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Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

In this article, we examine whether Christians should celebrate or avoid the Christmas holiday.  This can be a very emotional issue that often generates strong feelings among Christians on both sides of the argument.

So, we examine what the Bible says (and doesn’t say) about some of the most common objections to celebrating Christmas.  We also share some additional thoughts on the subject in the hope that it might help others who may be struggling with the same questions and/or concerns.

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When it comes to Christmas and non-Christians (including those only professing to be Christians), we generally find several different scenarios.  First, we find those who hate anything related to the true God and Christianity, and work to have anything even remotely related to the holiday banned from public places.  Next, there are those who don’t believe in Christ, but see no harm in Christmas being celebrated by others (“ok for others but not for me”).  Others even join into some of the festivities (parties, gift giving etc) while ignoring the spiritual and religious meaning of the holiday.  Many of these don't even realize its connection to Christianity, thinking it to be all about Santa Claus instead.

We shouldn’t be surprised that these attitudes toward Christmas vary among different people groups, religions and ideologies. However, one would think that all true believers would joyfully look forward to the celebration of the birth of Christ, but as we’ve noted in our lead-in above, there are disagreements even among Christians as to whether or not Christmas should be recognized as a legitimate Christian holiday.

Historical and Corporate Attitudes toward Celebrating Christmas

For the purpose of this section, we’re including both orthodox and unorthodox denominations and religions.  We’re also referring to the corporate position of each church or group, and although the vast majority of its members either celebrates or rejects Christmas, there may be a small percentage of exceptions.  We also touch only on modern history here and will tackle early history later in the article.

Almost all Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholics celebrate Christmas today.  Many of the early reformers rejected the holiday, and the Puritans and Pilgrims even outlawed its celebration for a time during the 17th and 18 centuries.  The Lutherans remain one of the strongest proponents of the holiday, following the lead of Martin Luther who is widely credited with popularizing the adding of lights to the Christmas tree.  German settlers later brought the tradition to America.

Probably the most vicious attacks against the celebration each year are leveled by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although the closely related Latter-day Saints (Mormons) celebrate the holiday.  The United Church of God (UCG) also strongly rejects the celebration of Christmas, and publishes articles and videos urging Christians to avoid the “pagan” holiday.  Ironically, their published fundamental beliefs state that “We believe in the commanded observance of the seven annual Holy Days given to ancient Israel by God and kept by Jesus Christ, the apostles and the New Testament Church”.  So, while rejecting Christmas, they believe NT believers are still bound to observe the OT Jewish feasts that Jesus fulfilled.

The Seventh Day Adventists take no official position for or against the celebration of Christmas (or Easter), recognizing the Sabbath as their only holy day.  The Adventists however, hold the incarnation of Christ in high regard and leave the choice of celebrating Christmas up to their individual members.  In recent years, we’ve heard of some individual Adventist churches adding Christmas trees and celebrations.

Overall, the numbers appear to indicate that about 2% of church members choose not to celebrate Christmas.  This should not be taken as proof that everyone should celebrate Christmas since majorities are not always right.  The Scriptures must be the ultimate measuring rod of truth.

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Individual Attitudes toward Celebrating Christmas

An individual believer’s position on celebrating Christmas generally falls into one of three categories.  Some believe that all Christians should celebrate Christmas, while others believe Christians should shun Christmas as a pagan celebration.  Many in these first two groups believe that those in the other group sins by taking the position that is opposed to their own.  A third group (our position) believes the issue to be a matter of conscience, that all are free to keep or leave Christmas as long as Christ is honored by what we do.

Our family, along with almost all of our Christian friends celebrates Christmas, but a few of our friends and other believers that I highly respect, choose not to observe the holiday for various reasons.  Furthermore, their objections and reasoning should not be hastily or summarily dismissed.  I must admit that I’ve also wrestled with a few of these issues in the past.  We’ll examine many of the most common objections below.

Clarification of Terms

Before beginning our discussions, we’d like to clarify our use of “opponents of Christmas” vs “supporters of Christmas”.  Since this article is written primarily to believers, the term “opponents” should not be taken in a negative sense.  Unless noted otherwise, it refers to fellow Christians who choose not to celebrate Christmas due to their beliefs and convictions, not to those who do not believe in the Christ.

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What does the Bible Say?

Unlike the clear biblical command given by Jesus to remember His death and resurrection (Lk 22:14-20), there is no specific command to celebrate His birth.  There are two basic traditions related to the interpretation of allowable worship practices, sometimes referred to as the “Regulative Principle”.  One traditional position is that our worship practices should not contradict the Bible.  In other words, we are allowed to do whatever is not forbidden by the Scriptures.  Of course, the biblical prohibitions would include not only those practices that are expressly forbidden, but also those that are forbidden by the author’s intended pattern of meaning.  A stricter interpretation holds that, only practices that are commanded should be allowed.  These positions were originally formulated by the church to apply to corporate worship practices, but they are often extended to other practices since for Christians, most of our actions are (or should be) a form of worship.  Nevertheless, the position that each of us holds with regard to what the Bible allows or forbids will likely influence our stance on the celebration of Christmas.

Continuing our biblical investigation, the Apostle Paul gives us the principles of Christian freedom and conscience in Romans 14 (see also 1Cor 8 and 1Cor 10:23-33).  He also writes that all things are permissible for believers, but not all things are beneficial (1Cor 6:12), and cautions that our liberty is not a license to sin (Gal 5:13).  In respect to gray areas of Scripture, each of us is to be convinced in our own mind (Rm 14:5-6).  This does not mean that we convince ourselves based on whatever we feel at the moment, but that we follow our convictions based on principles drawn from diligent study of the whole of Scripture.  Paul warns us that our conscience will bear witness of us before God (Rom 2:14, see also Rom 9:1, 13:5), and that we should avoid passing judgment on others when we don’t have a clear command (Rm 14:12-13).  The principle of conviction on the essential doctrines and charity on the gray areas certainly applies in our endeavor.  Time after time, Jesus appeared to choose charity and compassion over the letter of the law, without violating the spirit of the law.

In the absence of a clear command for or against celebrating the birth of Jesus the Christ, we should look for related principles in Scripture to aid us in our decision.  Regarding religious celebrations in general, Paul writes “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col 2:16). This is consistent with our view that the celebration of Christmas is a matter of conscience.

Likewise, on the subject of birthday celebrations, the Bible doesn’t issue a command for or against.  We do find the account of two birthdays portrayed in a negative light, that of the Egyptian Pharaoh in the days of Moses (Gen 40:20) and of King Herod during Jesus’ first advent (Mk 6:21).  In each case, it was not the birthday itself that was condemned, but the activities that took place.  The birthday celebrations held by the sons of Job were included to show the righteousness of Job.  He offered sacrifices to God in the case that his sons may have sinned during the celebrations (Job 1:1-5).  These are the only mentions of birthdays in the Bible.

So, when celebrating birthdays, we should follow the overarching command that applies to all activities, that we do all things in the Name of Jesus for the glory of God (1Cor 10:31, Col 3:17).  Pharaoh and Herod sanctioned their birthdays for their own glory and honor.  As we celebrate our own birthdays, we should remain humble (Mt 23:12, Rom 12:3, Ja 4:10), giving thanks, honor and glory to God for the gift of life and the many undeserved blessings that He heaps upon us.

We’ll continue to note additional implications of Scripture as we examine some of the most common objections to the Christmas celebration.  We’ll then look at some Biblical patterns that will further contribute to our investigation.

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Typical Objections

Lack of a Biblical Command

As we mentioned above, those who hold to the stricter interpretation of the Regulative Principle object to celebrating any festival or holiday that is not commanded in the Bible.  Yet, in John 10:22-23, we read that Jesus attended the annual celebration of the Feast of Dedication (aka the “Festival of Lights”), a festival that is not commanded in the Bible.  In fact, John 10 is the only mention of the celebration in all of Scripture.

The Feast of Dedication (Gk: ta enkainia) is known as Chanukah (or Hanukkah) from the Hebrew word for “dedication”.  The celebration, of rabbinic origin, commemorated the military victory and cleansing of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 164 BC after it had been defiled by Syrian King, Antiochus Epiphanes who many believe pre-figured the antichrist.  We find the account of the Temple cleansing and subsequent celebration in the Apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees (4:36-41).  Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev (1Macc 4:59).

Hanukkah is also closely aligned with Christmas.  This year (2017 or Jewish year 5778), 25th Chislev (or Kislev) falls on December 13 (or more accurately, at dusk on December 12 since the Jewish day begins the previous evening), so Hanukkah will span from 24th Chislev to 2nd Tevet (December 12-20).

So, we find that Jesus Himself attended an annual celebration festival for which no command is found in the Scriptures.

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Just an “Ordinary” Birth?

I’ve heard some people object to the celebration of Christmas because, unlike the death and resurrection of Jesus, His birth was just an ordinary event.  This argument is based on the composition fallacy that, because something is true of some or even all of the parts, the same is also true of the whole.  In our case, because some of the elements associated with the birth were ordinary, then the birth event itself was ordinary.  By this same reasoning, we could argue that, since all of the words used in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were ordinary, the speech itself must be just another ordinary speech.

Those who employ this objection must also limit the birth to the physical elements alone, but that takes a very narrow view of the event.  For example, when we celebrate our birthday or one of our friends, how much time is spent reminiscing over the components of our physical birth?  The vast majority of the time is spent celebrating our entire life by fellowshipping with friends, thanking God for the life and blessings that He has given us, and looking ahead to what is still to come (ok, maybe we might also spend a few minutes plotting revenge against the person who brought the poster with all those embarrassing old pictures from our childhood and teenage years).

Likewise, Christians do not limit the celebration of Christmas to the birth of Christ, but celebrate His entire life.  We not only celebrate the fact that He came, but who He is and why He came.  He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).  He left the comforts of Heaven, temporarily made Himself lower than the angels, and paid the ultimate price for us so that we could be adopted into the family of God.

Now it should come as no surprise that Jesus’ birth contained many elements that were common to other normal births.  He had to be made like us in every way except for being sinless so that He could accomplish the work He came to do (Heb 2:14-17, 4:14-16).  Yet, looking at other aspects of the birth event, we can ask, “Was the birth of Christ just an ordinary birth, or was it unique in all of history?”

To answer this question, we could begin by asking, how many other births were predicted hundreds and even thousands of years before, beginning in the Garden of Eden? (Gen 3:14-15).  We find many other predictions over the preceding millennia concerning other aspects of His birth such as his ancestry from Abraham (Gen 18:17-18, Mt 1:1, Ac 3:25-26, Gal 3:16), his nationality (Gen 28:10-15, Num 24:17, Lk 1:33), his tribe (Gen 49:8-10, Heb 7:14, Rev 5:5), the city of his birth (Mic 5:2, Mt 2:1-6, Lk 2:11, Jn 7:42), and that He would come from the royal line of David (2Sam 7:12-13, Is 9:7, Jer 23:5; Mt 1:1, Lk 1:32, Jn 7:42, Ac 13:22-23).

It was also prophesized that He would be born of a virgin (Is 7:13-14, Lk 1:26-35).  With artificial insemination, I guess that someone could technically be born of a virgin today, but not without the physical seed of a father.  In the garden, God proclaimed to the satanic indwelled serpent in the garden that “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”.  This promise is sometimes called the Protevangelium, or “first gospel”.  Of the over 250 usages of the term “seed” (Heb zera', Gk sperma – also translated as “offspring” or “descendant”), this is the only occurrence where the term is used as “seed of a woman”.  In all other cases, the term seed is always used as seed of a man.  The conception associated with Jesus’ birth was unique.  We also provide additional information on these and other prophecies related to the Birth of Christ in our Real Meaning of Christmas article.

Perhaps the most incredibly unique feature of Jesus’ birth to Mary is that, not only is He Mary’s Son, but He is also her Creator (Jn 1:3, Heb 1:2) and her Savior (Lk 1:46-47).  We were all born of a mother, but how many of us was born of a mother of our own creation?

We can also note the angelic activity associated with the Savior’s birth.  God sent the angel Gabriel to announce the coming birth to the Virgin Mary (Lk 1:26-38) and instructed her to name him “Jesus” (Lk 1:31), a name meaning “salvation”.  Angels also were sent to announce the birth to shepherds (Lk 2:8-12).  In all, there were five appearances by angels associated with the birth including “a great company of the heavenly host” (Lk 2:13).

Finally, we note the fact that His birth split our modern calendar between BC and AD.

Just an ordinary birth?  I think not!

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Birthday of Jesus is Unknown

Another common argument offered against celebrating Christmas is that the actual birthday of Christ is unknown.  The Scriptures don’t mention a particular date.  So, how did the 25th of December become established as the date for Christmas?

The earliest generally accepted calculation of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus is credited to the church father Tertullian of Carthage about 200 AD.  Tertullian assumed that Jesus was conceived on the same day that He was crucified, the 14th of Nisan, or March 25 on the Roman calendar.  He then added nine months to come up with the December 25 date for His birth.  In addition, Hippolytus of Rome (~205-210 AD) placed the birth of Jesus on December 25 in his commentary on the Book of Daniel, but some critics claim this is a later redaction.  Other sources credit the date to the historian Julius Africanus (~220 AD) who also speculated that Jesus was conceived on March 25, the day that he believed the world was created.  There is no evidence as to whether or not a celebration was immediately instituted as a result of these proposals.

Throughout history, many have proposed other dates as a possible birthday of Jesus.  Some have proposed that He was born in the spring, possibly mid-March.  I think a likely date could be around the Festival of Sukkot (Booths or Tabernacles) in late September or early October.  See the Sukkot - Birthday of Christ? chapter for additional thoughts.  Incidentally, we know that life begins at conception, so if the Sukkot date is correct, we could actually be celebrating Christmas around the time of the Immaculate Conception.

Ultimately, I don’t believe knowing the exact date is as important as having a day to honor Christ for what he has done.  I’ve heard many cases of children abandoned without a birth certificate that do not know their own birthday, but their care givers or adopted families gave them a birthday so they could celebrate like the other children.  In one sense, Jesus could also be considered homeless during His time of ministry (Mt 8:20, Lk 9:58).  If we can honor a human child, how much more can we honor our Savior?

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Holiday has become Commercialized

It is certainly true that Christmas has largely been secularized and commercialized in our modern times, even by many professing Christians.  Of course, many who profess to be Christians are not true believers, merely cultural “Christians” who believe in a god (whoever or whatever he may be), and believe that, since they’re not Muslin, Hindu or other major religion, they must be Christian by default.  We should not expect those who are not true Christians to celebrate (or often not even know of) the true meaning of the holiday.

Yet, Christians should not let the fact that many celebrate a materialistic version of the holiday keep us from honoring the true meaning.  Many modern churches pursue a commercialized form of worship.  In order to bring in more people (and their money), the Gospel has been replaced with self-help, prosperity, tickle-the-ear preaching.  This should not prevent true churches however, from conducting services according to a biblical model.  If we abandoned every Christian tradition and ministry that has been distorted or outright falsified by others, we’d have none left.  We should not allow unbelievers to dictate how we worship.

We as Christians should be glad that, even in the most highly secularized areas, the vast majority of unbelievers still celebrate Christmas by putting up a tree, exchanging gifts, visiting with family, and partaking in various other traditions.  While many of these have previously rejected the Christ of Christmas, a great many others have never heard.  This gives us the great opportunity to tell them about the real meaning behind their celebrations.

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Xmas vs Christmas

Many people believe that the writing of “Xmas” instead of “Christmas” is part of the modern day secularist movement to remove Christ from Christmas.  In many cases, they are certainly correct, but we can’t automatically assume this is the case without looking at the context of their writing and the purpose of its use.  To explain, we’ll need to look at a couple of Hebrew and Greek words.

In the Greek language, the letter “X” stands for “Chi”, and is the first letter of Χριστός (transposed into English letters as “Christos”).  Christos (or, “Christ” in the English) means “the Anointed One”.  Incidentally, the Hebrew word for “the Anointed One” is transposed into English letters as “Mašíah”. In the Septuagint (the 3rd/2nd century Greek translation of the OT from the Hebrew), all occurrences of “Mašíah” are translated as “Χριστός”.  So the “X” in “Xmas” is short for “Χριστός”, or “Christ”.

Thus, when “X” is used with this meaning in mind, “Xmas” is merely an abbreviation for “Christmas”.  We’ve actually found writings with this abbreviation in use as early as the 16th Century.  Unfortunately, this meaning has been lost by the majority of users in our day.

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Roman Catholic Theology of the Mass

We’ve saved the two biggest arguments against the celebration of Christmas for last.  Although the “pagan origins” argument is the most frequently cited objection, the most vehement objection, particularly among reformers, is undoubtedly the celebration’s early connection to flawed Roman Catholic theology.  It was this objection that resulted in the Puritans banning Christmas celebrations in America for several decades in the mid-to-late 17th Century.  A full treatment is beyond the scope of this article, so we’ll briefly summarize.

The objection actually begins with the name of the celebration.  The word “Christmas” was derived from an early English phrase “Cristes Maesse”, that means “Mass of Christ” or “Christ’s Mass”.  The Roman Catholic Mass is actually related to the death, rather than the birth of Christ, but the objection also arises from the form of the liturgical mass.  Protestants interpret the Mass as the continuing execution of Jesus Christ flowed by participants eating and drinking His literal flesh and blood.  This conflicts with the “once for all sacrifice of Christ” as proclaimed in the Scriptures (Heb 7:27; 9:27-28; 10:8-14).  Catholic apologists generally counter by appealing to tradition rather than Scripture.  The Council of Trent (Session 22, Chapter II) distinguishes between a “bloody” and “unbloody” sacrifice, the former being one-for-all, and the latter portrayed as the instrument by which the fruits of the former are received by the participants in the Mass.  The same chapter also states that the Mass is “propitiatory” (atoneable) not only for the living, but also “for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified” (those in purgatory).  Protestants deny both the propitiatory nature of the Mass and the doctrine of Purgatory.

For those struggling with the origin of the name “Christmas”, we can note that, the name is rarely associated with the Roman Catholic sacrament in our day.  In common usage, mass (with a small “m”) can simply refer to a religious service, not necessarily to a Roman Catholic Eucharist.  Regarding the original meaning, we don’t stop worshiping on Sunday because that name originally came from the Old English word for “day of the sun”, and was originally the name of a Roman pagan holiday.

For purists however (ok, I admit that this usually includes me), we can fall back on the Latin from which the Old English word for mass was derived.  The Latin word “missa” means “dismissal”, as in dismissal of sins.  So we can think of Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Christ and His works that led to the dismissal of our sins.

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Pagan Origins?

Some people argue that Christians should not celebrate Christmas because it was originally a pagan holiday.  Although we will argue that it ultimately doesn’t matter, we begin by asking, did the celebration of Christmas really originate from pagan roots?

In our examination, we first note that whatever your opinion on the subject, you can find many sources on the internet to support your conclusion (not to mention social media).  For those who are interested, we encourage checking them out.  Keep in mind that even though a small minority attempt to be balanced, an overwhelming majority of the articles claim that Christmas had pagan origins.  These sites are enthusiastically promoted among critics, copying from each other to the point of almost being circular, and cite either questionable or no early sources.  One well-researched balanced article entitled “How December 25 Became Christmas” can be found at Bible History Daily of the Biblical Archaeological Society.

Someone rightly said that historical writings often tell us more about the historian than the subject itself.  Rather than re-hash the arguments, we’ll attempt to briefly summarize and put them into perspective.  We begin with a few historical dates that are generally accepted by most historians.

In the “Birthday of Jesus Unknown” section above, we recorded several instances from the early third century (~ 200-220 AD) in which the 25th of December was proposed as the estimated date of the birth of Christ.  The next generally accepted date is 274 AD, when the Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted the annual festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) as a tribute to the Roman sun god Sol.

Constantine the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Raman Empire in 325 AD, and the first officially recorded date for Christmas that has been found dates to 336 AD.  Some churches were celebrating Christmas on different days, so in 350 AD, Pope Julius I designated December 25th as the official date for observance by the Church.  Dates from the last couple of paragraphs are consistent with those in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

There are basically two historical positions with respect to the relationship between the two holidays.  Critics hold that there was no Christmas when Solis Invictus began, so Christians set the date for Christmas to December 25 in an attempt to eclipse the popular pagan.  Most holding this view also claim that Christians continued many of the pagan practices associated with the Roman holiday.   Many Christians counter that Christmas celebrations predated 274 AD, and that the Roman Emperor initiated Solis Invictus in an attempt to create a pagan alternative to the Christmas celebration that was already increasing in popularity among Roman Christians.

For those aware of the history, the question of which came first, Christmas or Solis Invictus, often determines one’s position on the relative connection (or no connection) between the two celebrations.  In our opinion, it is quite possible that Christmas predated the pagan festival.  I don’t think that the earlier attempts at determining the birthday of Christ were done merely for informational purposes.  It would seem instead to be a cause for celebration.  Even if Christmas was not yet being corporately celebrated or had not grown in popularity by the time of Solis Invictus, the fact that the date of the Birth had been previously established to some degree would argue against Christians setting the date based on the later pagan festival.

Like the origin of Christmas, there are also differing opinions on the Christmas connection to pagan practices.  Those who believe Christmas borrowed from the pagan holiday hold that some of the pagan practices were retained.  Others from both sides of the argument propose that some practices may have crept in over the centuries that followed.  We know that some of the Reformers refused to celebrate Christmas while others abolished or amended some of the practices.

Regardless, Christmas as practiced by believers today has lost the connections to any of the original pagan traditions.  That said, the danger of new pagan practices slipping in is always present, so we must be always reforming our methods of celebration.

In addition, just as there are differing views on the history involving the origin of Christmas and the pagan festival, opinions also vary regarding which practices should be considered as pagan.  Let take a look at the best known tradition that is perceived by many to be of pagan origins.

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Are Christmas Trees Pagan?

Of the many practices that opponents of Christmas typically cite as having pagan roots, the one that is mentioned most often is the Christmas tree.  Many even claim that Jeremiah 10 forbids the use of trees in a celebration.

Hear the word that the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel.  Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity.  A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.  They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move...” (Jer 10:1-4)

When we read these verses in isolation, it’s possible to imagine some similarities in appearance to the modern Christmas tree.  However, when we view them in context (Jer 10:1-16), we easily see that the author, who wrote these words over 500 years before the birth of Christ, is addressing the people’s worship of powerless idols.  So, this Scripture is condemning the fact that the trees were being used as an idol of worship in place of the one true and living God.  This would not apply to those who erect a Christmas tree to honor the birth and life of Christ.

Although the historicity is disputed by some, the German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) is widely credited with decorating the first Christmas tree with lights to show reflect how the stars shown through the evergreens at night.  Luther and others also saw the triangular shape of the tree as a reference to the Trinity.  In related traditions, many Christians today see the tree lights as symbolizing Jesus as the Light of the World, and the exchanging of gifts as remembrance of Jesus as God’s greatest gift to us.

O Christmas Tree is a traditional German Carol.  The author(s) and the composure are unknown.  Like many other religious traditions, it has been mostly secularized so that the fourth stanza is rarely sung in our modern culture.

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!

Thou bidst us true and faithful be,
And trust in God unchangingly.

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!

We see another theme at play here also, that of the sacred and the profane.  We see in our world that otherwise neutral objects can be considered sacred or profane depending on their use.  A good example of this is the internet.  It can be used as a most exemplary instrument or for the most depraved purposes.  We’ve also just seen the example of the tree being used as a way to glorify or to dishonor God, but this concept can also apply to other Christmas traditions.

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Biblical Themes and Patterns

We now look at some Biblical patterns that hopefully will help with the question of whether or not to observe Christmas.

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Was Anything Originally Pagan?

By using the terms “pagan origins” and “pagan roots”, our readers might get the impression that everything related to Christmas was originally pagan before Chistian took much of it back, and continue to battle against those who would pervert its observance.  We could ask however, “was anything originally pagan”?  To answer this, we go back to the beginning, not of Christmas, but to the Creation.

After the six days of creation, God rested and proclaimed that all He had made was very good (Gen 1:31).  In chapter two, Moses gives a more detailed parallel of the first chapter.  Taking the tree as an example, we read Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.  The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.  In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:8-9).

We see from the Biblical account that everything was originally good.  This included the Sun, the Moon and the Earth, all created to sustain life.  Evil entered the world with the rebellion of Satan, and the creation and humans were cursed due to the fall of man in Genesis 3.  Pagans began worshiping the creation rather than the Creator, thus taking something that God has given for good and using it for evil.  This is the basic formula for many sins, taking something that would otherwise be permissible and beneficiary when used as God intended, but using it in a forbidden manner instead.  An example from Scripture is that of the bronze snake that Moses made at God’s command, in order to save the people from fiery serpents in the wilderness (Nu 21:4-9).  Yet centuries later, the people were worshiping the snake as an idol (2Kg 18:4).

Thus, we can say that most ancient pagan traditions began as a distortion of God’s originally good creation and revelation.  Furthermore, it is not the objects used in the Christmas celebration that causes a problem, but the manner in which they were used, to worship a pagan god.  If the participants use non-forbidden objects, attitudes and actions in an attempt to glorify the true God, I don't believe our worship will be rejected.

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Redemption and the Cultural Mandate

One of the most prevalent themes running throughout the Bible is that of redemption.  The concept of redemption includes the purchase or ransoming of a person or object from some type of bondage.  In relation to salvation, Christ ransomed believers with His sacrifice at the cross, freeing us from the bondage of death and sin.  When we speak of redeeming Christmas, we mean that we reform or replace any non-biblical practices, and restore the true meanings of the celebration.

While God has given us many commands, He has given us two overarching mandates.  The first, known as the “Cultural Mandate” was given to Adam and Eve as our representatives at creation, to populate and subdue the earth and rule over the creatures (Gen 1:26-28).  After the flood, God repeated the mandate in the Noahic Covenant (Gen 9:1-17).  The second mandate, known as the “Great Commission”, commanded all believers to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:16-20).

The Hebrew word used in Genesis 1:28 for “and subdue it” (the earth) is “wekibsuhā”, and the enclosed verb meaning “to subdue” is “kāvash”, which carries the military sense of bringing into subjection, bring under control, make subservient, or to dominate.  It is also used in the commands for the Israelites to subdue the inhabitants of Canaan.  God intended for Israel to drive out the pagan practices of the inhabitants, but when Israel adopted many of these practices, God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to temporarily exile the Israelites.

Historically, many Christians have understood the Cultural Mandate, interpreted in the context of all Scripture and in conjunction with the Great Commission, to include doctrinal, moral, and ethical aspects.  Thus, as representatives of God, we would consider the commands to “make disciples” and “subdue the earth” to include driving out or redeeming pagan elements within our culture.

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Jesus and Pagans

Turning to the subject of Jesus and pagans, we know that He came to seek and save the lost.  He stated that it was not the healthy (those who thought themselves to be self-righteous), but the sick (those who realized they needed a Savior) that needed a doctor (Mt 9:12, Mk 2:17, Lk 5:31-32).  He also received much criticism from the religious establishment for associating with pagans (Mk 2:16).  Yet, Jesus never affirmed or participated in any of their sinful practices.  Thus we can follow Jesus’ pattern with unbelievers that are observing a secular Christmas.  Without affirming any non-biblical traditions, we could ask, “Would you like to learn the real meaning of Christmas”.  Many unbelievers are more open to the Gospel during the holiday season.

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God the Father and Pagans

We’ve noted that some Christians chose to avoid Christmas because it was considered as originally pagan.  As we’ve stated, this is certainly within the rights of Christian Freedom.  Yet we should be glad that God doesn’t take the same course of action with us.  We are all born with a sinful nature (Ps 51:5, Rm 3:2, 5:12, Eph 5:12 etc), yet God didn’t avoid us, but chose to redeem some of us instead.  God didn’t seek out any righteous people because there is none (Ps 14:2-3, Rm 3:10-12).

Just consider a sampling of the men and women that God chose to carry out His plans.  Noah got drunk shortly after God had made a covenant with him.  Abraham and Sarah doubted and laughed at God’s promise of a child.  Jacob (aka Israel) was a deceiver.  Jacob’s sons (the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel) sold their own brother into slavery in Egypt.  Judah (the son who was the ancestor of the Messiah) fathered twin sons with his daughter-in-law.

Moses murdered an Egyptian, then fled into exile for forty years.  His brother Aaron (head of the priesthood) formed the golden calf idols while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments.  Rahab (Canaanite and ancestor of Jesus) was a harlot.  Samson had anger and women issues, and seemed unconcerned about his Nazarite vow.  King David was an adulterer and had the woman’s husband murdered.  His son Solomon married hundreds of foreign wives and as a result, fell into idolatry.  Elijah struggled with depression and even became suicidal.  Jonah fled from God instead of taking His message to Nineveh.

The apostles argued over who was the greatest, before fleeing when Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested.  Peter thrice denied that he knew Jesus.  Only John followed Him to the Cross.  Paul and Barnabas split up on a missionary trip due to an argument over Mark.

Yet no one would know any of this by reading God’s “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews chapter 11.  All were redeemed for God’s glory.  As someone wisely said, “God doesn’t call the qualified, but qualifies the called”.

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Redeeming the Culture

We’ve just seen that redeeming pagans is the way God works.  But, what about redeeming pagan practices in the culture?  We could offer many examples throughout history, and I’m sure our readers can think of hundreds more, but one should suffice.

A few years ago, I witnessed a special segment of a broadcast from D James Kennedy Ministries that spotlighted the closing of an abortion clinic.  This in itself was great news, but only part of the story.  Afterward, the property was purchased by a church.  Many churches might have avoided the property due to the pagan practices that were performed at the site.  Yet, this church chose to redeem the property for Christ, and now performs baptisms at the former location of one of the abortion tables.  The site was transformed from a place of death to a place where people could be reborn and receive eternal life.

So, redeeming the pagan culture appears to be consistent with God redeeming pagan people.

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Conclusions / Summary / Final Thoughts

As we’ve stated, due to the lack of a clear Biblical command, the question of whether or not Christians should celebrate Christmas becomes an issue of Christian freedom according to the conscience.

We can still debate the issue amongst ourselves, but we should keep in mind that the world is watching.  I often find that debates between Christians and atheist are sometimes more cordial and respectful than debates among Christians.  I realize that some of this is due to our zeal for the truth, but we must conduct these discussions in a manner that doesn’t harm our witness.

We hope this article is beneficial for all, whatever your position on the subject.  For those who are struggling with whether or not you should celebrate Christmas, we hope this helps you to be convinced in your own mind.  For those, who love Christmas, but were concerned about some of the typical objections, we hope this clarifies and provides assurance that it is perfectly acceptable to celebrate the birth of Christ in a God-honoring manner.

Finally, for those who have done an honest study of the arguments and are convicted that you should not observe Christmas but should honor Christ in other ways, then you should not violate your conscience.  As Martin Luther famously stated at the Diet of Worms in response to demands to recant his position on the Roman Church vs Bible authority, “Unless I am convinced by Sacred Scripture or evident reason, I cannot recant.  My conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  So help me God”.

We also did not intend to make this an “all or nothing” choice regarding Christmas.  Some people celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ, but cut out any traditions that they consider objectionable.  This aligns best with how our family observes the holiday, and as we’ve noted, gives us many evangelistic opportunities.

We’ll make one final observation on our subject.  Going back to Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, we see that the angels called the birth “good news of great joy” (Lk 2:8), and that a multitude of heavenly hosts celebrated the birth (Lk 2:13-14).  This was magnificently expressed by the great hymnist Charles Wesley when he urged all nations to rise and join in the celebration:

Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

So, if God didn’t object to the heavenly hosts celebrating the birth of His Son, I don’t think He would object to us doing likewise, as long as it is done for His glory.

Thus, instead of asking “Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?” a better question might be, “How should we Celebrate Christmas?”  Once again, that brings us back to doing everything for the glory of God (1Cor 10:31).  We find an excellent model in Luke’s account of the shepherds who were eyewitnesses to the event.

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.  But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (Lk 2:15-20).

First, they sought after the Lord Jesus.  We should look for Jesus in all things Christmas.  Next, they spread the word.  We should be telling everyone the true reason for the season.  Next, all were amazed.  We can sometimes get caught up in the everyday traditions and lose the amazement of the big picture.  Mary treasured and pondered the true meanings of the happenings.  We should do likewise.  Finally, the shepherds glorified and praised God for all these things.  Likewise, we should glorify and praise God for sending His Son, the greatest gift ever given.

We’d like to close in a sincere rather than polemic way, by wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas.

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