Many people throughout the world celebrate during the time of year that we label as Christmas. For the Christian this is a special time of year when the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated. However, we must ask ourselves if Christmas is indeed a Christian holiday. Some hold that Christmas is not really a Christian holiday because of its pagan roots. Some hold that it is a Christian holiday because of the celebration and remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ.
What is Christmas? What is the Christmas holiday season really about? We are going to briefly look at the Christmas season as it relates to Christianity and the practices of Christians today. We are going to take a cursory look at its origins and development in America specifically. This lesson is designed to present the facts about the Christmas holiday so that you can become liberated from any self-imposed or church-imposed bondages.
What is Christmas?
Christmas, for the Christian, is defined as the time of year, December 25th to be exact, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It should be noted that no one really knows when Jesus Christ was born. Some suggest that he was born during the spring while others suggest that he may have been born during the fall. Based on the Bible’s account, it is unlikely that he was born in the winter.
Christmas in America as well as other places is not practiced as strictly a religious holiday. One can easily see this by the purchasing boom that takes place during the Christmas season. How is Christmas practiced in America? The following lists the elements of the Christmas celebration in America. Note that my focus is America.
- Gift giving
- Festival (Christmas parties and the like)
- Time with family and friends
- Remembrance of Jesus Christ’s birth
All of these elements are included in the way we actually practice the Christmas celebration. What do gift giving, dinners and parties, and time with family and friends have to do with the birth of Christ? Some would say that we should not celebrate Christmas because it is only a commercial season full of fun and games. Some believe that Jesus is the reason for the season. However, we must ask ourselves, "What is scriptural about celebrating Jesus Christ’s birthday on December 25th?" The answer is nothing. Nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to celebrate the birth of Christ so why do we do it? Let’s briefly look at the history of the Christmas season to get a better understanding of why we celebrate it the way we do today.
It is said that Christmas should not be celebrated using the Christmas tree, Christmas lights, and decorations, etc. because those are pagan customs that we should not be associated with. Let’s look at these early pagan customs to see if this is entirely true.
The winter solstice occurs about December 22nd and it marks the beginning of winter. It also marked the beginning of longer days since the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. It was a time of hope for prosperity during the spring months. There were many cultural rituals that accompanied this day.
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia to honor the god Saturn. From about the 17th to the 24th of December people decorated public gathering places with flowers. Also, gifts and candles were purchased and exchanged. All people celebrated with feasts and merriment including the slaves.
In Scandinavia, the Yule log was burned during the winter solstice period. A father and his sons would cut down a tree and burn it as a premonition for the springtime. This log would burn for many days.
The Celtic culture of the British Isles revered green plants such as the evergreens, mistletoe, and holly. These were important symbols of fertility and were used to decorate their homes and altars.
In general, the "Christmas" season was a time of feasting and "partying." In some areas, however, it was a time of fear. Some believed that the period called the "twelve nights of Christmas (December 24th through January 6)" was a time when ghosts appeared, and dead warriors appeared throughout the night.
It is important to realize that Jesus did not teach us to observe Christmas, though I am not suggesting that is a reason not to. Also note that Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ. They held that the death and resurrection of Christ was a sacred time. It wasn’t until about AD 350 when the church instituted the celebration of Christmas. Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth to "Christianize" the many pagan festivals and merrymaking that occurred during this time of year.
Why did Christianity become involved with the festivities during the winter solstice period? As we alluded to earlier, there was an attempt to divert the attention from the "partying" and merrymaking to a more Christian tone. This was the same thing that the Catholic Church attempted with Halloween. The rebirth of life that was celebrated by the pagans was converted to a symbolism of Christ’s birth. The turning point to longer days at the winter solstice where more light would come became the hope that was induced by the birth of Jesus Christ.
In general, Christianity was forced to deal with the "Christmas" season. What should Christians do at this time of year? Remember that these were the same people that previously involved themselves with such merrymaking during the winter solstice period. There were two solutions for Christianity to deal with this dilemma.
- Ban the practice of the pagan season, which we call Christmas
- Transform the festivities into a Christian event
We will soon see that Christianity implemented both solutions even to this day.
What does all of this tell us? First it tells us that the Christian practice of celebrating Christmas did not arise out of a desire to honor Christ’s birthday. It arose out of a desire to defuse the revelry that occurred during this time of year. Please note that there was much merrymaking during this time. This included feasting, singing, games, dancing and masquerading. In Rome, for example, the festivities were usually quite lascivious in nature. They "partied hard."
A group of Christians known as the Puritans were opposed to the Christmas celebrations, which had become the party of the year in England. John Knox stopped the celebration of Christmas in 1562. The celebration of Christmas was actually forbidden in England by an act of Parliament in 1644. Later this was overthrown and Christmas was in a sense re-instated. Scotland remained loyal to the Puritan way while England embraced the Christmas festivities again.
The Puritans brought their detestation of the Christmas season with them to the New England states. As a matter of fact, Christmas was not accepted in the New England states until about 1875. We should also note that the founding fathers of America did not celebrate Christmas. Congress was in session on Christmas day and businesses were open. Christmas was not a federal holiday until June of 1870. It is interesting to note that America did not recognize Christmas during the time when Charles Dickens wrote the famous book, "The Christmas Carol (1843)."
Christmas in America
After the revolutionary war, people began to desire holidays. The American leaders had done away with just about all of the holidays out of an attempt to do away with "all things English." One such holiday that would be fitting was the Christmas celebration, though without the revelry. America now embraced a new Christmas that does not originate from pagan customs. However, many of the traditions and customs used during Christmas do have pagan and other national origins. For example, the Christmas tree was a German custom that eventually made its way to America. The Christmas parties and gatherings have their roots in older customs as well.
One must realize the importance and the implication of the fact that the founding fathers of America did not celebrate the Christmas holiday. This becomes more evident when we consider that America was founded on godly principles and yet Christmas was not part of it. The official celebration of Christmas as a nation is only about 120 years old. Christmas even then was not the same as it is today in America. The times changed and so did the celebration of Christmas
Soon other traditions began to develop for the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas card was developed and of course there was Santa Claus. Santa Claus has his origin from stories about a Turkish bishop who came to be known as Saint Nicholas. He was known for doing good deeds especially involving children. However, Saint Nicholas was actually depicted in paintings as being a tall and serious looking man.
Dutch children would put shoes by the fireplace for Saint Nicholas, known as "Sinter Klaas" and leave food out for his horse. You may recognize this as the precursor to the practice of hanging stockings and stuffing them with goodies. Sinter Klaas was believed to gallop on his horse between the rooftops and drop candy down the chimneys into the shoes. Black Peter, Sinter Klaas’ assistant, would go down the chimney and leave gifts for the children. The Dutch settlers brought their tales of Sinter Klaas to North America where he became known as Santa Claus. No one really knew what this fictional character should look like. Many versions of Santa Clause appeared in pictures and publications. However, Clement Clarke Moore set the record straight with his poem, "The Night Before Christmas." Santa Claus became the jolly elf, as we know him today. From that same poem we also get the flying reindeer that Santa Claus used to fly around delivering his toys to the children
The American Way
Christmas in America is just that—Christmas in America. The Christmas celebration in America is an eclectic holiday involving bits and pieces from many customs and many practices. We may argue that the origins of such things as the Christmas tree is pagan and therefore should not be implemented in a Christian Christmas. However, the fact that we celebrate Christmas by using the Christmas tree does not make our celebration pagan because that is not why or how it developed in America. Christmas in America did not evolve from pagan customs.
The American Christmas developed first out of a need for holidays. Perhaps it was a way to break the monotony of normal activities. As the family changed from a training ground for the children to an environment of emotional and social development, Christmas likewise began to transform into a day for children instead of a day or time to party. Christmas did become quite violent in some areas. For example, New York City instituted the first professional police force because of a rather violent occurrence that happened during the Christmas celebrations.
Soon parents began to have great joy at watching the joy of their children when they gave them gifts. Christmas soon became a children’s holiday that benefited the parents as well. There was no revelry or partying hard (at least overall). Christmas became a sane holiday for Americans. However, people soon began to look for the religious component of the Christmas holiday.
The Religious Component
As Christmas became more of a normal holiday, people began to look for ways to incorporate religion into the holiday. However, note that the protestant faith in general rejected Christmas. There were no church services on Christmas. However, the Catholics did have services on Christmas and the religious component grew from there. The Protestants realized that they had to do something as well so they adapted to the time and began to recognize Christmas as well.
The religious component has grown since the late 19th century into an expected and accepted part of the Christmas season. It is normal for a church to have special Christmas services during the Christmas season. It is normal for people to proclaim, "Jesus is the reason for the season." Though I wish not to belittle the importance of Jesus Christ, I should say, historically that Jesus Christ was never really the center of the Christmas season. This is not to say that we cannot or should not recognize the birth of Christ. However, such is not necessarily a part of the basic Christian faith. Jesus Christ as the reason for the season is a declaration to bring Christ into the revelry and the time period of the season. Christ gives life to all even beyond Christmas time.
We do recognize Christ and we do remember that he was born to save us from our sins. However, let us not make Christmas to be a legalistic mandate imposed on all Christian subjects. Let us enjoy the time when we fellowship with family and friends and partake of the joy of giving, especially to our children. Let us also remember Jesus Christ not only during the Christmas season but all year long.
There are some things that I would like to present to you to combat ignorance among Christians. Let me take the time to discuss the use of the term "Xmas", the wise men, and the use of the Christmas tree.
I was told that the use of the word Xmas is an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas. This is far from the truth and demonstrates how we can speak from pure ignorance sometimes. The letter "X" happens to be the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Xristos. Xmas was a popular term during the 16th century throughout Europe. Early Christians understood that Xmas was merely the Greek rendering for "Christ’s mass." We don’t have this same understanding since we are typically unfamiliar with the Greek language. We therefore mistake the X for an attempt to cross out Christ from the word Christmas. This is not to say that some people do use Xmas to avoid using "Christ."
The Wise Men
It is believed that three wise men came to the manger of baby Jesus and presented him with gifts. The biblical account does not agree with this, however. The Magi, wise men, visited the child Jesus when he was a toddler in his parent’s house (Matthew 2:9-11). Jesus was about 2 years old at that time. It is also very unlikely that there were only three wise men. There would most likely have been a larger group. It would not have been wise, no pun intended, for three Magi to travel such a long distance with such treasures. They would have been in severe danger of bandits. Some early church fathers, Saint Augustine for example, stated that there were about twelve Magi.
The Christmas Tree
I was told some time ago that Christians should not celebrate Christmas with the Christmas tree. Again we see ignorance at work here when we consider the history of the Christmas tree and the biblical source of this misunderstanding. The scripture that is sited to prove this rule is in Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 10:2 through Jeremiah 10:5 (NIV) 2This is what the LORD says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. 3For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. 4They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. 5Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good."
It is important, as always with Bible study, to understand the context and some background information. First of all there was no custom where people cut down a tree and decorated it the way we do a Christmas tree, at least not to my knowledge. Second, thee were no Christmas tree God that the people worshipped. Therefore, we see that the "No Christmas Tree" theory is not applicable here. What is this verse really saying? Simple. It states that idol gods are only objects made by man that can do nothing at all. They are powerless. That’s it.
What the people had a custom of doing, the pagans that is, were to cut down a tree to get wood. They would then take the wood from the tree and form it into their idol god. The idol would then be fastened, so that it wouldn’t topple over, and then it would be decorated accordingly. That’s it. This has nothing to do with the Christmas tree. There was no Christmas celebration at this time so the "no Christmas tree" rule is not applicable here. If the "no Christmas tree" rule were true then the practice of exchanging gifts would be outlawed as well since that was part of pagan practices.
So don’t feel as though you are worshipping an idol god if you use a Christmas tree during the Christmas season.
We see that Christmas is an eclectic holiday. It has bits and pieces of traditions and practices from many different origins. The Christmas season includes both secular and religious components. These two should not be considered as opposing each other but simply as pieces of a joyous time of year. We should also note that the heart is the principle thing. The act of decorating a Christmas tree does not mean that you are worshipping an idol god if that is not in your heart in the first place.
Christmas is the time of year when Christians remember the birth of Jesus Christ. However, as I said already, in practice Jesus is not the center of the season. If Jesus were really the center of the season then we wouldn’t spend so much money on gifts and dinners and parties. We would instead go to church and remember the birth of Christ without all of the pomp and circumstance. Enjoy your Christmas holiday and remember Christ. Remember Christ all year and learn to be joyous and generous all year long. Let not Christmas be a unique time of year when we are nice to people and give to others. Let Christmas be a designated day where we recognize and remember the birth of Christ as well as enjoy the time we have with family, friends, and most of all our children.
Christmas and Christianity: A Basic Overview
(C) 1999 William R. Cunningham
December 14, 1999