I would like to ask you to do a very difficult thing. Instead of just going along with what everyone says today and without being swayed by hundreds of years of growing modern religious practice, let’s just look at the Bible as if we were receiving its letters in the first and second century when they were written and then distributed. I would like to ask you a second difficult thing. Hear me out all the way to the end before shutting me down just because what I’m going to say is not the popular opinion.
Can I share with you a word that is conspicuously absent from the Bible? Christmas. It is not in our Bibles ever. Charlie Brown specials notwithstanding, the Bible never presents a single Christmas story, let alone the first Christmas story. I invite you to read the New Testament from cover to cover, upside down and backwards if necessary. Please provide me one shred of evidence that suggests God has ever asked us or wants us to establish a holiday (holy day) to celebrate the birthday of Jesus?
Interestingly enough, the first problem we would have is figuring out on what day such a celebration should occur. It seems to me, since the Scripture equips us for every good work (cf. II Timothy 3:16-17), if God wanted us celebrating such a day He would have, at the very least, let us know which day to celebrate. But we can’t find that day anywhere in Scripture.
Why is December 25 the day? Certainly not because God equipped us to celebrate the birthday of Jesus on that day. Consider what The Encyclopedia Americana says about it:
“The reason for establishing December 25 as Christmas is somewhat obscure, but it is usually held that the day was chosen to correspond to pagan festivals that took place around the time of the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, to celebrate the ‘rebirth of the sun.’”
Consider also what the New Catholic Encyclopedia says about it:
“The true birth date of Christ is unknown. The worldwide census reported in Luke 2:1-2 cannot be substantiated. By the late second century different groups of Christians held divergent ideas on the date of Christ’s birth: January 6 or 10…, April 19 or 20, May 20, or November 18…With no evidence for the exact date of Christ’s birth, and no clear proof of the date at which the feast began to be celebrated, nor its rationale, liturgical historians have developed two noncompetitive theories.”
The second problem we have is striving to figure out how to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. Again, the scripture equips us for every good work. Exactly how on the special day, for which there is no equipping, do we celebrate Jesus’ birthday? Scriptures would be nice on this one. Should we bake a cake? That’s how we often celebrate our birthdays. Should we pass out gifts? Should we decorate a tree? Hang out mistletoe? Burn a Yule Log? Amazingly, most of the practices we now associate with celebrating Christmas did not come from the equipping of Scripture. Rather, they came from adopting pagan practices into Christian religion.
The tree stems from the celebration of the pagans around the winter solstice of the rebirth of the sun. The evergreen trees had special significance because they represented life even during winter. The Yule Log stems from the pagan practice to light a bonfire on the darkest day of the year to keep away evil spirits. Mistletoe and Holly were part of the pagan worship, considered symbols of fertility and eternal life and were important like the evergreens as signs of life even in winter. Interestingly enough, even the gift giving stems more from pagan worship than from the wise men, who incidentally did not visit Jesus on the night of his birth (cf. Luke 2:11). Read what World Book 2001 says about gift giving:
“The custom of giving gifts to relatives and friends on a special day in winter probably began in ancient Rome and northern Europe. In these regions, people gave each other small presents as part of their year-end celebrations. By 1100, Saint Nicholas had become a popular symbol of gift giving in many European countries. According to legend, he brought presents to children on the eve of his feast day, December 6. Nonreligious figures replaced Saint Nicholas in certain countries soon after the Reformation, and December 25 became the day for giving gifts.”
Folks debate why people wanting to celebrate Jesus’ birthday co-opted so many pagan rituals and acts of worship. Some sources suggest it was so Christians could blend in and not be persecuted for their celebration. Some suggest it was so Christians could attract and keep the converts from paganism. However, no one remotely suggests it is because Christians who studied the Scriptures from God found direction or instruction to do these things.
First, before someone throws up Romans 14:5-6, allow me to assure you that I certainly believe if you, as an individual, desire to set aside a day on which you primarily think about the birth of Jesus, celebrating it, honoring it, teaching about it, I agree you can. That, however, is a far cry different from establishing national and congregational holy days. Additionally, while you may set aside some day to personally celebrate Jesus’ birth, Romans 14:5-6 does not mean you are allowed to do so anyway you see fit. We can celebrate Jesus’ birth the same way we might celebrate anything Jesus did in His life. We pray and praise God for it. We sing songs about it. We teach it. We definitely do not co-opt pagan worship to do it.
Second, celebrating Christmas as a secular celebration of family, love, etc. does not violate any Scriptural principle of which I’m aware. Just as we might celebrate national holidays of our independence or in memory of our Armed Forces, etc., I believe we can set aside a holiday for giving gifts and spending time with family. I certainly leave room for conscience. If you hear this and believe Christians should not be involved in the celebration at all because of its pagan roots, I will understand and respect your conscience. However, I suggest pagan roots do not necessarily equal modern pagan practice. Just because I decorate a tree does not mean I’m worshipping it as a sign of eternal life. In fact, all of us tacitly recognize this. No one thinks anyone is honoring the god of the sun when they speak of Sunday or the god of the moon when they say Monday. No one believes we are honoring the German gods Tia, Woden, Thor or Frija when we speak of their days: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. And no one is honoring Saturn when they speak of Saturday. I could go on and use the names of the months as examples but I think you get the point.
Third, I do believe we can make a mistake of being so intent on proving Christmas is not Jesus’ birth that we miss many golden opportunities to reach out to folks who are interested in thinking about Jesus at this time of year. However, I do not think we should follow lockstep with modern evangelicalism simply to attract numbers. So, please, do not feel the need to go around shouting down Christmas from the rooftops. Take opportunities to talk about Jesus with folks who are interested. But at the same time, don’t think you are doing Jesus favors by adding a holy day to your religious calendar so you can attract people to His body. Why not just let His plans work? He doesn’t need our added plans.
A Final Plea
Why does any of this matter? No doubt, some are saying, “What’s the harm? It’s all for a good purpose. What could possibly be wrong with celebrating Jesus’ birthday? Surely God doesn’t care.” As I see it, the issue is whether or not we will allow Jesus to actually be Lord of our lives, our worship and our service. Will we really surrender to Him or will we follow our plans as better. Luke 6:46 asks, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (ESV). Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (ESV). We need to be people who do what Jesus tells us. We need to be people who do what brings glory to Jesus because it is what He has blessed with authorization. We should not be people who make up things because it seems good to us.
So, I’ll offer my plea one more final time. Instead of just going along with everyone today because it seems like such a pleasant thing, let’s go back to the Bible and try not to be swayed by hundreds of years of religious practice to just read what those first century Christians would have read. If you can find authorization for the modern Christmas practice there, then by all means practice it. If not, let’s just do what we find in the Bible.