WELCOME TO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

THE CHRISTMAS CONTROVERSY

 

       Christmas is a major celebration in the Western world.  It is observed by Christians and non-Christians alike.  While its original purpose was to commemorate the birth of Jesus, it has for many become a secular holiday.  Many that celebrate this holiday pay little attention to its original purpose.  Every year we hear from some in the Christian community that we should put Christ back into Christmas. Others in the Christian community answer back by asserting that Christ was never in Christmas in the first place.  Those who take this position believe the Christmas celebration is an accommodation to paganism and should be avoided at all costs. Is Christmas an accommodation to paganism?  Are there valid reasons for avoiding this celebration? 

       Let's begin our investigation by defining paganism. When someone says Christmas is pagan, what do they mean?  The word "pagan" is usually used to define someone who believes in and worships a god or gods other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Therefore, religions other than Christianity, Judaism and Islam are often seen as pagan. In a broad sense, paganism is seen as any non-monotheistic religion or at least any religious belief system that does not believe in and worship the God identified as the one God of the three major monotheistic religions. . Paganism is often defined as the worship of multiple gods or what is commonly known as polytheism.

       The Roman Empire, which began around 31 BC and lasted into the fourth century AD, featured the worship of many gods. There were gods that related to nearly every aspect of Roman life.   Many of these gods had special days of worship assigned to them.  One such god had a festival in his honor in mid December.  This festival was called Saturnalia. 

       Saturnalia was a celebration that ran from December 17 to December 23 in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Apparently the planet Saturn was believed to be a god as were other of the planets. This festival culminated in the celebration called Brumalia which was a celebration of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is when the sun begins to rise higher in the sky resulting in the days becoming longer.  For us, the winter solstice takes place around December 21st when the day light part of the 24 hour cycle begins to increase.  Most people pay little if any attention to this. 

       However, in the Roman Empire, people paid a great deal of attention to this because it was believed the great star we call the sun was a god.  Brumalia was a celebration of the rebirth of the sun god.  The sun was seen as being reborn in that it was bringing the world out of the relative darkness of winter into increasingly greater light.  Brumalia was a festival dedicated to the rebirth of the sun and was celebrated with food and drink, decoration of houses and the exchanging of gifts. It was celebrated on December 25th.

      So let’s now return to our question?  When someone says Christmas is pagan, what are they saying?  What they are saying is this:  Because the December 25th festival of Brumalia was a celebration in honor of the rebirth of the sun, using this date to celebration the birth of the Son of God is seen as a celebration of Brumalia. In commemorating the birth of the Son of God on December 25th it is believed we are actually worshiping the sun god, not the Son of God.   Using customs, traditions and practices used to celebrate the rebirth of the sun to celebrate the birth of Jesus is seen as celebrating the birth of the sun, not the birth of Jesus. Thus, Christmas is seen as pagan because sun worship is pagan.

       Is this a valid conclusion?  Are we really celebrating the birth of the physical sun by commemorating the birth of Jesus on December 25th?  This is what is called a Non Sequitur argument.  A Non Sequitur argument is where the conclusion does not follow from the premise. It doesn’t follow that because pagans worshiped the sun god on December 25th that we are doing the same when we use December 25th to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. It doesn't follow that when we use customs, traditions and practices used by pagans to worship their gods in the worship of the true God that we are actually worshiping their pagan gods. The premise doesn’t match the conclusion.           

       Part of the Christmas is pagan argument is that by using customs, traditions and practices that the pagans used to worship their gods, we are in essence worshiping their gods.  The fallacy of this argument can be quickly identified. We regularly use customs, traditions and practices in the worship of the one true God that pagans use in the worship of their gods. We sing hymns, offer prayers, fast, give offerings, meet at places of worship, build altars and do a number of other things in the worship of our God that pagans do in the worship of their gods. While some pagan practices such as the offering of human sacrifices or the cutting of ourselves with knives are never acceptable, many of the customs, traditions and practices used by pagans to worship their gods are neutral in nature and can be used to worship the one true God or in association with other celebratory activities and events. Generally speaking, customs, traditions and practices used by pagans to worship their gods are not inappropriate in and of themselves. They only become inappropriate when used in the worship of a false god.  More on this later in this essay.

       Christians are not celebrating the Roman festival of Saturnalia or Brumalia when celebrating the birth of Jesus.  Christians don't worship the planet Saturn or the sun. They worship and celebrate the Son of God who came into the world as the Savior of mankind.  Christians who celebrate the birth of Jesus do not worship Baal, Sol, Osiris, Horus, or Mithra on December 25, all names associated with the sun god. Christians worship the Son of the one true God. The only way Christmas could be a pagan celebration is if on Christmas we worship the sun god or some other pagan god.  Since this is not the case, Christmas is not pagan and never has been.

       To call Christmas pagan or those who celebrate Christmas pagan is to misunderstand what paganism is. As already stated, paganism has to do with the worship of multiple gods or any god other than the God worshiped by the three monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  Those who celebrate Christmas are not worshiping pagan gods.  They are worshiping the one true God.

       It should be noted that some of the days of the week are named after celestial bodies such as the sun, the moon and the planet Saturn. All three of these celestial bodies have been worshiped as gods.  Other days of the week are named after pagan gods such as Thor (Thursday) and Woden (Wednesday).  Sunday is named after the sun. Christians who go to church to worship God on Sunday are not worshiping the sun. Christians who go to church on Saturday to worship God are not worshiping Saturn.  Likewise, Christians who worship God and honor the birth of Jesus on Christmas day are not worshiping the sun.  To believe so is pure nonsense.  In the remainder of this essay, we will evaluate the various objections to celebrating Christmas and determine whether these objections are valid.

       Objection #1: It is observed that birthday celebrations recorded in the Scriptures have negative consequences.  When Pharaoh had a birthday celebration his baker was put to death.  When Herod celebrated his birthday, John the Baptist was put to death. When the sons of Job were supposedly celebrating their birthdays, they were all killed. It is therefore concluded that that we should avoid birthday celebrations including that of the birthday of Jesus.

        This is another Non Sequitur argument. To say that because bad things happen at some birthday celebrations means all such celebrations are bad is a Non Sequitur. Bad things happening at some birthday celebrations does not mean birthday celebrations in general are bad.  It does not logically follow. This is akin to concluding that because some marriages end in divorce, one should never get married or because a shooting sometimes takes place in a church, one should never go to church.          .

        Objection #2: The celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th is seen as illogical as it is believed Jesus could not have been born anywhere near that date. Evidence is offered for Christ’s birth taking place during the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall.  It is seen from Scripture that Christ began His ministry when He was about thirty years old. His ministry lasted three and one-half years and ended when He was crucified at the time of the Passover in the spring three and one-half years later. Backing tracking three and one-half years would take us to His ministry beginning in fall and going back thirty more years would take us to a fall birth.

       It is further pointed out that John the Baptist was conceived in early summer based on when His Father, Zacharias, was thought to have finished serving his appointed course of Abijah in the temple.  Since it is believed that John was conceived in early summer, he would have been born nine months later in the early spring. The Scriptures show that Christ was born six months after John. Six months after a spring birth for John takes us to a fall birth for Jesus.

        The Scriptures show Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem to be taxed and finding nowhere to stay. It’s concluded that it must have been the time of the fall Feast of Tabernacles as Jerusalem and all surrounding towns such as Bethlehem would be filled with people looking for a place to stay.  

       The Scriptures show shepherds were out in the fields at night when Christ was born and therefore it is concluded this could not have been in the winter when it is presumed the shepherds would have had their flocks indoors.

        Let us examine these objections to celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th.  It is true the Scriptures say Jesus was about thirty years old when He began His ministry. What the Scriptures don’t tell us is how close to thirty He was. Was it within several days, several weeks or several months of being thirty?  If it were within several months it would create problems for establishing his birth at the time of the Feast of tabernacles in the fall of the year.  The truth is, we just don’t know for sure when Jesus began His ministry. 

       The argument that Christ was born in the fall because John the Baptist was born six months earlier in the spring is based on certain assumptions made about the time John’s father Zacharias served in the Temple and the time that his wife Elizabeth became pregnant with John. These assumptions have been argued back and forth for centuries with nothing conclusive being determined. Furthermore, if one counts back from the time the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 when rabbinical tradition instructs it was the course of Jehoiarib that was serving in the temple, it would appear the course of Abijah to which Zacharias belonged would have been serving at the temple in the first week of October. This would place the birth of Christ at the end of December or in early January.  Some Christian groups believe the correct date is January 6th.  Therefore, to use the time of Zacharias service in the temple as proof of when Jesus was born, becomes very problematic. The bottom line is that we just don't have enough information to arrive at a definitive conclusion regarding this matter.

       In regard to there being no room in the inn; we can’t be sure this was because of Bethlehem being overrun with people coming to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles as some believe. It could simple have been that Mary was ready to deliver, needed to find a place quickly and since there was no room in the particular inn that they stopped at, they used the manger.  We just don’t know for sure what the dynamics were that led to the manger birth.

       Even the matter of the shepherds supposedly not being in the fields in winter is problematical. Some ancient Jewish sources indicate that some shepherds and their sheep stayed in the fields all winter long.  In Genesis 31 we see Jacob complaining to Laban about suffering from the cold at night while shepherding his sheep and goats.  While it can get chilly at night in mid-winter Judea, it is still a Mediterranean climate and therefore nothing like people experience in the Northern Hemisphere. To conclude that shepherds being out in the fields at the time of Christ's birth proves His birth could not have occurred in winter is speculative at best. 

       Objection #3:  It is argued that the Christmas tree is condemned in the Scriptures. It is believed that Jeremiah is talking about Christmas trees in the following passage:

     Jeremiah 10:1-9:  Hear what the LORD says to you, O house of Israel.  This is what the LORD says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them.  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."  No one is like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is mighty in power.  Who should not revere you, O King of the nations? This is your due. Among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is no one like you. They are all senseless and foolish; they are taught by worthless wooden idols.  Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz. What the craftsman and goldsmith have made is then dressed in blue and purple-- all made by skilled workers (NIV). 

       The context of this passage is the making of idols. Jeremiah was not talking about Christmas trees but about making idols from wood, which the people would then bow down to and worship.  Christmas trees are not idols. Nobody worships them.  Jeremiah was not condemning Christmas trees. He was condemning idolatry. Isaiah shows the folly of making an idol out of wood and then worshiping it. 

       Isaiah 44:14-17: He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god."

       It is the taking of trees and shaping them into idols to be worshiped that is consistently condemned in Scripture. Nobody decorates a Christmas tree and then concludes the tree is a god to be worshiped.  After the Christmas season is over, real trees are burned up or disposed of in some other way.  Artificial trees are put in a box and stored away until the next Christmas. You would not do this with the trees Jeremiah and Isaiah are talking about.  These prophets are describing idols, not Christmas trees.

       With this being said, there is an interesting passage in Hosea where God is speaking to Israel and analogizing Himself to a green pine tree.  As we all know, a pine tree is always green. It is always alive.  God uses the pine tree as a symbol of His continual presence and source of fruitfulness. This being the case, it does not appear out of line to use a pine tree in celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world who upon His resurrection from the dead is alive forevermore.

       Hosea 14:8: O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols.  I will answer Him and care for him. I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me (NIV). 

       Objection #4  It is pointed out that God commanded Israel not to add anything to what He has specifically revealed as to how he is to be worshiped.  Deuteronomy 12:29-31, is often cited in support of this perspective.

     Deuteronomy 12:29-31: The LORD your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, "How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same."  You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it (NIV).

        On the basis of this Scripture, it is determined that the celebration of Christmas is adding something that is nowhere sanctioned by God. Since it is felt that the observance of Christmas is an accommodation to paganism, Deuteronomy 12:29-31, is seen as a direct prohibition against Christmas. It is believed we should not worship the one true God in the manner that the pagans worship their gods.  It’s argued that since the pagans worshiped the sun god during Saturnalia with celebrations that included decorating their homes, singing songs, having family get-to gathers, etc., we should not be doing such things in worshiping the one true God.  Doing these things in celebrating the birth of Christ is seen as doing “detestable things that the Lord hates.”

        This passage in Deuteronomy is dealing with idolatry and certain behaviors connected with idolatry that were the detestable practices that God hates.  God was not condemning all worships practices conducted by pagans. If we are to apply Deuteronomy 12 in some universal sense, then Israel would have been prohibited from having a priesthood, doing sacrifices, tithing, having festivals, practicing circumcision, building a temple and a host of other worship practices that pagans also did in their idolatrous worship.

       If we are to apply Deuteronomy 12 to negate the Christmas celebration we must also negate prayer, kneeling to pray, singing of hymns, communion service, baptism and a host of other worship activities as these are all things pagans have done and continue to do to this very day in their worship of other gods.   Once again we see a Non Sequitur argument. The conclusion simply does not logically follow from the premise. The premise is that all pagan methods of worship are detestable to God.  This simply isn’t true.

        If we were to begin sacrificing our children to God, that would be detestable.  If we would begin to cut ourselves with knives in our worship service, that would be detestable.  If we began to have chapel prostitutes, that would be detestable.  These are the kind of worship practices the Scriptures reveal to be detestable things that God hates.

       Putting up a Christmas tree, decorating our homes, singing hymns in honor of the birth of Christ, exchanging gifts in celebration of the greatest gift of all coming into the world are not the detestable things that Deuteronomy is talking about.

       In reviewing the various passages of Scripture that deal with pagan religious practices, it becomes evident that it is the use of such practices to worship false God's that is the focus.  In Deuteronomy 7:5 and 12:2-4, Moses is seen as instructing the Israelites to destroy all the places the nations they were dispossessing worshiped their gods.  Moses instructs them to break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, burn their Asherah poles in the fire and cut down the idols of their gods.  He then exhorts them not to worship YHWH in the way the nations worshiped their god's.  Is Moses teaching the Israelites they cannot use any of the worship practices used by the pagans to worship YHWH?

       In Exodus 24:4-5, we see Moses building an altar and setting up stone pillars as a place to present burnt offerings to YHWH. The setting up of altars and the building of stone pillars was a common practice in pagan worship.  Yet we see Moses doing the same thing in the worship of YHWH. Was Moses violating his own instruction to not use pagan religious practices in the worship of YHWH?  We see the use of altars common practice in Israel's worship of YHWH. It should be evident that the prohibition against using pagan worship practices to worship YHWH related to the manner in which pagans used these practices and not that the practices were wrong in and of themselves.

       In Leviticus 26:1 Moses instructs the Israelites to not make idols or set up an image, a sacred stone or place a carved stone in their land to bow down before it.  It is the use of stones to make idols to worship YHWH that is being prohibited. God did not want the Israelites to make and use idols in their worship of Him. The proper use of stones in building alters or other edifices in the worship of YHWH was permitted as Scripture clearly shows. Even the making of an image was not prohibited as long as it didn't end up being worshiped. God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Israelites bitten by a real snake could look at the bronze snake on the pole and live (Numbers 21:8-9). When this image of a snake became an object of worship, it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4)

Objection #5:

        It is argued that nowhere does the Bible command us to celebrate the birth of Christ.  Some feel we should only observe the festivals that God instructed Israel to celebrate such as Passover, Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, Atonement, Trumpets and Tabernacles.  These festivals were given to Israel within the context of the Covenant that God made with them.  These festivals have been fulfilled in the Christ event and their observance is not a continuing requirement under the New Covenant. See my essays, Hebrews: A Study In Covenantal Transition and When Does Christ Return? for a complete overview of the dynamics that led to establishment of the New Covenant. Furthermore, there are examples of followers of God establishing their own forms of worship in addition to what God specifically required of them and not being condemned by God for doing it.

        God never commanded David to build a temple.  It was David’s idea.  David felt that since he lived in a palace, the ark of God should be in a temple. David was not condemned for this. God supported the project but choose to have David’s son Solomon build the temple.

      In the book of Esther we find the Jews being victorious over their enemies and establishing a day of celebration where they thanked God, feasted and exchanged gifts among themselves.  This celebration is still observed and is known as the feast of Purim. God did not command this, nor did God condemn it.  The Maccabees, in celebration of their victory over Antiochus in the second century BC, established the Feast of Dedication to thank God for leading them to victory.  We see this feast being celebrated during the time of Christ as recorded in John 10:22 and it continues to this very day as Hanukkah.  This is not something God commanded; neither do we see God condemning it.

         These examples clearly show that God has not put us in a straight jacket as to celebrations.  God allows us latitude as to how we worship him.  We can worship Him in song, dance, with decorations, stage plays, feasting and any number of ways.  Christmas is one of those ways.  Absence of a command to celebrate the birth of Jesus or any other significant event does not equate with a prohibition against such celebration.   Christmas is when the collective body of Christ can reflect on the great event of the birth of Christ.  Without this event there would not have been a crucifixion or resurrection of Jesus and therefore no salvation.  Celebration of the birth of Jesus is as appropriate as any other commemoration of events in the life of Christ.

       When Jesus was born, what do we see?  We see a celebration among the heavenly host in association with His birth. While this isn’t a Scriptural directive for us to celebrate the birth of Christ, it certainly provides a Scriptural indication that it is appropriate to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

       Luke 2:13-14:  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

Objection #6: 

       Some object to this commemoration being held on December 25th because of this day being associated with pagan worship practices.  It is believed that the early Church deliberately sought to bring pagans into Christianity by converting their worship practices to the worship of Christ. While the evidence for this is somewhat shaky, the question that needs to be asked and answered is: Would this approach be wrong?  What would be wrong with taking worship practices directed toward false gods and redirecting them to worship of the one true God?

         As already pointed out, many worship practices are common to all religious systems.  Unless certain practices are specifically condemned in Scripture, there is no justification for prohibiting them.  To conclude that because December 25th was a day celebrating the birth of the sun we therefore cannot use that day to celebrate the birth of the Son of God is a Non Sequitur. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. While it may be true that some of the customs used by pagans to worship the sun, such as decorating houses and exchanges gifts, are used to celebrate the birth of Christ, the fact remains that such customs are now being used to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, not the bright star we call the sun. It should be obvious that the custom of decorating houses or exchanging gifts is not an evil in and of itself. However, when such customs are used to worship a false god, they become an evil.

       We are not worshiping a false god when we decorate our houses or exchange gifts in celebration of the birth of Jesus.  We must be careful to properly distinguish between the use of a thing and the thing itself.  For example, God created sex as a good thing when used in the manner God intended. Yet it can become an evil thing when used to commit adultery or fornication.  Establishing a tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus and developing customs in association with such celebration is quite appropriate provided we maintain awareness that the birth of Jesus is the focus of such celebration. If there is a problem with the Christmas celebration it is that it has degenerated into being a secular celebration often devoid of any focus on the birth of Jesus. 

Objection #7:

         Some feel strongly that the evidence shows that Christ could not have been born on December 25th   and, therefore we shouldn’t be celebrating His birth on that date.   This is another Non Sequitur argument, as it doesn’t necessarily follow that because we can’t tie someone’s birthday to a specific date that we can’t and shouldn’t celebrate it on that date. In our family we sometimes combine birthday celebrations for several of our grandchildren on a single day with neither of their birthdays being on the specific day we choose. In the United States, Presidents Day is commemorated as the birthday of several of our past presidents. In the past, a specific date was set aside each year for the individual birthdays of Presidents Lincoln and Washington.  Now these commemorations have been combined into one.

Objection #8:

         It is often pointed out that Christmas is way too commercialized.  People eat too much, drink too much and party too much.  Many people focus on the secular aspects of Christmas and pay little attention to the birth of Christ.  All of this is true. But we have the power of choice.  We can choose not to eat too much, drink too much, party too much or get involved in the secular and commercialized aspects of Christmas. There will always be people who abuse celebrations and stray far from their original intended purpose.  This does not make such celebrations wrong, in and of themselves.  In years past I attended festivals such as the Feast of Tabernacles and observed people eating to much, drinking to much and carrying on in ways that did not reflect the intent of the festival.

         In years past I attended the Christmas programs at a Christian School where my two oldest grandchildren attended. The entire program was focused on the birth of Christ.  In past years I also attended the Christmas program at the public school where my youngest grandchildren attend. Here the entire focus was on Santa Claus and the secular aspects of Christmas.  The name of Jesus wasn’t even mentioned.  This is a prime example of following the intended use of a celebration on the one hand and totally straying from such use on the other hand.  Misuse, however, does not make a particular celebration wrong in and of itself.  With Christmas, as with all Christian celebrations, we have to choose whether we use the occasion to worship God or only serve ourselves.  We can certainly choose to celebrate the great event of Christ’s birth while avoiding the secular involvements.

        As already stated, without the birth of Christ there would have been no crucifixion and resurrection of our Savior.  We would not have a Savior and therefore we would have nothing to look forward to beyond this physical life.  The birth of Christ is central to our Christian belief system. It is the foundation of the gospel.  The Kingdom of God exists because of Christ.

       When Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she would give birth to the Son of God, Gabriel said that the child that would be born would preside over a Kingdom that would never end.  The Kingdom is a present reality for us today because of what took place in a small town called Bethlehem in Southern Judea over 2000 years ago.

        The Christ event involves many things.  It involves the ministry of Jesus. It involves His death and resurrection.  It involves His ascension to the Father and his return. But it all starts with His birth. To celebrate the birth of Christ is to celebrate the beginning of our salvation.  When the angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherd’s, he announced that a Savior had been born.  The angels are seen as rejoicing because of this.  It is more than appropriate that we two rejoice because of knowing that a Savior has been born.

       Celebrating the birth of Christ Jesus is not a commanded observance. Neither is celebrating the resurrection a commanded observance. However, as stated above, the absence of a command to celebrate an event in the life of Christ does not equate with a prohibition against the celebration of such event. A decision to join or not join in the commemoration of these events is a matter of choice. Christians observe these events because these events are central to the Christian belief system. I trust this examination of the issues surrounding the Christmas celebration will provide the information necessary to make an informed choice.   

RETURN TO HOME PAGE