Most people don’t know the history of the holidays we call Christmas, and most people disagree on either what it means today or what it should mean.
I didn’t misspeak, I said “the holidays we call Christmas” because we’re really dealing with two holidays on the same day, and both are a jumble of various traditions, some religious, some secular. Of the religious traditions, some are Catholic and some are Pagan.
To start with: no on in the 1st century celebrated the birth of Christ at all. Christians met every first day of the week to remember his death, but his birth was a historical, not memorial, event. It was not something they paid special attention to remember year after year.
In fact, the earliest written account of the idea of celebrating Christ’s birth is around the year 245, by the writer Origen, who denounced the concept. He said, “of all the holy people in the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below.”
Evidently Origen believed that it was wrong to celebrate one’s own birthday. That doesn’t make it wrong, because what he said isn’t scripture. But it does shed light on what people thought about celebrating birthdays back then.
So by 245ish, despite opposition by leading theologians of the time, people had at least thought about celebrating the birth of Christ as a feast day. And of course this is 200 years after the church began, and during that time it had already departed from the teachings that Jesus and the apostles laid down, in many, many ways.
Now the next question is this: why December 25?
The Bible of course does not record the date of Jesus’ birth, nor do any early writings. So people started to speculate.
Basically, they began to just take a guess about when they thought it could have happened.
Clement of Alexandria was in favor of May 20, others argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus liked January 2. Others went for November 17, November 20.
Eventually December 25 is chosen, and a big part of that was because it was already a day celebrated by pagan sun worshippers.
That’s right, December 25 is the Winter Solstice under the Julian calendar, and that’s when the pagans celebrated their sun gods. One such festival was Sol Invictus. A slightly earlier one was the festival of Saturnalia. The area of Persia celebrated Mithra.
The idea is that they could more easily convert pagans to “Christianity” if they didn’t have to give up their holidays. Just change the sun to God and there you go.
And in case you don’t know, the “yule” in “yuletide cheer” comes from the ancient pagan festival named Yule.
The word Christmas itself comes from “Christ’s mass” because it was a Catholic holiday. You sometimes see it abbreviated Xmas, that’s because the X looks like the Greek letter CHI which was the first letter in Christ.
When was Jesus really born? We have no idea. We can speculate it was more likely the springtime since the shepherds were out and about, and I don’t think they really did that in the dead of winter. But we don’t know, because it really isn’t important.
To sum up:
1. Christians aren’t commanded to celebrate Jesus birth
2. We don’t know when it is anyway
3. The ones who started the whole thing did so because of apostasy and paganism
It’s easy to conclude then, that christians (by the Bible definition of the term) should not celebrate December 25 as any kind of a religious observance. That means no special worship services, no special collections, no nativity displays. (By the way the nativity displays are both idolatry as well as completely inaccurate).
We ought not to decorate our houses with religious symbols like crosses and pictures of angels. (And by the way, that’s also idolatry and most likely inaccurate, because angels didn’t look like what everyone things they do, but that’s another lesson.)
So, it seems obvious that we just shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, right?
Well, first I want to talk about the other Christmas.
See, there’s another holiday called Christmas, which is when people give gifts and celebrate family and such. It should be obvious that things like Santa Claus, toys, candy canes, indoor trees, magical talking snowmen, and the like have nothing, and I mean nothing to do with even the apostatized celebration of Jesus’ birth.
This Christmas is a completely secular holiday, celebrated by many people regardless of their religious beliefs.
The American Santa Claus is loosely inspired by the real-life Byzantine Saint Nicholas, who gave gifts to the poor, and Father Christmas, the original British version of the gift giver. The elements such as flying reindeer come from Germanic folklore and pagan religious elements.
It was the mid 1800’s that Santa Claus was really invented. Though a few elements come from religion, on the whole he is a completely secular figure. Elves, gingerbread men, north pole, candy canes, reindeer, snowmen, Christmas trees, tinsel, etc, all of these things are purely secular and have nothing to do with the religious holiday except that they occur on the same day.
So the question is: if a christian cannot celebrate the religious holiday of Christmas, can we still celebrate the secular holiday?
In other words, is there anything wrong with having a tree and giving gifts?
That’s where liberty comes in. I may say that I know that having a tree and giving presents is not lending any credence to false religion. And therefore I can partake in that.
But my liberty ends if it causes someone else to stumble (1 Corinthians 6). If someone is confused about this, and believe me, having two holidays with the same name on the same day can’t help but be extremely confusing, then I might cause them to stumble by my actions.
On the other hand, while we should be absolutely willing to give up whatever is necessary to keep others from stumbling, we also have a duty to educate them so they can have the same knowledge and not stumble because they have a fuller understanding.
In my family we always celebrated Christmas as just a secular holiday. We had a tree and opened presents. I personally don’t have a problem continuing to do this in my family now, provided that I am not harming anyone else.
I have a few more things to talk about before I close. One is that I said the Christmas with Santa Claus and the Christmas that’s supposed to celebrate Jesus’ birth are 2 separate traditions, and that is true, but many don’t understand that.
Some celebrate the religious holiday but not the secular: these are the “let’s all remember the true meaning of Christmas” folks. They consider the religious holiday real and the secular one to be an imposition, even though our study of history has shown there is no “true” meaning of Christmas because it’s mishmash of traditions and beliefs from many different cultures and it changed and grew over the years.
Some people celebrate the secular holiday but not the religious one, either because they don’t believe in Jesus or because they do, but they don’t believe in the Catholic/Pagan traditions observed on Christmas.
But many celebrate both and that’s where it gets confusing.
In fact, it’s gotten so confused, that I have read that some Latin American countries, primarily Catholic, such as Venezuela, actually teach that Santa Claus makes the toys but gives them to the Baby Jesus to deliver.
So remember, just because you might understand about Christmas, doesn’t mean everyone does. Let’s all take care in how you present your celebrations to others.