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Yes, no, or partly both?

7189613 l 400For many people, the answer to this question is a no brainer – of course Christians should celebrate Christmas. After all, isn’t it all about remembering Jesus’ birth? What can possibly be wrong with that?

On the other hand, there are genuine questions as to whether Jesus was actually born on 25th December? Is Christmas a continuation of an ancient pagan festival? Is right to promote the all-knowing and all-powerful god-like figure of Santa instead of God in heaven? Then there is the matter of the commercialism, materialism, over-spending and over-indulgence of shopping, food and drink which are too often characteristic of Christmas now as well.

Many people rightly note that all that is associated with Christmas cannot really be described as a Christian celebration. Yet, the question is not so much whether ‘all’ that occurs at Christmas can be legitimately described as Christian or biblical, the more important issue is whether Christians can celebrate Christmas in some way at all, without the dubious beliefs, practices or excesses that are so often critiqued.

There are three possible responses to the question as to whether Christians can or should celebrate Jesus' birth at Christmas;

  1. Celebrate all that occurs, disregarding concerns about what is possibly immoral or unbiblical.
  2. Reject celebrating Christmas entirely, to avoid any connection with what is immoral or unbiblical.
  3. Celebrate certain aspects of Christmas which focus on biblical worship, while avoiding or rejecting what is immoral or unbiblical.

The second option has the benefit of avoiding ungodly behaviour and values. However, the third option also avoids these, but provides the opportunity for a limited celebration of what is good and godly at Christmas. The question is, can Christians celebrate Christmas using this third option, without being tainted by what they are trying to avoid? Is Christmas entirely and permanently so ungodly that Christians should not have anything to do with it at all?

The purpose of this article is to consider the biblical principles and their practical application to the different aspects of Christmas, and to show how a limited celebration of Christmas can be held in good conscience, grounded on biblical principles.

 

 

Summary

The summary of what is below is that Christians can indeed worship Jesus on 25th December, as an optional, non-mandatory, celebration – the third option above. This date can be redeemed for celebration of Jesus’ birth, regardless of its ancient heritage for non-Christian worship. However, the gross excesses of commercialism, materialism, over-indulgence, and occasional impropriety which is associated with Christmas festivities must be strongly opposed and avoided. 

 

 

Is 25th December really Jesus’ birthday?

No-one can prove today whether Jesus was born on 25 December or not. There are some indications that he was, and others that he was not. Some people conclude that shepherds would not have had sheep out in the fields during the harsh winter season at Bethlehem, because it would have been too cold for them. However, others note that there is historical evidence that lambs for the Temple sacrifice at Jerusalem were kept in the fields near Bethlehem during the winter.

While tradition has passed down the practice of celebrating Jesus’ birth on 25th December, tradition on its own is insufficient to base our worship on, if we want to be certain and biblical. Historians note that Christians did not mention any celebration of Jesus’ birth until the third century. Some note that different dates were proposed. Interestingly, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) didn’t mention 25th December as one of the options when dates were discussed back then. By the fourth century, two dates predominated, 25th December in the western Roman Empire, and 6th January in the East (which is still celebrated by the Armenian Church today). The period between these became known as the twelve days of Christmas, with 6th January being then celebrated by some as the Epiphany (where tradition has it that Jesus was worshipped by the wise men, although it was almost certainly a lot longer after the birth than that).

Others are more certain that 25th December was the date of Jesus’ birth, including Cyril of Jerusalem (348—486 AD) who documented Jesus’ birth on that date. This is noteworthy, since he had access to the official Roman birth census in which Jesus’ birth was documented.

However, regardless of whether Jesus was born on 25th December or not, it is still possible on that date to celebrate his birth, even if not his birthday. Christians who celebrate his birthday on 25th December might be doing so on the wrong date. But those who celebrate his birth (not his birthday) then, regardless of when he was born, are not in error. Christians celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection each Sunday, regardless of what dates he actually died and was resurrected. It is not unreasonable to do the same with Jesus’ birth at Christmas.

In any case, this isn’t a matter of heresy, but cultural or historical accuracy, and is therefore not a significant reason to avoid celebrating Jesus’ birth on 25th December, even if the date is wrong.

 

Does the Bible forbid celebrating Jesus’ birth?

Where does the Bible forbid celebrating Christmas? The fact that the Bible does not promote or authorise celebrating Christmas is not a sufficient reason to not celebrate Christmas. The ‘regulative principle’ holds that we must not worship in any way that the Bible does not specifically authorise, but only worship in the ways that it does. On the other hand, as long as something is in line with biblical worship, and not excluded, the 'normative' principle allows more freedom. For example, the former would not allow PowerPoint presentations during worship, while the latter would. 

The Apostle Paul tells us that we have the freedom to worship certain special days, as well as the freedom to choose not to. Yet, Paul says in Galatians 4:8-10 that celebrating special days as a mandatory part of worship, even justification, is unbiblical. But when the context is not how to be justified, how to be right with God, Paul has different advice. While he says that such celebrations are wrong if they are part of the process of salvation, if it is in the context of worship for those who are justified by faith alone, he teaches in Colossians 2:16 that we have freedom to choose whether to celebrate Jesus’ birth on 25th December, or not, as we choose. In the context of salvation or justification, Paul applies the regulative principle regarding special days of worship. But in the context of worship only, he applies the normative principle.

So, if celebrating Jesus’ birth is considered a ‘requirement’ for someone to be a Christian, the Bible says that that is wrong (Galatians 4:8-10). But if it is simply an optional day festival or day of worship, the Bible teaches that it is acceptable (Colossians 2:16).

 

Is Christmas a continuation of a pagan celebration?

The question here is whether Christians can redeem culture, or should we retreat further and further from it in an attempt to be holy?

Some assert that Christendom simply allowed all the idolism and debauchery that occurred at the festival of Saturnalia (or a rival festival Sol Invictus) to be incorporated into Christian worship in the fourth century. They argue that it was a case of simply putting a Christian veneer on a pagan practice which continued largely intact. It was syncretistic incorporation of pagan worship into Christianity, to make Christianity more acceptable to those who did not want to change their ways much. If that were the case, then on 25th December Christians would be worshipping the Sun, worshipping the so-called god Saturn, and so on. Since worship of Jesus has been central of Christian worship on 25th December for centuries, this claim can be seen to be significantly, if not fatally, flawed.

Yet, regardless of the history of worship or activities at Christmastime, the important thing is not its heritage, but what people do here and now. Even if Christmas still had some pagan elements at its core (although they are never too far away from its periphery), in the past, if Christians in the present choose to celebrate Christ’s birth in a godly and biblical manner, they are redeeming Christmas, not perpetuating that which is wrong or evil. For example, Christians often have alternative activities for children at Halloween. By doing so, they are not celebrating Halloween if they have an alternative to the ghostly focus of Halloween, but providing a wholesome activity for their children so that they will not be attracted to the darkness of Halloween. Similarly, if Christians decide to worship Jesus’ birth on 25th December, regardless of the heritage of the event, they are redeeming it for good. They certainly are not worshipping a pagan god or participating in sinful activities.

If we cannot redeem culture, then we must oppose any and all culture which has any unbiblical connections in the past or present. If we do so, we must increasingly distance ourselves from many aspects of culture, eventually opposing all forms of culture, becoming hermits from the world, and those who live in it.

As one pastor/theologian has argued, if we must distance ourselves from worship of Jesus’ birth at Christmas because of its connection with pagan festivities many centuries ago, we must also distance ourselves from Christian worship on Sundays, because of its history as the day to worship the Sun god (Sun-day). The fact that the fourth commandment (to worship God each seventh/sabbath day) overrides any concerns about worshipping on Sunday proves that biblical commands/practices supersede unbiblical ones, even if they have some common heritage somewhere in the past.

If worship of God on Sunday can sanctify Sundays for worship, then so too can worship of Jesus on 25th December sanctify that date in the calendar for Christian worship.

 

Can Christians worship on special days not mentioned in the Bible?

In Romans 14, Paul deals with how Christians differ on secondary matters (those which are not moral concerns or primary matters of core doctrine). Some Christians have fixed views on secondary matters, believing them to be deal-breakers – he calls such people ‘weak’ in their faith because they do not have a strong and robust theological perspective, they cannot tell the difference between matters of primary and secondary importance. However, those who are strong in their faith must not sit in judgment of them, nor despise them, nor cause them to go against their conscience/view in Romans 14:1-15:7. In particular, in Romans 14:6 he teaches that it is acceptable to worship on special days which are not specifically listed as mandatory days of worship in the Bible, as long as it is according to conscience, and honouring to the Lord.

Further, Paul gives us a clear example of how something which has a tainted heritage can be redeemed and used for good. In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, he considers the matter of Christians eating meat which had previously been used in ceremonial offerings to idols in pagan temples. He teaches that the meat itself is not tainted with the idolatry connected to its use previously, since an idol is not really a god after all. The meat is still just meat. As such, it can be eaten without violating a Christian’s conscience. Similarly, the date of 25th December is morally neutral, and can be used to worship God by celebrating Jesus’ birth, without being tainted by how that date has been used in the past to worship other so-called gods.

So, Christians can celebrate Jesus’ birth on 25th December if they want to, or abstain from doing so if they prefer. Neither the unbiblical use of that date in the distant past, nor the recent past, or even the present by others, prevents Christians from using that date for good, godly, biblical worship.

 

Is it wrong to have a Christmas tree?

The claim that cutting down a tree from the forest, and then decorating with silver or gold ornaments for decoration is comparable to cutting down a tree and making a wooden idol covered with gold or silver and worshipping it, is fallacious. It is the poorest form of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). The context in Jeremiah 10:1-5 is worship of other gods, not decoration of a tree in a home. Christians do not worship Christmas trees, so the prohibition in Jeremiah 10:1-5 simply does not apply. What Jeremiah has in mind is not a tree which is decorated, but a carved statue made out of a portion of the trunk of the tree, which is then covered in gold or silver. (Other passages are similarly wrongly interpreted if seen in their original context, such as 1 Kings 12:32 and Deuteronomy 12:32.) The prohibitions against cutting down a tree and overlaying silver or gold are in the context of idol worship, not Christmas trees. However, practically speaking, it is arguably not a good idea to have them in places where worship is held, to avoid distraction from worship of God (just like it is a good idea to not have the TV on in a living room when having a Bible study in a home).

As long as we do not worship Christmas trees, it is acceptable to use them.

 

What about Santa?

When it comes to Santa, Christians have to bear in mind that if we teach our children that there is an all-powerful (at least he is powerful enough to get to all children within a matter of hours), all-knowing (every child is told that Santa will know that they want), person called Santa who we should look to receive good gifts, then this is clearly unbiblical. Only God is all-powerful, all-knowing God (Isaiah 45:5, Colossians 1:15-17, Job 38-41). Only God the Father is the ultimate giver of all good and perfect gifts (James 1:17).

Then there is the matter of misleading or deceiving children. They are taught that Santa is real, and then they grow up and are told that their parents lied to them, and that the god-like figure is not real after all. How then can they trust those same parents who tell them that God is real? If Santa is fictional, if the tooth-fairy is fictional, and so on, it isn't a big leap of logic to conclude that God is not real either. Blowing the myth about Santa etc. not only provides a precedent for children to assume that God is not real, it also likely predisposes them to conclude that he is not real, as part of the maturing process from childhood to adolescense and adulthood. Anecdotal evidence supports the approach that where children who are not misled about Santa etc. but are taught about God, they are much more likely to continue to have a strong faith in God into adulthood.

Furthermore, the teaching that Santa only gives gifts to those who are ‘good’, but not those who are ‘naughty’, promotes the concept of getting what we deserve, which is in stark contrast to God’s way of dealing with us, by grace, undeserved mercy and favour (Isaiah 1:18-20, 30:18, Ephesians 2:8-10, Romans 6:23). The problem with getting what we deserve is not that it is unjust, but that it is not redemptive or gracious. While we deserve what we get, or do not get, in general in life, God prefers not to relate to us through what our good/bad works deserve, because that will inevitably result in condemnation, because we have all sinned. Instead, God prefers to relate to us throught he paradigm of grace, where he gives us gifts which we do not deserve, and he withholds the punishment that we do deserve because of our sins. He does this through having sins atoned for by Jesus Christ on the cross. When children are taught that that they receive gifts from the god-like figure of Santa, based on whether they are naughy or nice, this causes problems. On the one hand while they all know that they have not been as good as they ought to have been, but they generally receive presents anyway - this tends to teach them that their behaviour doesn't really matter, despite what is said. On the other hand, it is not redemptive or gracious - those who have been naughty have no hope or expectation in their hearts of receiving good gifts, because they don't deserve them. The gospel, on the other hand, is where anyone who is truly sorry and repentant can receive the gift of forgiveness, eternal life, unnumbered blessings, in Jesus Christ, despite not deserving them. God's approach and his gifts are incomparably superior to those of Santa in so many ways.

Santa distracts children (and parents) from God, and presents an alternative god-like figure for children to look up to (idolise?), who is ultimately revealed as fictional. This draws children away from and damages a child-like faith in the one true God. Giving presents is good (and ultimately Children don't really care who they get them from!), but promoting Santa at the expense of God is not.

 

What about holly and mistletoe etc.?

There are many old traditions which are associated with Christmas. As long as we do not actively participate in unbiblical worship, such things are not prohibited (see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Romans 14:1-15:7 again). However, if we or others believe that mistletoe holds some magical or superstitious power over infertility, we must not be associated with it. If others use holly and mistletoe in pagan worship (e.g. Druids), it is wise to have little to do with it, in case we give the impression that we approve of such practices or beliefs.

 

What about materialism and licentiousness?

When it comes to spending outrageous amounts of money indulging in the wants and must-haves of children, or over-indulging in selfish materialism, this is clearly wrong (Luke 12:15, Hebrews 13:5, 1 Timothy 6:10, 1 John 2:16-17). When it comes to the office party, if it is a civilised occasion then it is acceptable. But if it is an excuse or occasion for licentiousness, then it must be avoided (or at least that part of it must be avoided, Ephesians 5:15-18, 1 Peter 4:3-6, Romans 12:1-3). Little should need to be said about this.

 

Is the nativity story biblical?

While we are in the process of trying to worship biblically at Christmastime, if we are to look to God’s Word, the Bible, as our basis of truth and our only source of authority in matters of doctrine and worship (as in our statement of faith), we must consider whether the common story of the nativity as told in the western world is a correct interpretation of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, while tradition tells us what the names of the three wise men are, the Bible doesn’t even tell us that there were three wise men at all – it simply states that there were wise men, and that three gifts that they brought were named, gold, frankincense and myrrh. There were likely many more, with eastern tradition favouring twelve wise men. Either way, the Bible does not say.

In fact, our western view of the nativity story is significantly different from a more natural reading of the biblical text from a Middle Eastern perspective. Kenneth Bailey, who lived for several decades in the Middle East, is an authority in terms of cultural interpretation, and has written a very different account of the nativity story in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes - Cultural Studies in the Gospels. If we want to be informed by the Bible, and not tradition, we must not let tradition determine our understanding. While there is nothing heretical in the typical western nativity story, there is much that should be corrected from a cultural perspective.

The question is, are we following tradition as it has developed over centuries, or the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus in its original context?

 

Christmas can be used as a time for giving, for good, for family, and for worship and for evangelism

Christmas can be an occasion for doing good, giving to those who have little, instead of those who already have too much. It can be an occasion to invite others in our family, workplace, or community, to come and worship Jesus. It can be used as an evangelistic opportunity to invite people to church. It provides an opportunity to focus on generously giving to others, rather than receiving selfishly ourselves. It can be an opportunity for parents and family to show love towards their children.

And it can be an occasion to celebrate family time together on holiday from work. This is one of the best parts of Christmas, spending time with family and friends. It is often the only time in the year that some families get together. 

Christmas can certainly be as an occasion for worldliness and ungodliness. But it can also be an occasion for much good and godly living and Christian worship.

As a fellowship, we therefore hold a Christmas Day short service, as well as a Carol Service in the run up to Christmas. These are optional, for those who wish to attend. Our primary worship, however, remains each week on the Lord's Day.

Thank God for Jesus Christ. Let us celebrate Jesus’ birth on 25th December, or not, as we feel led by our conscience. But, in any case, let’s celebrate it all year round too.

 
 
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