Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

By:
J. Hampton Keathley, III, Th.M.

Introduction

"Should Christians celebrate Christmas?" or, "How should a Christian celebrate Christmas?" These are questions of concern for many sincere believers. In fact, many believers dislike the season and have refused to celebrate it at all. A number of reasons are given, and while I might agree with some of their concerns and some of the reasons offered against the observance of Christmas, I would not necessarily agree with their conclusions.

One day I happened to catch a TV preacher denouncing the celebration of Christmas. He was saying it is pagan holiday, and that Christ could not have born in December. He used some Old Testament passages to show how the Christmas tree was idolatrous and an abomination. He quoted Jeremiah 10:2-4 which reads:

2. Thus says the LORD, "Do not learn the way of the nations, And do not be terrified by the signs of the heavens Although the nations are terrified by them;

3. For the customs of the peoples are delusion; Because it is wood cut from the forest, The work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool.

4. They decorate it with silver and with gold; They fasten it with nails and with hammers so that it will not totter."

Then he quoted Isaiah 44:14-15:

14. Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak, and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow.

15. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image, and falls down before it. (NASB)

Finally, he quoted Jeremiah 3:13:

13. 'Only acknowledge your iniquity, That you have transgressed against the Lord your God And have scattered your favors to the strangers under every green tree, And you have not obeyed My voice,‘ declares the Lord.

It seems that the points of reference for this preacher were to "wood cut from the forest," "they decorate it with silver and gold," "he plants a fir" (an evergreen tree), "scattered your favors . . . under every green tree," and "falls down before it." The preacher went on to say, that at Christmas people take an evergreen tree cut from the forest; they decorate it with ornaments of silver and gold, and then fall down before it when they place their presents under the tree. His conclusion was that this is idolatry.

If this weren't so sad, it would be hilarious, but sincere people hear this and become concerned. As a pastor, I have had people ask me questions such as, "Are we wrong to celebrate Christmas?" "Is this idolatry?" "What should we do about celebrating Christmas?"

It is this mentality that I will address in this study. How should believers respond to such questions and to the criticism leveled against the celebration of Christmas and the Christmas season? Is it scripturally wrong to celebrate Christmas? Is it pagan?

Everywhere we go during the season, the signs of Christmas are there with all their glitter, tinsel, lights, greenery, cards, festivities, carols, bells, Santas, manger scenes, angels, trees and presents--and the push by Madison Avenue and the gimmicks of the retailers. The Christmas season either makes or breaks many businesses.

Should we play the part of Scrooge and say, "bah humbug!"? Should we call attention to the fact that certain of our Christmas traditions such as the yule log, the decorated tree, and mistletoe each have their roots in pagan festivals? Should we assert that celebrateChristmas is to promote paganism and materialism and thus is just not the biblical thing to do?

I personally do not agree with that conclusion. In this short study, we will take a look at some of the arguments and issues and consider some of the biblical options open to us as believers.

Arguments Against
the Celebration of Christmas

Argument Number 1: Christmas is Commercialized and Materialistic

It is said that because the birth of Christ has been commercialized and secularized the real meaning of the season been lost. For the most part this is true. Even the story about the birth of Christ is often distorted, mocked, or misrepresented. The meaning of Christmas is said to be the spirit of giving. However, the giving of the Son of God who became the babe of the cradle that He might become the man of the cross and one day reign on earth with the crown is forgotten, rejected, or ignored.

Answers and Considerations:

If we use this argument as a legitimate reason for discarding the entire celebration of Christ's birth at Christmas, it would follow that we would end up having to throw out everything--even our Bibles and our wives or husbands. Why? Because Satan and man distort and ruins everything in life--the Bible, sex, marriage, the church, food--everything. Name one thing that Satan doesn't ruin. We don't throw things out just because the world misuses or distorts them.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:22 Paul says, "abstain from every form of evil" (NASB). Because of the translation of the KJV, "every appearance of evil," some have taken this to apply to anything that even looks like it might be evil. As the NASB translation make clear, however, Paul's meaning is "to abstain from every genuine form of evil," not what might simply appear to be evil. We are to abstain from what is genuinely evil or wrong according to the index of the Word of God. To abstain from the mere appearance of evil would seem to contradict what the Apostle says in the second passage important to this discussion.

In Titus 1:15 the Apostle also warns against those who see evil in almost anything and condemn it. For these people, a lot of things have the appearance of evil, but purity is first of all a matter of the mind and conscience, not merely the external. "To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled." (NASB).

Just because the world distorts something, that does not make it evil if we avoid the distortions and use it as God intended or in a way that does not go contrary to God's character and holiness. A good illustration is the beauty of sexual love within the bonds of marriage.

Argument Number 2: Scripture Doesn't Authorize It

The argument is that since we are not clearly authorized by the Bible to celebrate the birth of Christ during such a season, we should have no celebrations or even special services to commemorate the birth of Christ. On the other hand, Scripture does tell us to remember His death in the ordinance of the Lord's Supper, and we celebrate His resurrection by assembling on the first day of the week, but there is no precedent for celebrating His birth.

Answers and Considerations:

This is what we could legitimately call hyperliteralism in the use of Scripture. Such an approach completely misses the spirit and intent of the Bible. Hyperliteralism (or letterism) is an intense devotion to the details of the Bible in such a way that one misses the spirit and essential thrust of a passage. Mountains are made out of mole hills and the truth is missed. One is busy counting the number of letters in a sentence rather than listening to its instruction.

If we applied this argument consistently, we would need to discontinue the use of overheads, musical instruments, hymnals, chorus books, the church building, pews, Sunday school, Christian schools, and many other things. Further, there could be no special services or seasons to commemorate things God has done as with Thanksgiving or a dedication service for a new building. Why? Because the only illustrations of such things are found in the Old Testament and not the New Testament. If the New Testament had clearly spoken on this matter, this argument would be correct because the New Testament does take priority over the Old Testament. However, since it has not, the argument from silence is not sufficient reason.

Some would argue that the New Testament has not been silent, and this is the third argument we need to consider.

Argument Number 3: Scripture Forbids It

Colossians 2:16-17:

16. Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day,

17. things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

Using this passage, it is claimed that Scripture actually warns and forbids the observance of any special months, seasons, days or religious festivals.

Answers and Considerations:

What Colossians 2:16-17 forbids is the celebration of religious seasons or holy days when they have been prescribed as religious duty and necessary for holiness or spirituality.

In this passage, the Apostle is talking about the Old Testament festivals which were shadows of the person and work of Christ--but Christ has now come. To continue to celebrate them is to dishonor the fact of His coming, or to act as though He were not enough for salvation or spirituality. Note what the Apostle says, "let no one act as your judge in regard to . . ." He is saying don't let anyone tell you these things are requirements for fellowship with God. They were only shadows of the person and work of Christ, and He has not only come and fulfilled those shadows, but He is totally sufficient.

Colossians 2:16 and 17 in no way forbids believers from commemorating something such as the birth of Christ if it is done out of love, devotion, and the joy the season gives when used as a way of focusing on the Savior and not as a religious duty. The issue is not the observance, but the reason, the attitudes and the spirit in which it is done.

Furthermore, I believe there is scriptural precedent for commemorating and remembering the birth of Christ. This is in keeping with the events that occurred around the time of Christ's birth These include:

1. The appearance of the angel of the Lord with the glory of the Lord to announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds (Lk. 2:10-12).

2. The response of the angels at the announcement of Christ's birth (Lk. 2:13-14).

3. The actions of the shepherds who left their flocks to go and see which was nothing short of a celebration (Lk. 2:15-20).

4. And the arrival of the men from the east bearing gifts as much as a year to two years later (Matt. 2:1-12).

There is, of course, the New Testament precedent for believers meeting together on Sunday. In essence this is a celebration of the Lord's resurrection. The early church automatically did this, but Scripture does not command us to do so. In fact, the early church at first met daily and took the Lord's Supper daily, but we don't do that today. Why not? Because these are not binding. We are not under the Law. Believers meet on Sunday because of its significance and because the early church set a precedent for it, but it was never commanded in the Bible. Believers did it out of love and adoration for the risen Savior.

The point is this: If the early church could celebrate the resurrection without a specific command from God, only the spirit of legalism or the letter of the law would forbid the celebration of Christ's birth as a special season of joy and adoration. Ultimately, the issue is not the season, its the attitude and reason behind it and the distortion of it. Let's not throw out the baby with the wash.

Argument Number 4: Christmas Traditions are from Paganism

Another argument against the celebration of Christmas as it has been done for years is the claim that many of the traditions found in the celebration of Christmas were brought over into Christianity from pagan practices. These include the yule log, the tree, special feasts or meals, and mistletoe. How can we justify these things? Isn't it just like celebrating Halloween? A number of Old Testament passages are sometimes used to condemn the use of Christmas trees such as: Jeremiah 10:2-5; Isaiah 40:19-20; 44:14-17. (See verses in introduction above.)

Answers and Considerations:

Some Historical Facts about our Traditions

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible says:

'Gradually a number of prevailing practices of the nations into which Christianity came were assimilated and were combined with the religious ceremonies surrounding Christmas. The assimilation of such practices generally represented efforts by Christians to transform or absorb otherwise pagan practices.

The Feast of Saturnalia in early Rome, for example, was celebrated for 7 days from the 17th to the 24th of December and was marked by a spirit of merriment, gift giving to children and other forms of entertainment. Gradually, early Christians replaced the pagan feast with the celebration of Christmas; but many of the traditions of this observance were assimilated and remain to this day a part of the observance of Christmas. Other nations, the Scandinavians, Germans, French, English and others, have left their mark . . . as well.' (pp. 804, 805).

Concerning these ancient elements, The Christian Encyclopedia says:

'Various symbolic elements of the pagan celebration, such as the lighting of candles, evergreen decorations, and the giving of gifts, were adapted to Christian signification. Later as Christianity spread into northern Europe, the Celtic, Teutonic, and Slavic winter festivals contributed holly, mistletoe, the Christmas tree, bonfires, and similar items.'

Finally, Unger's Bible Dictionary adds:

'The giving of presents was a Roman custom; while the yule tree and yule log are remnants of old Teutonic nature worship. Gradually the festival sank into mere revelry . . . . The custom was forbidden by an act of parliament in 1555; And the reformation brought in a refinement in the celebration of Christmas by emphasizing its Christian elements.'

But what about passages like Jeremiah 10? Some believe this condemns the celebration of Christmas and especially the use of the Christmas tree. Is Jeremiah telling us to avoid the customs of the nations? No. Jeremiah 10 is a denunciation of the making and worship of idols and not the decoration of evergreen trees in the home.

Issues Facing Us Today

(1) The pagan associations were lost long ago

The names of the days of our week also had their origin in pagan beliefs. 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.

All of these ancient meanings with their beliefs and associations were lost long ago. When Friday roles around we don't think about Fria, the goddess of love. On Saturday we don't think about it as Saturn's day, but as our day off! The same applies to the traditions of Christmas. If one observed the days of the week or the Christmas season with their ancient associations in mind, certainly it would be wrong. But many of these things, as with our Sunday, have been given Christian connotations.

Even without seeking special significance in the traditions of Christmas, you could still celebrate this season for the joy and family fun the season can bring.

I would like to suggest that believers can capitalize on the Christmas season as a family tradition and as a learning experience much like the Old Testament Passover was to be used by Israel. It all depends on the spirit and attitude in which it is done. We can be very negative and critical, or we can be positive and use the season as a time to remember and commemorate the birth of the Savior. We can use it as a time to demonstrate love for others in a special way, and to be together as a family like we do on Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, or New Years. We can make something evil out of it or something good.

(2) Facts of Scripture Concerning the Celebration of Christmas

In view of what we have seen, the Bible is silent from the standpoint of our Christmas traditions. However, because of our freedom in Christ under grace, we are at liberty to celebrate Christmas. The important point is that the Bible simply does not condemn the celebration of Christmas even in the traditional form and we have liberty in Christ to choose to do so.

Scripture does, however, set down principles which should affect the way we celebrate it. These principles warn and protect us from the distortions we find in the world.

But it doesn't have to be like this. Even the gift aspect can be done in such a way that it is instructive, meaningful, in keeping with one's budget, and in keeping with biblical teaching concerning Christian stewardship.

(3) Ancient traditions are often distortions of original revelation

Many of the customs of Christmas originated in ancient Babylonian paganism and were related in various ways to the mother-child cult. But an important concept is often missed here.

Originally, many of the ideas of these pagan practices may have had their roots in the truth of the Old Testament or divine revelation from God as:

These verses form a whole line of prophecies concerning the branch of the Lord, the shoot, that would spring forth and become a tree of life both to Israel and the nations. So, when we come to the New Testament, we find reference to a tree of life that is available to believers in Christ.

In view of these Old Testament prophecies, I believe four things are evident:

(4) The celebration of Christmas falls under the category of doubtful things.

It is argued that since Scripture does not clearly rule out the celebration of Christmas; its celebration falls under the category of debatable or doubtful things covered by the principles of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. In summary, these passages teach us the following principles:

(5) Some Options to Consider

The problem is that many believers are already carnal or marginal in their spiritual life and they get caught up in the rat race and secularization of the season. People spend far more than they can afford. They seek relief from their burdens and seek happiness in the glitter and merry making of the holidays, rather than in the person of God's Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. They look for the season to give joy, rather than the Person of the season. They expect from the season what only God can give. As a result, depression and suicide reaches its peak during the Christmas season and immediately following it.

Argument Number 5: Uncertainty of the Date of Christ's Birth

As one who has specialized in biblical chronology, Dr. Harold W. Hoehner, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote:

Jesus Christ entered into the history of our world, Christianity, therefore, has historical basis. The backbone of history is chronology. Whereas history is a systematic account of events in relation to a nation, institution, science, or art; chronology is a science of time. It seeks to establish and arrange the dates of past events in their proper sequence. Thus chronology serves as a necessary framework upon which the events of history may be fitted (BIB SAC, Vol. 130, # 520, Oct.-Dec., 1973, p. 338).

The argument is that Christ could not have been born on December 25 or even in the winter, so the entire celebration is wrong, even the time of the year.

Answers and Considerations:

By considering the chronological notes in Scripture such as Luke 2:1, "it seems that the evidence would lead one to conclude that Christ's birth occurred sometime in the winter of 5/4 B.C." (Hoehner, p. 350). Our concern here is not with the year, but with the month Christ was born--or at least the time of year, i.e., winter or spring. Is a winter date out of the question? Is it possible or maybe even probable?

1. Hoehner points out that the traditional date for the birth of Christ as December 25th dates back to as early as Hippolytus (A..D. 165-235). In the Eastern church January 6th was the date used for Christ's birth. But this is still a winter date and not far removed from December 25th.

2. Chrysostom (A..D. 345-407) in 386 stated that December 25th is the correct date and hence it became the official date for Christ's birth except in the Eastern church which still retained January 6th.

3. One of the main objections has been that sheep were usually taken into enclosures from November through March and were not out in the fields at night. However, this is not as conclusive as it sounds for the following reasons: (a) It could have been a mild winter. (b) It is not at all certain that sheep were always brought into enclosures during the winter months. (c) It is true that during the winter months sheep were brought in from the wilderness, but remember, Luke tells us the shepherds were near Bethlehem rather than in the wilderness. This indicates, if anything, the nativity was in the winter months. (d) The Mishnah tells us the shepherds around Bethlehem were outside all year and those worthy of the Passover were nearby in the fields at least 30 days before the feast which could be as early as February (one of the coldest, rainiest months of the year). So December is a very reasonable date.

James Kelso, an archaeologist who spent a number of years living in Palestine and who has done extensive research there says this:

The best season for the shepherds of Bethlehem is the winter when heavy rains bring up a luscious crop of new grass. After the rains the once-barren, brown desert earth is suddenly a field of brilliant green. One year when excavating at New Testament Jericho, I lived in Jerusalem and drove through this area twice every day. At one single point along the road, I could see at times as many as five shepherds with their flocks on one hillside. One shepherd stayed with his flock at the same point for three weeks, so lush was the grass. But as soon as the rains stopped in the spring, the land quickly took on its normal desert look once again.

Since there seem to have been a number of shepherds who came to see the Christ child, December or January would be the most likely months (James Kelso, An Archaeologist Looks At The Gospels, p. 23-24).

Argument Number 6: The Timing of the Magi's Arrival

It has been claimed the Magi could not have arrived in Bethlehem at the time of Christ's birth. It would have taken months to travel to Bethlehem from the East. The family was living in a house when the Magi arrived, and Herod had children killed up to two years old when he heard about the child.

While none of this really affects whether one should celebrate Christmas, this argument is often used to throw further doubt and contempt for the entire tradition of celebrating Christmas.

Answers and Considerations:

The argument concerning the time required to travel from the East assumes a great deal. It assumes they were in the East when the star was seen, or even that God had not revealed information to them which could have caused them to begin their journey before the star was seen.

Let me just quote Hoehner from BIB SAC again (Vol. 130, # 520, p. 349).

The question arises whether Matthew is speaking of the same time as Luke or a later time. Madison attempts to demonstrate that the Magi visited Christ when He was about two years of age by noting that the Lukan narrative uses the term brephos (2:12) which is used to refer to an unborn, a newborn child, or an infant whereas Matthew uses the words paidion (2:8, 9,11, 13, 14, 20, 21) and pais (2:16) which are used of a child that is at least one year old rather than an infant. The fact that the wise men came to the house (in Matthew's account) rather than a manger (in Luke's account) would also indicate that Jesus was older when Herod slew the children. Thus Luke is talking about the time of Christ's birth whereas Matthew is talking about two years after Christ's birth.

However, the distinction is not so clear-cut as Madison would have one to believe. The term padion is used of infants (Luke 1:59:, 66, 76; John 16:21; Heb. 11:23) and brephos is used of a young child (2 Tim. 3;15). The word pais is used in the N.T. of a child six out of twenty-four times (the other eighteen occurrences speak of a servant). In the O.T. the meaning "servant" is almost unanimous. In Matthew 2:16 pais would fall into the same age category as paidion since the latter term is used nine times in the same context. Furthermore, to say that Jesus was no longer an infant because the magi visited Him in a house rather than a stable is quite weak. Certainly they would have moved to a house as soon as it was possible. Indeed the tone of Matthew 2:1 is that the Magi visited Christ soon after His birth. That Herod killed children up to two years old was only to be sure he got Jesus. This is not out of character with Herod. Therefore, the slaying of the children soon after Christ's birth is tenable.

Please note what Charles Ryrie has to say on Matthew 2:11 in his Study Bible, p. 1447.

into the house . . . the Child. These words need not indicate that the wise men came some time after the birth of Christ. The family would naturally have moved into a house as quickly as possible after Jesus was born, and "child" can mean a newborn (John 16:21). We do not know how many wise men there were, gold and frankincense and myrrh. These were gifts worthy of a king. The early church fathers understood the gold to be symbolic of Christ's deity; the frankincense, of His purity; and the myrrh, of His death (since it was used for embalming).

Argument Number 7: Christmas means "Christ's Mass"

The name Christmas is objected to because it means Christ's Mass. This is supposed to be a reference to the Roman Catholic ritual involving the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper. Roman Catholic tradition holds that by the priest's consecration the bread and the wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ; that this consecration is a new offering of Christ's sacrifice, and that by partaking of the elements the communicant receives saving and sanctifying grace from God.

Answers and Considerations:

Christ + mass, can also mean "a large number or quantity." It can also mean simply a mass of religious services in commemoration of the birth of Christ. In other words, mass stands for festival involving a number of religious activities, and is not a reference to the Roman Catholic ritual of the Eucharist.

Further, even if the term originally referred to the Roman Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, it long ago lost that connotation and is really not an issue.

Argument Number 8: What about Santa Claus?

Christmas can involve children in the belief of Santa Claus, a mythical figure, which detracts from the person of Christ. The objection is that the emphasis is turned from Jesus Christ to Santa Claus as the giver of gifts for good behavior rather than God's gift of His Son by grace through faith.

Furthermore, young children sometimes confuse Santa with Jesus Christ since "he knows when you've been sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, . . .

The idea of gifts for good behavior can connote a "reward for good deeds" mentality which is opposed to God's gift of His Son through faith. Scripture does promise rewards for obedience.

Answers and Considerations:

The Santa Clause idea originated with a man by the name of St. Nicholas who was the Bishop of Myra in Lycia in the area of present day Turkey. He went about, often at night, giving gifts to poor and needy children. He later became the patron saint of children in the Roman Catholic Church. From here the story grew and became legend in country after country with various details were deleted and added as the legend of St. Nick grew.

So, how should believers handle it? Santa may be taken as a fairy tale idea like Alice in Wonderland, or Jack and the Bean Stalk. Children normally understand that Alice in Wonderland is only make believe--a fairy tale. However, for many children Santa is real. In many ways it is probably harmless. But because of the confusion between Santa and Christ, parents need to be careful in their use of this part of Christmas.

We also need to remember that Scripture does promise rewards for godly behavior or faithfulness for believers in Christ. Salvation is a gift through faith alone in Christ alone, but crowns, metonomy for rewards, are promised for faithful and obedient living (1 Pet. 5:4).

Conclusion

As with all of these doubtful things, each family needs to make up their own minds. In my opinion parents can explain the traditions and have fun with them, but make sure your children understand the historical roots and use these things to teach the truth behind the traditions.

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