration, play, music, or ceremony in our lives as Christians. This has been tried from time to time, and it's a hard sell.

I grant you that Christians should, in principle, be willing to give up any of our personal pleasures for Christ, because the gifts and the joy that we receive back are incomparable. However, look at it from the point of view of our children, or of the unconverted (pagans, say) when we ask them to join us in worshiping the living God. We are already asking them to give up their idols, their favorite sins, their personal pride in order to follow Christ. The way is already narrow. We do not need to narrow it further by adding the requirement, "Oh yes, and you must never again play musical instruments ... dance ... celebrate any holidays ... decorate your house ... play any games ... or dress up, ever." This is what Jesus referred to, with great frustration, as "shutting the door to the kingdom of heaven in people's faces" and "tying up burdens and putting them on people's backs" (Matthew 23:4, 13 and Luke 11:46, 52). It is creating an unnecessary obstacle.

The alternative I have proposed here is that Christians are free to adapt pre-existing traditions, including holiday, wedding, and funeral traditions, that have pagan roots.

Of course this is a complex process, more art than science. It is not a "simple" solution. But if we look at history, one beautiful thing this solution does is that it allows people to come to Christ and yet keep their cultural identity. Christian worship, and Christian daily life, are not formulaic. Christianity is practiced differently in different cultural contexts, and that's not only fine, it is - provided the Word of God is still honored in each outworking - a beautiful thing. It is even the fulfillment of a prophecy:

"The nations will walk by the light [of God's city], and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it." Revelation 21:24

Questions & Answers

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      • Jennifer Mugrage profile imageAUTHOR

        Jennifer Mugrage 

        7 weeks ago from Columbus, Ohio

        But adopting a custom does not necessarily mean adopting the mythology behind it. Especially when there are a limited number of ways to do the custom. That's the point of this article.

      • profile image

        Thedecadentone 

        2 months ago

        No. If God exists, the devil exists to mock god by creating skewed knowledge of the truth. An exiled and extremely resentful Cain living for up to a thousand years for instance would have been seeding false mythologies everyehere.

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