CHRISTMAS AND CHRISTIANS

by Riaan

Introduction

It has become common for seasonal polemicists to display their discernment this time of the year as they attempt to convince us that Christians should not be celebrating Christmas.  It appears many Christians who protest Christmas are fine all-year-round with all sorts of error, but I guess ‘Tis the season to be discerning.

Is Christmas Celebration based on Paganism?

The first and most common objection against Christians celebrating Christmas is that, the celebration of Christmas has pagan roots. Now, of course we weren’t there when they first celebrated Christmas, or when they celebrated the pagan holiday on the 25th December. So, we rely on history and those who studied history to inform us. However, we must make sure the information we receive is credible and here’s the issue:  I think there may be some historical discrepancy in thinking that Christmas has pagan roots.

The historical data seem to suggest that Christians taught and believed that Christ was born on the 25th of December before Rome paganized that day. Nathan Busenitz, a professor at the The Master Seminary and a doctoral candidate in church history,  has written a helpful and insightful piece showing how Christians taught, celebrated and believed Jesus was born on the 25th December long before Rome paganized that specific date. Now, the issue here isn’t whether they were right or wrong to do this but that they did it long before Rome paganized the day. Busenitz writes:

It’s not uncommon to hear that the celebration of Christmas is rooted in ancient Roman paganism. That claim generally goes something like this: the ancient Romans celebrated a pagan festival on December 25th, but when the Roman Empire was Christianized in the 300s, the church simply turned the pagan festival into a Christian holiday.

This particular claim is the reason why we have a contention surrounding the celebration of Christmas. Busenitz then further explains:

It is true that there was a pagan Roman holiday called the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” that marked the winter solstice. And in the old Julian calendar, the winter solstice occurred on December 25. The cult of “Sol Invictus” (“the Unconquered Sun,” a.k.a. the sun god) became an official Roman cult in 274 under the reign of Emperor Aurelian. And the Roman empire was Christianized about fifty years later under Constantine.

This is the point where Christians who object to the celebration of Christmas on the 25th December go, “you see, paganism!”. But hang on, Busenitz continue:

But there’s actually good evidence to suggest that the date of December 25 does not have pagan origins. That’s because, long before Aurelian made December 25 an official pagan holiday, there were Christians in the early church who taught that Jesus was born on December 25th.

In fact, in the early church, there were two primary dates suggested as the dates on which Jesus was born in Bethlehem. One was December 25 and the other was January 6.

Around the year 192, Clement of Alexandria suggested that Jesus was born on January 6. An early Christian tradition suggested that Christ’s baptism took place on January 6. Then, because Luke says that Jesus was “about 30 years old” when He was baptized, some early Christians (like Clement) assumed that His birthday was the same day as His baptism. (for the full article with the sources go here)

Clearly, we see that historically Christians were already busy teaching and celebrating the birth of Jesus on the 25th December (and some on the 6th January) before Rome paganized that day. Again keep in mind, the issue isn’t whether they were right about the date, but that they celebrated Christ’s birth before Rome paganized the day. Which means the selection of the 25th December as the celebration of Jesus’ birthday may not have pagan origins at all.

Are Christians compromising who Celebrate Christmas?

Even if it can be proven that Christians celebrated Christ’s birth on the 25th December as an alternative to a Roman pagan holiday- there is no sound reason to object to such a practice. To assume that somehow we desecrate our faith by celebrating the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, God the Son – our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s first advent (and all its rich theological and practical application)  on the 25th December is giving undue credit to paganism and could lead, ironically, to sheer superstition.  Paganism, false religion and idols do not get to call dibs on any day nor do they have any authority over days or times for us to be reluctant to worship God for any good reason on any particular day!

If we follow this logic we are left with pretty much nothing. For instance, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday are of course useful names of days in our week. These days however, are named after pagan gods. At least some kind of pagan background was involved in naming our days of the week. Thursday originally stood for the Germanic god of the sky or of thunder. Tuesday stood for Tiw, the god of war. And Wednesday is derived from Woden, the chief god in Germanic mythology. Sunday and Monday were related somehow to the worship of the sun and the moon. Saturday is from Saturnus, or Saturn, and Friday comes from Fria, the goddess of love.

So, when it’s mother’s day, your birthday, or any other special day you want to celebrate, it will fall on one of these days (because we do not have any other days) and if you follow the logic that you can’t celebrate things on days that has pagan associations, you’re going to have a pretty dull life!

The point is, these supposed pagan associations and influences are so far removed from us historically,  chronological, and culturally that it has completely lost it’s meaning on us today. When people think of Tuesday they don’t think of ceasing all praise to God because it’s the Germanic pagan god Tiw’s day! Likewise, when people think of the 25th December they don’t think about the pagan Roman holiday of the Unconquered Sun that marked the winter solstice, they think, Christmas, Christ, or “for unto us a Child is born”!

So, the Bible’s silence on whether we should celebrate the birth of Christ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong to celebrate the birth of Christ.  In fact, the Old Testament is partly built on God’s commandment to commemorate and celebrate certain special days and therefore we do have biblical precedence for celebrating important holy days.

What about the Christmas Tree?

Some have a problem with the Christmas tree. Now I’d be happy to concede there are a lot of so-called Christmas decorations that do take away from the meaning of Christmas. However, the claim that the Bible forbids the Christmas tree is ridiculous and the claim that Christmas trees form part of the Roman pagan celebrations is simply not true.

There’s an excellent article written by the guys at gotquestions.org in which they clearly state “The first Christmas tree was decorated by Protestant Christians in 16th-century Germany. Our modern Christmas tree evolved from these early German traditions, and the custom most likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio.”

Some insists that Jeremiah 10 speaks out against having a Christmas tree. I found this explanation at gotquestions.org equally clear and helpful:

There is nothing in the Bible that either commands or prohibits Christmas trees. It has been falsely claimed by some that Jeremiah 10:1-16 prohibits the cutting down and decorating of trees in the same manner as we do at Christmas. However, even a cursory reading of the text makes it clear that the passage is one in which Jeremiah sets forth the prohibition against idols made of wood, plated with silver and gold, and worshipped. A similar idea appears in Isaiah 44, where Isaiah speaks of the silliness of the idol-worshippers who cut down a tree, burn part of it in the fire to warm themselves, and use the other part to fashion an idol, which they then bow down to. So unless we bow down before our Christmas tree, carve it into an idol, and pray to it, these passages cannot be applied to Christmas trees. (full article here)

Concluding Thoughts

So why are there Christians who oppose celebrating the birth of Christ on the 25th December and what are their reasons for doing so? Well, I think their reasons have clearly been dealt with and as to their motive- I’m reluctant to speculate. I suppose they will argue that it is out of an effort to be faithful to Christ and honor Him and so not conflate the truth of Christ’s birth with paganism. This of course is a sincere and noble motive. However, there is no danger of doing that when 1) paganism wasn’t the inspiration of Christians celebrating Christ’s birth on the 25th December 2) the meaning of these pagan rituals are so far removed from us that it has lost all meaning and recognizability.

To those who vehemently oppose Christmas and question the faithfulness of Christians who celebrate it, be careful that your supposed noble efforts aren’t just theological one-upmanship i.e. seeking to gain an advantage or feeling superior over others because you think you know more, and your devotion is more genuine. And if none of these points are persuasive to you at least remember what the Bible IS CLEAR ON:

Romans 14:3-6

3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Finally, what must be made clear is that when we celebrate Christmas we are not merely celebrating a birthday- in fact that is to miss the beautiful forest whilst focusing on one single tree (excuse the pun). We are remembering and celebrating something more than a birthday, we are celebrating the incarnation of the Son God. It is the biblical doctrine that God became man, lived a perfect life for us and died a substitutionary death in our place for our sin.  He, the God-man was raised from the dead and exalted on high and has been given the name that is above all names that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and tongue confess that He is Lord!

I don’t know about you but this Christmas I’ll be singing with full conviction free from any pagan associations:

O come let us adore Him

O come let us adore him

O come let us adore Him

Christ the Lord

 

Here are links to the articles that I’ve found helpful

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