Christians and Christmas
by Ethan R. Longhenry
It's that time of year again: the weather is getting cold, snow is beginning to fall, and we are constantly bombarded by retail stores and their marketing blitzes. Christmastime is upon us yet again, and every year it seems more commercialized, more cutthroat, and less about family and togetherness.
Many attempt to counteract this trend with banners proclaiming, "Put Christ back in Christmas!". Such persons feel that the loss of the religious aspect of Christmas is a disturbing trend. Is it appropriate, however, to have "Christ" in "Christmas"? Since this is the time of year that many engage in "Christmas discussions," it is appropriate for us to consider what we can learn from the Scriptures regarding Christians and Christmas.
When we open the Scriptures, we find in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 the description of the birth of Jesus the Christ according to the prophecies of the prophets of old. The shepherds and the manger are there, along with Joseph and Mary. There are "wise men" (Matthew 2:1), but surprisingly, their number is not mentioned. Most curious of all, however, is that no date or even time of year is mentioned; "December 25" or any ancient Roman or Hebrew equivalent is not present at all! The Scriptures report the fact that Jesus was born, demonstrate how His birth fulfilled prophecy, but remain absolutely silent about when the event took place.
In the end, no one knows precisely when Jesus was born. Sure, it was in Bethlehem in Judea, and likely between 6-4 BCE; best estimates based on certain details in the narrative would point to His birth being either in spring or fall.
December 25 was settled upon less because of Jesus and more because of the many pagan religious festivals that took place near the winter solstice: the rebirth of Mithras of Syria, the Saturnalia of the Romans, and observances of the Celts and other European peoples. Even the pagan flavor of the celebrations continued well into the medieval period for many of these peoples. Many Christmas traditions, including the Christmas tree, are also derived from pagan observances. It is a well-known fact, therefore, that Christmas represents a "Christianized" holiday, allowing people to maintain their cultural traditions while providing a Christian rationale for the event.
Christmas, therefore, is not recognized as an observance found within the pages of the New Testament, representing a later tradition popularized and developed over time. Since this is the case, how should Christians approach Christmas? Should Christians observe it religiously? Should Christians take any note of the observance at all?
The Scriptures do not speak specifically regarding Christmas, but Paul provides some assistance in Romans 14:5-6:
One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord: and he that eateth, eateth unto the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, unto the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.
Paul establishes that the matter of observing days is a liberty, and that everyone should be "fully assured" or "fully convinced" in his own mind. On what basis should we be "fully convinced"? In Romans 14:23, Paul establishes that "whatsoever is not of faith is sin," and we understand that faith, according to Hebrews 11:1, is the "assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen." We ought to be "fully convinced" on the basis of faith, and our faith ought to be based in what God has revealed to us. Since God has revealed nothing to us regarding observing Christmas as the birthday of Jesus, it is hard to understand how we can observe Christmas as Christ's birth.
Nevertheless, it is not wrong to observe Christmas in other ways. Christmastime represents a rare opportunity for many people to get away from work and spend time with extended family, and many enjoy giving gifts at this time of year to friends and family. Encouraging family relations is not a bad thing (Ephesians 6:1-4), and one can certainly take the opportunity that the holiday season affords to spend time with others.
In terms of Christmas, we must appeal to Romans 14 and its message of not causing our brethren to stumble in any way. If some Christians believe that Christmas should not be observed in any way, their views should be respected, and other Christians should not provoke them to violate their consciences (Romans 14:13-21). Those Christians who do not observe in any way, likewise, have no right to condemn those who observe the day as a way to associate with friends and family and to share gifts; they also are accepted by God (Romans 14:5-6).
In the end, there is even no condemnation if an individual decides to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born and came into the world and does so on December 25, fully realizing that such is most likely not the actual date of birth, per Romans 14. Such an observance may not be profitable; if it leads others to stumble, it should be avoided (I Corinthians 8). Let us seek God's counsel in the Scriptures and prayer, and make wise decisions in terms of our observances!