“So what about Christmas?” A friend asked me last year December. We had earlier discussed the pagan origins of Halloween, so I could see where she was heading with that question. I quickly changed her insinuations: what matters is that we are Christians, not whether we celebrate or don’t celebrate Christmas. I think she got my point. Over the years, I’ve encountered some topics that have become rather emotion-charged and controversial among Evangelical Christians e.g KJV onlyism, the Jewish sabbath, emphasis on the Hebrew name of God or Jesus and celebration of Christmas (or Easter).
When it comes to Christmas, there are two main camps Christians fall into: those who believe the birth of Jesus is worth celebrating regardless of its origin and the Christmas who see it an innovative, pagan festival adopted by Roman Catholicism. I’ve observed a heavy dose of dogmatism and self-righteousness in the latter camp and such patterns of thought often calls for attention.
I believe Christians can (and should) respectably disagree with one another on minor issues but when one party relegates another to a pagan pit or condemns them to hell over a minor disagreement, there is a problem somewhere. There is always a balance to every extreme position.
Christ and Christmas
One of the merits of Christmas is how it annually brings a reminder of Jesus Christ’s birth. Indeed, its about the only time people who never darken the door of a church all through the year attend one. So if there is a time people should learn more about Jesus – who He is and what He came to do – it’s during Christmas. We mustn’t minimise the significance of Christ’s birth. His ancestral lineage, the place and timing of His birth were fulfillment of specific Bible prophecies about the Messiah.
The coming of the Messiah was primarily to die for man’s sins (Jn. 1:29, 33-34). Many Jews (including the disciples) didn’t believe the Messiah would first come to die, they were expecting Him to deliver them from the oppression of the Romans, reign as king and establish His kingdom. They failed to understand that the Messiah would come twice: first to die for man’s sins and second to reign as King.
Christ’s birth exemplifies the humility of God coming as Man and taking on the form of a Servant. He related with the despised, ministered to children, washed the feet of His disciples and humbled Himself to the death on a cross – the most shameful and painful death. Even in His teaching, He calls us to deny ourselves, carry our crosses and follow Him (Mt. 8:20; Jn. 6:12). Christmas should be a time when we examine our own lives to see whether we have displaced the cross from the centre of our lives. Christmas is a time to show love. God so loved the world that he gave His Son (Jn. 3:16). Where there is love, there is giving, forgiveness and fellowship.
Now, let’s examine some misconceptions those opposing Christmas present to justify their stance.
#1. “Christmas makes people indulge in wasteful spending, frivolities, immorality and drunkenness.”
This is not an argument since it lacks a premise. It’s more of an excuse. Any holiday can be used by people to commit excesses, drunkenness or frivolities, that doesn’t make that day “evil.” The problem is not with the day but with people who look for avenues to indulge their depravities – and they will choose even a housewarming or graduation party – to commit the same. People who throw around this banal line about Christmas need to get one fact: its not a day that makes an act sinful but the act itself, and it remains a sin regardless of the day on which it is committed.
#2 “No where did Jesus command us to celebrate His birth.”
This argument presupposes that only holidays or celebrations directly commanded by God are to be observed. In other words, we are to do away with birthdays, holidays, anniversaries or any dated event because they are not commanded by the Bible. If we can voluntarily regard one day as higher than another, then a holiday doesn’t have to be directly commanded by God to be acceptable (Rom. 14:5). People who claim observing Christmas is a sin because it wasn’t commanded by Christ believe they are saved and approved by God because of their asceticism. This is legalism.
It was a reverse of this aberration that apostle Paul condemned among the Galatian Christians who added special days, months and seasons as conditions of salvation. These are “weak and miserable principles” (Gal. 4:9). No Christian is obliged to celebrate Christmas and no Christian is obliged to avoid it either, since it’s not essential to our salvation. Christians who reject Christmas should stop condemning those celebrating it. We are approved before God by faith in Christ not on the basis on which holiday we keep or don’t keep (Gal. 2:16).
#3 “Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. The shepherds were tending their flocks outdoor at that time so it couldn’t have been in the middle of winter.”
True, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. This date came about in the early church because of a widespread Jewish belief that the great prophets died on the same dates as their birth or conception. Since March 25 (or April 6) was fixed as the date of Christ’s death, they dated His conception as March 25 and added 9 months to this date to arrive at December 25 (or January 6) as His birth date. This “potentially establishes 25 December as a Christian festival before Aurelian decree, which, when promulgated, might have provided for the Christian feast both opportunity and challenge.” (The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Oxford Univ. Press, 2000, 114)
#4 “December 25 was the birthday of the pagan sun god. Christmas was adopted from paganism!”
This is a standard argument based on an old hypothesis that Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted December 25, 274 AD as a pagan festival of the “birth of the unconquered sun” which was later adopted fully by Emperor Constantine. This theory has been set aside by modern scholars. First, when Aurelian made December 25 a pagan festival, it was almost an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Christians in Rome. The date seems to have been borrowed from Christians since it had no significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time. The two temples of the sun in Rome celebrated their dedication festival on August 9th and 28th respectively.
Second, writings of early Christians before Aurelian, such as Hippolytus in his Commentary on the Prophet Daniel (204 AD), Irenaeus (130-202) in his Against Heresies, and Julius Africanus (160-240) made reference to December 25 as Christ’s birth date. This is also seen in post-Nicene sources as Philip Schaff stated:
“It was at the same time moreover, the prevailing opinion of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries, that Christ was actually born on the twenty-fifth of December; and Chrysostom appeals, in behalf of this view, to the date of the registration under Quirinius (Cyrenius) preserved in the Roman archives” (History of the Christian Church 3:7:77).
Third, while it’s clear that Catholicism adopted many pagan ideas, we need to distinguish properly between what ancient pagans observed and what Christians today celebrate. Its irrational to claim that Christians today who observe December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth are unwittingly worshipping a pagan sun god.
Taking a stand against pagan origins must not be taken to foolish extremes. For instance, we don’t refrain from using the word “janitor” even though it came from Janus, the Roman god of doorways. We don’t eschew cereal because the word is from Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain. We don’t cease from going to museums because it came from Muses, the 9 daughters of Zeus who presided over learning and arts. All the months of the year and days of a week are named after pagan deities, but should this stop us from praying to God on the days of the week? Will so doing somehow make us pagans?
According to Browser’s Book of Beginnings, the earliest evidence of a game that featured two opposite teams kicking, tossing and aggressively advancing a ball in opposite directions was practiced 5,000 years ago in Egypt as a fertility rite. What would you think of a Christian who now writes to his football team disassociating himself because soccer purportedly originated from an ancient Egyptian fertility rite? Or if he cites popular promiscuous footballers as “proofs”? That some pagans in the past observed December 25 to honour their gods doesn’t mean Christians today who honour Christ on that date worship those deities.
#5 “Christmas is from the word Christ-Mass. Its a purely Catholic celebration.”
The word Christmas is from a Middle English word “Cristenmasse.” Though a shortened form of Christ’s Mass, the term was first used in the 11th century. To be sure, the Nicene church of 4th century is not the same as Roman Catholicism as we know it today. Therefore, what “Mass” means today is not precisely what the early church believed. In any case, the Catholic Mass is unbiblical.
The intent and the purpose of a holiday also matter. This is what differentiates Halloween from Christmas. The former was instituted to honour the spirits of death and witchcraft while the latter seems to be intended to honour Christ. Even in so doing we need to avoid some pitfalls:
a) The fairy tales of Santa Claus driving through the night skies and dishing out gifts to obedient kids may work well on children’s imaginations and give them a good night sleep but it displaces the real focus of Christmas – Jesus Christ. Here in Africa, the same tales of Santa coming from Rome are told to many children. I was told the same too, but I threw it out of the window when I was about 9 or 10. When children grow up being lied to by their parents about Santa, they may also grow up to reject God and Bible stories altogether as myths. I can’t find a justification for lying to children in order to keep up with a tradition.
b) The alleged subservience of Jesus to Mary, by presenting Jesus as a baby in a crib to be adored by millions of people is another diversion. So many are deceived to believe they are Christians because they have a bubbly, sentimental feeling for “baby Jesus” but the real Lord and Saviour who calls men to repent and believe in Him has been obscured from their view by a cobweb of traditions. This also perpetuate the Catholic myth that Mary has the dominant role in showing compassion and offering salvation to sinners. This is a blasphemy that real Christians must not succumb to.
Regardless of our views of Christmas, one thing we must agree on is that, whether we choose to celebrate it or not, our decision doesn’t save us. What saves us is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.