We are reposting an article on a biblical and historical perspective of Christmas from 2007 for your enjoyment. Merry Christmas. John Oakes
Is Christmas a Christian Holiday?
Christmas sure has taken a beating lately, seemingly from all sides. The secularists demand that we say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, while some believers have threatened to boycott a certain large retail corporation for caving in to political correctness and no longer mentioning Christmas. When my checkout person said “Happy Holidays” to me the other day, I was tempted to retort, “and a Merry Christmas to you too”. Some Christian groups celebrate Christmas as the highlight of their religious year, while other, more conservative sects, claim that Christmas is a pagan holiday which should be shunned by all believers. Who is right? What is the correct doctrine of Christmas?
The answer is that there is no “correct” answer to this question. Obviously, Christmas is not mentioned in the Bible, but this fact can be used by either side. Some would argue that since the Bible does not prohibit the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we are free to celebrate it. Others would say that since the celebration of Christmas is not authorized by the Bible, to do so is to add to God’s word, and is therefore not biblical. True, it is not biblical, but then neither are church buildings or Sunday School or ushers or nearly any of the specific things we do when we gather to worship God. Such traditions are harmless unless we let them rise to the level of doctrine (Matthew 15:9). Arguably, some have done exactly that with Christmas. The apostle Paul seems to answer the question once and for all in Colossians 2:16f in which he declares that no one should judge anyone else with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath. The judging should not occur in either direction; pro or con.
So, we are free to celebrate the birth of Jesus if we like, but is it a good idea to do so? Let us look for just a moment at the history of this Christian holiday. First of all, there is the issue of the date of the birth of Jesus. The fact is that we do not know for sure even the general time of the year of Jesus’ birth, never mind the exact day. Scholars have argued for a late Spring or early Fall date based on the fact that the shepherds were out in the fields with the sheep. ?So much for the debate about the timing. Bottom line, no one knows when Jesus was born. If we are to celebrate the birthday of the Son of God, someone had to choose a date. Why was December 25th chosen by the Western churches and eventually adopted by Rome? (by the way, the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on January 7th). The evidence is that in the third century AD or possibly earlier, the leaders of the Christian churches set the date of December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus because this coincided with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Saturnalia is named after the Roman god Saturn. This holiday was timed to coincide with the turning of the days at the winter solstice. The birth of a new year was celebrated not just by the Romans, but by most of the ancient cultures as the point when the amount of daylight began to increase. It represented a new beginning: new hope for everyone. Because the Roman holiday Saturnalia was chosen as the time for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, opponents have claimed that it is a pagan holiday. This is a spurious argument. Yes, it is true that the church leaders chose a pagan holiday as the date, but what kinds of holidays were there to co-opt other than pagan ones? Obviously, the early church had absolutely no intention of making this a pagan holiday! Given that they had no idea of the actual date of Jesus’ birth, and given that the Christians already had a holiday scheduled at this, the slowest time of the year, what better date could they have chosen?
So we have a traditional date which is neither better nor worse than any other. One thing we can be sure of is that we are stuck with this date. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it just so happens to come at a time when we really need a celebration of new birth and new hope. What better time to celebrate the birth of Jesus (assuming that the idea is a good one in the first place)? This brings us to the meaning of Christmas. The word is a compound of the words Christ and mass. Christ comes from the Greek for anointed one. The Hebrew equivalent word is Messiah. The word mass in the English evolved from the Anglo-Saxon word maesse,?which derived in turn from the Latin missa, which is a form of the verb mittere, which means “to send.” So, the meaning of the word Christmas is the sending of the messiah. If we celebrate Christmas according to the original intent of the Christian church, we are celebrating the coming of the messiah. If we can put aside the crass commercialization and all the associated “stuff” which comes with the Western celebration of Christmas, the heart of the holiday seems like a pretty good idea, at least to this observer.
What, then, about all the “stuff” that comes with Christmas? What about the trees, the wreaths, the ornaments, the Yule logs and the holly, the mistletoe, Santa Claus, Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman? Some of these have an interesting history. Yes, it is true that many if not most of these traditions were borrowed from pagan celebrations. What else is new? What else would we expect? The custom of bringing branches from evergreen trees into the home during the dark days of winter predates Christianity and was a reminder that the sun would return, the snow would melt, and the vegetation cycle would begin again. Some argue against Christmas trees using Jeremiah 10:2-4; “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by the signs in the sky” For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold;they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.? I certainly am not here to defend the religious significance of the Christmas tree. The best I can tell there is none! However, unless we are actually worshipping it as an idol, we are not guilty of violating the command in Jeremiah 10:2-4.
What about Santa Claus, otherwise known as Saint Nick? Many ancient cultures had a myth of a magical figure who came once a year to spread around gifts for the poor and the children. The Christian church adapted this idea quite early to serve its purposes. The story of ?Saint? Nicholas is interesting. Nicholas was a bishop in Asia(present-day Turkey). He was born in the mid to late third century, coming from a wealthy family. Traditions differ, some saying he gave up his social position, others saying he was orphaned. Either way, he dedicated himself to preaching, teaching, and spread of the Gospel. He defended the Christian faith against the heresy of Arias of Alexandria, and eventually was martyred for his faith. Nicholas was known throughout the churches for his sacrifice and charity for the sake of others. As the early church began to make Saints (with a capital S) out of well-known saints, they began to celebrate a day devoted to Nicholas. Because of his charitable spirit, and because his day fell in December, he began to be associated with gift-giving on Christmas. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch Sinter Klaas, which comes from Saint Nicholas. The jolly fat man dressed in red is an invention of nineteenth century British writers, but that is another story.
What is the “Christian” response to all this stuff? Despite the fact that most of the traditions which have grown up around the celebration of Christmas have their roots in pagan traditions, there is nothing inherently sinful in putting up a wreath or stringing lights or hanging ornaments. Nothing wrong, that is unless we are also worshipping the pagan deities with which these were once associated. The Santa Claus thing is more troubling from a religious point of view, but I would prefer to leave Santa alone. The blatant materialism, commercialization and outright greed which is associated with the holiday is another thing altogether. How are Christian families to emphasize the celebration of the coming of Jesus without caving in to the selfishness associated with the holiday? Perhaps those who say the whole thing is from Satan (after all Santa is Satan respelled) and that Christmas is sinful have a point. Perhaps, given the fact that celebrating the birth of Jesus is not biblical, the holiday does more harm than good.
For me, I am not prepared to take that step. I still find Joy to the World to be one of the most inspiring of Christian songs. Yes, Christmas can do more harm than good, but if the followers of Christ will make the effort to bring Christ back into Christmas, to emphasize giving rather than receiving, to celebrating the coming of the savior into the world, then maybe we can still save Christmas. The proper response of the Christian is a matter of opinion, but to accept the status quo without response is not a wise path. So let us celebrate the season, and let us “Remember Jesus Christ, descended from David.” (2 Timothy 2:8.