by Tony Costa
Christmas is a celebration of which many Christians are usually divided over.
What is Christmas all about? Is it "Christian"? Was it observed by the Early Church, or is it a pagan appendage that the Church has absorbed and 'Christianized', in short is it 'baptized paganism'? These are good and legitimate questions that deserve well thought our answers. However, as in all cases, it is imperative and it behooves us that we research the facts and find out the truth of the matter. We have to avoid the attitude that says "Don't bother me with the facts, I have made up my mind already." Remember, something is not true because you believe it, you should believe something if it's true. The word Christmas is not a pagan word because it clearly bears the name "Christ" in it. Christmas actually is a compound word which means "Christ-mass". It was the "mass" that celebrated the birth of Christ. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, the word Christmas denotes a celebration of Christ's birth. But is Christmas biblical?
Nowhere in the New Testament are we commanded to observe the birth of Christ, however, at the same time, neither are we commanded not to observe it. It is clear that the New Testament writers who wrote on the Nativity narratives (stories of the birth of Jesus), namely Matthew and Luke, were not concerned about specifying the date of Christ's birth. All we know about that time is that Luke tells us the Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census. (Luke 2:1-2) Scholars can tell us about the year that event took place, but not about the month and day, which is what we are interested in.
The date of Jesus' birth is therefore unknown to us, we simply do not really know. We do know the time of Christ's death and resurrection because it was during the Passover, and it is clear that the New Testament writers put much more emphasis and importance on this event, rather than on the birth of Christ. After all was this not the purpose of His advent, the event we recall every time we commemorate Communion or the Lord's Supper? Indeed, it is the death, burial and resurrection of Christ that constitute the core and foundation of the Gospel. (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) It is belief in Jesus as Lord and His resurrection that brings salvation. (Romans 10:9-13)
Some scholars speculate probably a September/October (1) as a likely date for Jesus' birth because Luke mentions sheep in the fields. (Luke 2:8), and November was the latest month in which sheep could be left out in the fields and December would be bitterly cold for pasture and for people to migrate for a census. Notwithstanding these points however, the well known Jewish Christian scholar, Dr. Alfred Edersheim (2) proposed December 25 as Christ's birthday and argued that it had a connection with the Jewish feast of Hanukkah which falls on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev. The Jewish feast of Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of Kislev, just as Christmas always falls on the 25th day of December. Due to the differences between the Christian calendar (better known as the 'Gregorian calendar') and the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah and Christmas sometimes are celebrated together or at times Hanukkah begins before Christmas. Both of these festivals emphasize the importance of light, the menorah with Judaism and Christmas lights with Christianity. The idea of the "Festival of Lights" points to Jesus as the "light of the world" (John 8:12). What better time for the Messiah to be born? Dr. Edersheim's arguments are compelling, but he stands in the minority on the subject. Most scholars if not all reject December 25 as the actual date of Jesus' birth, and I would be compelled to reject it as well.
What about December 25, where did it come from as a celebration of the birth of Christ? Any encyclopedia will show that the week of December 22-31 was celebrated as the "Saturnalia", a Roman pagan festival that worshipped Mithra, the sun god whose birth they also celebrated at the time, particularly December 25. The Saturnalia was a time when it appeared that the forces of darkness and chaos would conquer the forces of light and order. It was common at this time for parties and revelry to take place because chaos seemed to merge with order. It was considered OK for bad things to happen because it was Saturnalia.(3)
During this old Roman festival the light of day was at its shortest. This instilled fear to the Romans and pagans alike. It seemed as if the sun god was dying and that his power was waning and it was common to light bonfires to heat as it were the sun's power who was represented by the god Mithra. Thus, there is such an emphasis on light. Over time, pagans observed that the more they practiced the festival of lights and burning bonfires, the days tended to get longer, and as such they continued this tradition.
The Early Church Fathers debated over the time of Christ's birth around AD 200 and there is some evidence that Christians commemorated the birth of Christ although the dates were different. As of AD 354, December 25 was labeled as the date of Christ's birth. The Church had attempted to stomp out the cult of Mithra, the sun of god by declaring that it would instead celebrate the birth of the "sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2), a title understood to be messianic. The move of the Church stomped out Mithraism in a matter of time.
Many times we are guilty of denouncing things as "pagan" without careful consideration.(4) One example of this is the so called charge that the Christmas tree is pagan that it is actually mentioned and condemned in Jeremiah 10:3-5. This passage in the King James Version reads,
"For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good." At first glance, this passage seems to infer that it is the tree itself that is decked with silver and gold and fastened with nails. Thus it is argued that the Christmas tree is mentioned here. However, this is a misleading interpretation because what is being condemned here is idolatry, the tree is simply taken to form an idol out of its wood! All other translations make this clear. Consider for example this reading in the New International Version,
'For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.'(5)
Thus, what God is condemning through Jeremiah is idolatry. In other words Jeremiah is trying to show the utter foolishness of worshipping idols since they are hewn out of trees and are nothing but the creation of men's hands. Certainly, it is preposterous to claim that because one has a Christmas tree in the home he or she is worshipping a tree any more than having a cross in a church building means Christians worship the cross! All the days and months of the year belong to God first and foremost since He created them. The light which God created was corrupted by pagans because they made it an end in and of itself, yet Jesus refers to Himself as the "Light of the world". (John 8:12)
Fire which was used and corrupted by paganism is also used of God (Hebrews 12:29). What I mean to say is that when we take what God has made and use it to glorify Him, we are doing nothing wrong, unlike paganism which moves away from the Creator. In taking December 25, the Church was in effect saying stating that this day belongs to God, and that it would dedicate the day to celebrate the birth of Christ. Christmas is not a celebration of a birthday, but a celebration of an event, namely the Incarnation, when God became flesh. (John 1:1,14) Do we have Scriptural warrant to do this? Indeed, we do.
There were feasts that Jesus observed that were never commanded by God to be observed by the people of Israel. The feasts divinely commanded by God are outlined in Leviticus 23 and they are known as the "feasts of the LORD". However, there are two other feasts that the Jews observed that were not commanded by God, namely Hanukkah and Purim. The first feast is found nowhere in the Old Testament because it was instituted long after the Old Testament canon had been completed. The feast of Hanukkah finds it origins in the Apocrypha, a collection of non-canonical books that were never accepted as part of the Old Testament.(6)
The Hanukkah story comes from the first and second books of the Maccabees. However, this feast is mentioned in the New Testament in John 10:22 and there it is called the "feast of dedication", another name for Hanukkah. As a Jew, Jesus would most likely have observed this feast, and it would be pointless for John to mention this feast if it had no relevance to Jesus or His ministry. Scholars have noted for the longest time that the Gospel of John revolves the ministry of Jesus around the Jewish feasts, and that Jesus is the fulfillment of those feasts. Hence, Jesus had no objection to the observance of a feast that had no basis in the Old Testament. Why? As long as God was glorified and acknowledged the people of God were free to do so.
Another example of this is seen in the feast of Purim. This feast is mentioned in the Old Testament, in the book of Esther, but like Hanukkah, Purim was never commanded by God. Rather, the Jewish community in Persia instituted this feast to celebrate their deliverance from annihilation. (Esther 9:18-32) Once again, in this case, this feast glorified God for His providential protection. As stated above, Jesus as a Jew would also have celebrated this feast. Some scholars believe that the "feast of the Jews" mentioned in John 5:1 was the feast of Purim. The intent again was to glorify God. Christmas is never commanded nor prohibited in the New Testament. It is thus a grey area and Christians should be free to exercise their conscience as to whether they wish to observe this feast or not. One must not however, pass judgment on other believers who wish to observe Christmas. Likewise we must do the same for those who do not observe it. Paul points out that the observance of days should never be a divisive issue with Christians. As long as the day is regarded to the Lord, it is acceptable to Him. (Romans 14:4-6) Christians who celebrate Christmas do so to glorify God for His unspeakable gift, His Son. Let us celebrate the Lord's birth as the shepherds of old did, with joy and gladness, "But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 'Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'" (Luke 2:10-12 NIV)
(1) The Jewish feast of Tabernacles is celebrated in September or sometimes October. This feast represented God's presence dwelling with His people. In John 1:14 it states that the Word "tabernacled" or "pitched His tent" among us. Some scholars see an allusion here to the feast of Tabernacles. It is possible that Jesus could have been born during this feast.
(2) Alfred Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Vol.1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1976), 187.
(3) The same applied to the Celtic feast of Samhain, the god of the dead when order and chaos, the living and dead merged. This pagan festival has come down to us as "Halloween".
(4) The days of the week are all of pagan derivation. Monday (Moon day), Thursday (Thor's day), Saturday (Saturn's day) and Sunday (day of the sun) are still terms that we still use today but it does not follow that we worship these pagan deities. Even our reckoning of time is based on the pagan Roman calendar. We reckon the beginning of the next day as beginning at 12:00 mid-night. However, the biblical reckoning of time holds that the next day begins at evening, ie. at sunset. (Genesis 1) New Year's Day is held by the Western world as January 1, however in the Bible the beginning of the year actually begins in April, and the Hebrew secular year begins in September (Rosh Hashanah)
(5) Jeremiah 10:3-5 NIV. Note the emphasis on "idols". I have included the italics into the text.
(6) The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches do accept them but consider as "deutero-canonical", ie. their canonicity has a secondary status. Protestants have rejected them as inspired following the tradition of the Jews. They however valuable as historical texts.