IMPORTANT NOTE: No services this Sunday January 20 due to the storm.

Is It Wrong for Christians to Celebrate Christmas?

by Doug Becker, Pastor of Theology

Most Christian churches, Emergence included, celebrate Christmas. We decorate, we sing songs, and we have special services. We gather in our homes with our loved ones to feast and to give gifts. And we walk around wishing one another a merry Christmas.

But are we right to do all this? Is it healthy for us, as disciples of Jesus, to give this holiday such an important place on our calendars, and to observe it in the ways we do? Or, perhaps, have we uncritically accepted rites, practices, and symbols that are irredeemably pagan and opposed to the worship of the one true God into our lives and churches? Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of voices claiming that the latter is indeed what is happening when Christians celebrate Christmas.

So what do we do? How do we evaluate two very different positions on this—one that sees Christmas as one of, if not the “most wonderful time of the year,” and another that sees it as rank idolatry?

As with many things, we first recognize this as an area where Christians can, in good conscience, agree to disagree. Before challenging one another on morally ambiguous areas, we should meditate on Paul’s advice in Romans 14, where he instructs believers who disagree on potentially divisive issues to learn to live graciously with one another—as he says elsewhere, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). The church should be a place where people who have strong convictions on controversial topics should be able to fellowship alongside those who do not, or even those who are convinced otherwise. This means being slow to pass judgment on one another and being sensitive to those who are weak of conscience. Our hope is the same as Paul’s: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:5–6).

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that churches should never take positions on such things. In fact, it is impossible to avoid doing so. With respect to Christmas, for instance, a church must decide either to observe it or not. And if we do observe it, we must decide how. There is no way to truly remain neutral. So, as a pastor of a church that does celebrate Christmas, I offer the following comments to those who are interested, with a desire to foster both unity and critical thinking.

Is Christmas a Holiday with Pagan Roots?

It is often claimed that many of the trappings we associate with Christmas have their origins in non-Christian religion. On the Roman calendar, December 25 is the date of the winter solstice, the day when the North Pole tilts the furthest from the sun, producing the shortest span of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere during the year. In ancient Rome, this was preceded by Saturnalia, a festival honoring the Roman deity Saturn, which featured, among other things, candle lighting, feasts, evergreen wreaths, and gift giving. According to the first-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder, mistletoe was used by Celtic druids in a healing ritual.[1] In the tenth century, Haakon I of Norway took steps to merge the pagan festival Yule with Christmas. It has been suggested that much of the Santa Clause imagery derived from Yuletide depictions of the Norse god Odin (or Wodin), who had a white beard and flew through the sky on an eight-legged horse to deliver gifts.

It should be noted that links between Christmas and pagan religion are not as clear as is often claimed. Three examples are in order. First, Pliny (again, a first-century author) is the only reference to mistletoe use among the druids (and his report may be based on hearsay), and we have no records of Christmas being celebrated until 336 AD.[2] Second, there is evidence that Christians connected the winter solstice with Jesus’ birth for “theological” reasons, rather than a desire to “Christianize” Saturnalia. Augustine, for instance, suggested that God chose the shortest day to underscore the humility of his Son.[3] It should come as no surprise that significant astronomical events served more than one purpose in the ancient world. And Scripture by no means prohibits their use for the setting of important dates. Moon phases were used to set Israel’s festal calendar (e.g., Num 29:6; 1 Chr 23:30–31). This should come as no surprise to us who confess that the heavenly luminaries were placed in the sky “for signs and for seasons” (Gen 1:14). Third, the origins of the Christmas tree are so ambiguous that its true “origin” and symbolic significance cannot be reliably discerned, given our current historical knowledge. Did its decorative apples (the possible precursor to ornamental bulbs) signify pagan fertility religion, or the fruit of the tree of life from Genesis 2 and 3, which was symbolized in celebrations of Adam and Eve’s name day, December 24? We should require more evidence than “someone said this on the internet,” or even, “someone wrote this in a book.” People say and write a lot of things.

But even if this none of this were so—even if someone better-versed in the history of Christmas lore were to prove every word of my previous paragraph wrong, and even if examples of Christmas’ pagan roots were multiplied—it would not matter. And that’s because the meaning of cultural words and symbols is dependent on how they are used by particular people, in particular places, and at particular times, including our own. In other words, the symbols of Christmas—the dates, the trees, the gifts, the mistletoe—only have the meanings we assign to them. Meaning is inescapably in the eye of the beholder; by definition it is something that we subjectively assign to things. When we look into the past at the meaning of cultural objects (cultural “texts,” whether written, material, acted, or otherwise), we are observing what the people who used them long ago meant by them. At times, we may wish to accept what is communicated through these things as true or worthy of belief or practice. At other times, we may not. But the historical meaning that something once had does not remain with that thing until the end of time.

So, we might say, “Hanging red bulbs and candles in an evergreen tree used to mean this, but now we mean this by it,” or even, “We do this just because it looks pretty.” Or, “Some people used to think that mistletoe had healing properties. Now we know that’s silly, and when we hang it up it means that if you and someone else end up standing beneath it you have to kiss”—a practice that might be objectionable on other grounds ;-). And that would be fine. Cultural objects are constantly assigned and reassigned meanings by the people who observe and use them.

My point is this: Just because something had a meaning for some people at a particular time and place does not mean that it always has that meaning; nor does the use or employment of that thing mean that you are endorsing all that has ever been believed about it.

Think about it this way. Is it wrong to call the days of the week by their traditional names? Historically, every single one of their names is tied to pagan deities. Yet almost no one thinks of the days as belonging to Sól, or Máni, or Týr, or Odin, or Thor, or Frigg, or Saturn. Nor are most people today even aware of the historic “pagan roots” of the days of the week. Nor would it be correct to say that we are somehow engaging in idolatry when we call our days names that can be rightly and unambiguously tied to false worship in ages past. This, by the way, should put to rest the objection that the very term “Christmas” (“Christ’s Mass”) is tainted with Roman Catholic connotations, even apart from questions of Roman doctrine. It shouldn’t be surprising that a massive portion of our cultural heritage, touching every aspect of our lives, derives, in some way shape or form, from non-Christian religious practices. Our lives would be unlivable and our languages unspeakable if meaning was a static thing, impervious to culture. Fortunately, it is not.

Interestingly, God does not shy away from repurposing objects, symbols, institutions, and concepts that originally had pagan backgrounds, and assigning them new meanings, based on his character and his truth. Here are three biblical examples. Many more could be cited.

First, circumcision is introduced to Abraham’s family in Genesis 17 as the sign of God’s covenant with him and his offspring. The reason for this appears to be that a mark on the male reproductive organ was seen as fitting for a covenant that was transmitted genetically. However, circumcision did not originate in the Bible. It has long been known to have been an important rite in Egypt, stretching back as far as the predynastic period. Additionally, excavations in the ʿAmuq valley in northern Syria have turned up male figurines from the Early Bronze Age (2,800 BC), over a thousand years earlier than Abraham, bearing clear marks of circumcision.[4]

Second, archaeologist William Dever has shown that the Israelite temple built by Solomon, as detailed in 1 Kings 6–7, is clearly patterned after Canaanite-Phoenician temples from the 15th–9th century BC (Solomon’s temple was constructed in the 10th century).[5] According to Dever, these similarities extend to “every single feature” of Solomon’s temple. This includes the tripartite layout, down to its very dimensions, the stone blocks prefinished at quarries and fitted together on site (a style known as ashlar masonry), the two columns with “palmette” style decorated capitals at a vestibule entrance, and the presence of cherubim (mixed creatures) bearing the throne of the deity. None of this is surprising, given that 1 Kings 5 tells of the Phoenician king Hiram of Tyre’s extensive involvement in Solomon’s temple building project.

Third, Isaiah 27:1 portrays the Lord battling the mythological creature Leviathan, who is described, in parallel lines, as “the fleeing [Heb. bāriaḥ] serpent” and “the twisting [ʿăqallātôn] serpent.” Isaiah wrote in the late 8th century BC. At least seven centuries earlier, Ugaritic scribes used identical language to tell of their god Baal’s purported defeat of the sea monster Leviathan, described by them as “the fleeing [brḥ] serpent . . . the twisting [ʿqltn] serpent, the close-coiling one with seven heads”[6] (note the plural “heads of Leviathan” in Ps 74:14).[7] Just to be clear, the Bible does not commit us to believing in seven-headed sea monsters, or that Isaiah is indulging in the same kind of extensive myth-making known from the other ancient Near Eastern nations. (Note, for example, that Baal does this as part of a much longer, detailed narrative, whereas Isaiah simply mentions this in passing.) No more is Isaiah claiming that Leviathan is real than he is claiming that the Lord actually has a “hard and great and strong sword.” What this does mean, however, is that the prophet sees nothing wrong with reappropriating elements of pagan religious imagery to tell the true story of the one true God.

And so, it is hard to see how there is anything idolatrous or unbiblical about endowing symbols that were at one time associated with false religion with new meaning and connotations that are, at least ideally, aimed at glorifying Christ. That is, if we allow the Bible to teach us what idolatry is, as well as what is true and legitimate worship.

Does the  Bible Command Us to Celebrate Christ’s Birth as a “Holy Day”?

Another line of objection to the observance of Christmas is that the New Testament does not prescribe new holidays (literally, “holy days”) that Christians are obligated to observe. Such would be in contrast to required holy days for the Israelites in the Old Testament in passages like Leviticus 23. In fact, as I argued in my blogpost on the Sabbath, the New Testament gives us good reason to think Christians are not even bound to practice a seventh-day rest. Both Romans 14:5–6 and Colossians 2:16–17 instruct us against requiring the observance of special days. This is a good point, and needs to be acknowledged: There is certainly nothing wrong or unchristian about not celebrating Christmas—a reason why this post is not called “Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?”

On the other hand, there is good positive evidence in the New Testament that the churches, under the guidance of the apostles, commemorated the first day of the week—the day on which Christ rose—as the “Lord’s Day,” and observed it as a special day of corporate worship, just as we do today (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10). Moreover, this was done without it being explicitly commanded. I also note that the nativity stories in both Matthew and Luke give precedent for ascribing to Christ special honor at his birth.

It is biblical, therefore to commemorate the birth of Jesus with feasting and celebrating. But it is also biblical not to do so. Both views are justifiable for Christians, and should be respected within the community of faith.

Some Final Thoughts

We shouldn’t stop there, because there are right reasons and wrong reasons both for abstaining and from partaking. I have already discussed the wrong reasons for abstaining—or at least, reasons for abstaining that I find unconvincing: the alleged pagan roots of Christmas and a lack of an explicit biblical command to observe it. A right reason for abstaining might be something like not wanting to partake in something that should be special and glorifying to God but has become corrupted by materialism and consumerism. It is certainly appropriate, and even necessary, for Christians to feel grieved by the way Christmas is celebrated, where we, through our actions if not our words, encourage our children to feel more excitement over what is under the tree than who was in the manger.

Let’s not fool ourselves though—so much of what is truly good has been warped and distorted by human sin. And the proper response is usually not to abandon those things, but to reclaim them in a constant reaffirmation of the lordship and supremacy of Jesus over all things. For those of us whose consciences are moved each Christmas when we see those around us (and ourselves) paying more regard to gifts and gluttony than we do to God and the giving of his Son, perhaps we would do well to exercise restraint during the holiday season. But make no mistake, the meaning of Christmas—the birth of Jesus—is and ought to be the cause of great celebration. We don’t always have the ear of the unbelieving world. But on Christmas, we do. So let’s not shy away from proclaiming the “good news of great joy for all the people, for unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).

[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 16.95.
[2] It is mentioned as a feast day in section 12 of the Chronograph of 354.
[3] Augustine of Hippo, sermon 192, “For the Feast of the Nativity.”
[4] Jack M. Sasson, “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East,” JBL 85 (1966), 473–76. The official report is Robert J. Braidwood and Linda S. Braidwood, Excavations in the Plain of Antioch, 1 (OIP 61; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960). Images of the three figurines (A, B, and C), can be found on pages 306–309, with discussion of circumcision on 302–303.
[5] William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 144–57. Dever provides many more examples.
[6] The Baʿlu Myth," translated by Dennis Pardee (COS 1.86.265). The parallel appears even closer when one considers that the Hebrew term “twisted” (ʿăqallātôn) occurs only here in the Hebrew Bible. This observation causes Richard Averbeck to call this “a free quotation of the myth of Baal’s battle  with the sea monster” (“Ancient Near Eastern Mythography as It Relates to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 3 and the Cosmic Battle,” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 339).
[7] Averbeck, 337–40; André Caquot, "Le Léviathan de Job 40, 25–41, 26," RBib 99 (1992): 40–69.

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