The Christmas season is upon us once again. Houses glow with decorative lights. Gifts are being bought, wrapped, and placed under twinkling trees. Stockings hang expectantly from fireplace mantles. Cards are arriving in mailboxes. Cookies and other treats are being baked and consumed. Families finalize plans to get together. This isn’t called “the most wonderful time of the year” for nothing.
But the month of December also brings with it an inner conflict for many. In over thirty years of ministry, I have been asked about Christmas celebrations more times than I can remember. Conscientious Christians always want to operate within the will of God and the authority of scripture. But there are differing opinions among believers concerning the holiday and the different ways that it is celebrated. Here is a sampling of some of the questions I’ve been asked: May we celebrate the birth of Jesus at all? Is December 25 a Christian Holy Day or not? If not, what about the cultural components of the holiday season that do not currently have any particular religious significance, like decorating trees and giving gifts? These are important questions that merit a Biblical, thoughtful, and reasonable response. I hope that what follows will qualify in all three areas.
Question: Is the birth of Jesus worthy of remembrance and celebration?
Answer: Absolutely. Celebration and worship accompanied the birth of Jesus (Matt. 2:1- 2, 9-11; Luke 2:8-20), for what happened on that special day was more than a birth; it was an incarnation. God had come to live among his creation (Matt. 1:23; John 1:14). The long-anticipated Messiah had entered the world. An angel described the announcement of Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). If that event was worthy of joyous celebration then, it is worthy of joyous celebration now.
Q: Did Jesus or his apostles inaugurate, as a matter of obligation, an annual memorial celebration of his birth for the church?
A: No. There is no specific reference in the New Testament to the church having an annual special service to celebrate or memorialize the birth of Jesus. What Jesus did initiate was a weekly memorial of his death that the New Testament refers to as “the Lord’s Supper” or “communion” (Matt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:20-28; Acts 20:7).
Q: If neither Jesus nor the apostles established December 25 as the Holy Day of Christmas, who did?
A: The celebration of Christmas as a Christian Holy Day began under the leadership of the Catholic Church in the mid-fourth century, some 350 years or so after the days of Christ and the apostles (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, pp. 394ff; Earle Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, pp. 120, 160).
Q: Where and when did Christmas traditions begin that are not associated with the birth of Jesus, e.g., Santa Claus, the decorating of trees, giving gifts, etc.?
A: Not all historians agree on the roots of the more secular aspects of modern Christmas traditions. The contemporary Santa Claus tradition combines elements of several ancient customs and fables involving a third- and fourth-century monk named Nicholas, upon whom sainthood was later bestowed due to his kindness to children and others. It is believed that Dutch settlers introduced his legend, as well as his nickname (Sinter Klaas) to America in 1773 (https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus).
Regarding the giving of gifts, decorating of trees, and such, Schaff affirms that these originally sprang from pagan Roman festivals that honored the sun (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, p. 396). He states that many were not bothered by the combination of the religious and secular traditions in those early centuries because “the church fathers themselves confirm[ed] the symbolical reference of the feast of the birth of Christ, the Sun of righteousness, the Light of the world, to the birth-festival of the unconquered sun, which on the twenty-fifth of December, after the winter solstice, breaks the growing power of darkness, and begins anew his heroic career” (p. 397). In other words, church leaders believed – rightly or wrongly – that by symbolizing the pagan rituals, they could connect them to religious ones without bringing actual paganism into the mix.
In short, many of the secular trappings of the modern Christmas season have developed over centuries of societal and cultural evolution, and in the process have lost almost all connection to their origins in the minds of celebrants.
Q: Is it wrong to decorate trees, give gifts, and engage in the other practices that seem to have had some ancient connection to pagan festivals and a Catholic monk? In other words, are we guilty of practicing false religion when we decorate Christmas trees and exchange gifts?
A: Not in my opinion. While pagan religious celebration may have tainted those practices in the beginning, that paganism has long been lost. A good parallel example involves the names of our days of the week. The first day of the week was originally given the name “Sunday” in connection with the worship of the sun. “Monday” honored the moon. “Thursday” was given its name to honor the Norse god “Thor.” Is it wrong to refer to those days of the week by their current names because they were originally intended to honor heavenly bodies or false gods? Certainly not, because the current usage of those terms does not imply that the user is involved in paganism. The pagan connection was lost a long time ago.
Some activities and words associated with the present season, like “Christmas” and “holiday” (from “holy day”) no longer inherently carry with them religious connotations like they formerly did (as evidenced by many irreligious people, even atheists, who still greet others with a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” each December). Therefore, to affirm that holiday activities like decorating trees, sending cards, and exchanging gifts are wrong because of some long-lost association with religious error is, in my view, 3 inconsistent and unnecessary. Otherwise, we would be logically obligated to create new names for the days of the week.
But I would quickly add that if one cannot involve himself in these activities with a clear conscience, he should avoid them and not violate his conscience (Rom. 14:23).
I’ll address more questions next week, specifically questions about the religious elements of the Christmas season and personal liberty in regard to them.
Q: What about the religious significance that many people DO attach to the Christmas season? For example, since the New Testament doesn’t mention Christmas celebrations, should ministers avoid preaching about the birth of Jesus on or around Christmas Day?
A: Not necessarily. The Bible devotes a significant amount of space to events surrounding the birth of Jesus. It is right to teach that material. There is nothing in scripture that limits the teaching of that material at any time of year. Why should the church that wears the name of Jesus Christ stop talking about their Savior and Lord just because the calendar has turned to December? Should we, because of the mistaken assumptions of others, just ignore Jesus in late December, or could we consider the Christmas season as an opportunity to exalt Him properly and teach his birth accurately? It is my belief that, as long as it is understood that Christmas Day is not a divinely established holy day, a preacher can take advantage of the teachable moment and address what the Bible teaches about the birth of Jesus. But that decision should be left to individual ministers, local churches, and elderships to decide whether they believe it would be expedient to do so.
Q: Are we wrong to sing songs like “Joy to the World” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in our worship assemblies during the Christmas season?
A: Not necessarily, but there are several things to consider. First, if we may worship the Lord in song on June 25, we may worship him in song on December 25. So I would say that there is nothing inherently wrong with singing those carols if our consciences are not bothered by it. But we must remember that all things authorized are not necessarily advantageous (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23). There are good, conscientious, sincere Christians who cannot with clear conscience sing “Joy to the World” and other songs about the birth of Christ during the holiday season due to their sincerely held belief that to do so would associate themselves with a holy day that is not found in the New Testament. Public worship involves many people, not all of whom are in the same place in their understanding of optional versus obligatory matters. We must be sensitive to that.
Therefore, perhaps the loving and considerate thing to do would be to forego those songs until a less controversial and problematic time of year. While it is true that there is no reason to stop praising our Lord at any time of the year, it is also true that one can acceptably worship the Lord without specifically singing about his birth, especially if doing so would cause a conscientious brother or sister to violate his or her conscience. I believe that is the principle Paul expresses in Romans 14:13-21. We should not run roughshod over the consciences of our brothers and sisters.
Q: Can an individual or family commemorate the birth of Jesus during the Christmas season as a private and personal matter of devotion?
A: I believe they may. Whatever portion of the Bible each person or family reads, studies, or meditates on in their private devotions is a matter of personal choice. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “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.” (Rom. 14:5). The special days Paul had in mind were days with religious significance. “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord” (Rom. 14:6).
If I or my family want to set aside time in late December to meditate on and express thanksgiving for the birth of Christ and everything that the incarnation means, we are free to do so. Would anyone really argue that I must purposely refrain from even having a passing grateful thought about the birth of Jesus on or around December 25 just because some people think that it is really Jesus’ birthday? And if I do entertain such thoughts, that I have committed sin? That seems rather extreme. It is of no small significance that immediately preceding Paul’s stated approval of individuals observing special days in honor of the Lord (Rom. 14:5-6), the apostle wrote, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Rom. 14:4). Six verses later, still addressing the same subject, Paul asks again, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” (Rom. 14:10).
It is also worthy of consideration that the Jewish people celebrated holidays in honor of God that were not prescribed in the Law of Moses. The Feast of Purim celebrated God’s deliverance of the people in the days of Esther (Esther 9:27-28). The Feast of Dedication celebrated God’s deliverance of the people from Antiochus Epiphanes in the period between Malachi and the coming of Jesus (John 10:22-23). While there was no obligation to celebrate these feasts, there was freedom to do so.
On a personal note, I do find it curious that an annual day of thanksgiving to God for his many blessings is practically universally embraced and encouraged, even though we know that God wants us to be thankful every day. But a day of thanksgiving specifically for the birth of Jesus isn’t treated the same way, even though we know that “Jesus is the reason for every season.”
While I cannot create a law on God’s behalf that obligates others to observe the same personal days of worship, meditation, or devotion that I may observe, neither do I have the authority to forbid others their private devotions. Christian liberty should rule the day in this matter.
Q: How should Christians who differ on this issue treat one another?
A: Tragically, I have seen and heard some very heated arguments over Christmas. This just should not happen. In matters of personal scruples in which you disagree with your brother, Paul says, “Welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Rom. 14:1). Instead 5 of quarreling and dividing over this issue, “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). While we should be careful in our public worship assemblies to be respectful of the scruples of others and not force, as it were, our brothers and sisters to violate their consciences by singing songs that they cannot conscientiously sing, let us also not restrict for others in their private lives that which God has not restricted. And regardless of our personal celebratory preferences, let us all love and respect each other.