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The Merry season is upon us and amongst the mulled wine, traditional carols and rampant shopping, we once again have the voices of those who claim that Christmas is rooted in paganism and, therefore, Christians shouldn’t celebrate it. Is this true?

The first part is. Many of our Christmas traditions are rooted in paganism. But the second part involves a colossal leap in logic and a profound misunderstanding of Christian theology. It’s exactly because many of the traditions are rooted in paganism that we should be celebrating it. First some, historical background.

History

I doubt that it’s news to my readers that early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. Paul’s letters never mention it. Only two gospels describe Jesus’ birth. The amount of persecution that the early church received during the first 300 years of its history resulted in a strong doctrine of the resurrection – not the birth – of Christ. They focused on the victory of Christ over death and honoured the many martyrs killed by the Roman authorities. Also, early Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays – they were seen to be wholly pagan affairs. (The only birthday parties described in the Bible are those of wicked men – like Pharaoh and Herod – and usually resulted in someone being killed. Rather, the early church celebrated the day of a Christian’s death – his birth into eternal life.) That being the case, the early Christians saw little reason to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

The first hints of a Christian winter holiday come from the East, where Epiphany was celebrated on the 6th of January. In the fourth Century, we see Christians beginning to celebrate the ‘Feast of the Nativity’ on 25th December. In 567, the Council of Tours proclaimed the period of 25 December to 6 January to be Christmastide – or ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. Nicolas – a generous fourth Century pastor from Turkey – died, became ‘St.Nic’, and his church contributed some traditions to the season as well. Not that all Christians have celebrated Christmas ever since. The Puritans didn’t. But for most Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, it is a major event on the calendar.

The Christmas dates were not randomly chosen. Societies have had winter celebrations of light and food to help get them through the dark winters since time immemorable. Somehow the souls of men in these Northern societies needed to know that light would once again triumph over darkness when there was so little sunshine and such harsh conditions. Evergreen trees and candles were held as symbols of resistance against the dark and icy season. Unsurprisingly, various mythologies – such as Yule and Saturnalia – grew up around such celebrations and the 25th December was one of them long before Jesus came. But mythology is not religion. Religion is the prophet dogmatically saying, ‘It is so.’ Mythology is the poet wishfully saying, ‘Why can’t these things be?’ The cruel and lightless winters stirred a longing in mankind for the world to be reborn.

Redemption

If our various Christmas dates and practices originally came out of pagan practices, should we reject it outright? Let’s ask a different question first. Rock, jazz, hip-hop… where did they come from? The electric guitar? Drums? Were they first used in the context of Christian worship? Or, were these various instruments and styles used elsewhere – to serve other purposes? The latter, of course. Why do many churches use these instruments or employ these musical styles today? Because as Christians, we are a movement that believes in redemption. If we were to empty the church of everything that had godless roots, the people would be the first to go. We are all born pagan – worshipping something in creation rather than the Creator – and need to die and be born again. But God’s goal isn’t just to redeem some inner, invisible part of us (our ‘hearts’). Rather, God seeks to make everything new. Our money, our houses, our art, our music, and our holidays – that is, all of our culture – is something that we can see redeemed – just as Christ has redeemed us. So, even though hip-hop music may have originally focused on sexual immorality or drug abuse, we believe the music can be redeemed to communicate something wholesome – and even preach the Good News. The winter holidays may have originally been connected with various mythologies, but as Christ changes us, we change our holidays to give them new purpose – a new direction. We now celebrate – that in Christ’s coming – the long winter of sin and death has met its match in the form of a refugee baby. Christmas celebrates the fulfilment of all those dark winter longings. The wish has become fact – the myth has become history. This baby is the true light of the world – the evergreen that will never wither.

Let’s celebrate Jesus big during the Christmas season. Otherwise, we are bound to have unrealistic and unmet expectations from this holiday, leaving us with post-Christmas blues. Christ redeems mankind – not Christmas. We may hope that the various scrooges in our lives will be changed by gently falling snow and that our difficult family members will be alchemised into kind hearted people through the consumption of holiday cider. But we can’t baptise them with eggnog as much as we may long to. No, we are just gathering selfish sinners together indoors and giving them lots of toys, food (and maybe alcohol). Hey, what could go wrong?

We need to retain the gospel as central for such a large holiday, but we should not get rid of the stuff. Sin is not resident in the stuff – it is resident in the sinner. So, eat turkey, drink what suits your fancy and buy gifts. We are not materialists and gluttons – but neither are we scrooges. Historically, Christians have remembered God’s generosity in this season – giving the extravagant gift of his own Son to the world. So let’s not be glum this season nor modest in our celebrations. May our lives smell like good news. Let’s give great gifts to others – even those who don’t deserve it – and bake and eat and share what we have as if we serve a God who is generous beyond all imagination – for we do.


Joshua D. Jones is a writer, mentor and preacher based in Nottingham, England. He is author of the book, Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical gift of male-female friendship. He loves sharing good coffee with his family and close friends.

  • bondservant1

    If our starting point is “we are to worship in spirit and in truth,” then we have to ask: is it okay with God – because what we “think” or “feel” is okay is irrelevant – that we create our own holy days, our own feasts? What do these manmade traditions mean to Him? What are the days or appointed times that He created?

  • So, Bondservant, presumably your questions are inferring that we observe the Israeli holy days (Passover, Booths, etc). Is that right?
    Most of us would understand Paul’s comments in Colossians to mean that we – as Gentile believers – are free to observe or not observe according to our conscience.
    But as to your original point, Christmas is only a doxological event (as opposed to a mere family or cultural phenomenon) to the degree that one does worship God in Spirit and truth.

    • bondservant1

      Hi Joshua!

      In trying to look at scripture from a complete book standpoint – rather than “that was for them, this is for us” – I don’t see God separating things for “them” and “us.” I see Him continuing to reveal a greater meaning for something that was part of His plan from the beginning.

      There were covenants that appear to be “for them” (Jews). But I would suggest – and Christians would typically agree, even if they don’t know it – that there are covenants that are “age-abiding” and not “everlasting.” Meaning they were for an extended, unknown period of time until a better covenant was given. (Which we know it was). It’s the reason why circumcision of the skin is not longer necessary. But if you read “everlasting,” you’ll assume you still have to do it. And I have the impression that many Christians still perform what is an old covenant act that has been replaced by a better covenant. (Doesn’t matter who you are… Jew, Gentile… the new covenant is for “all.” Not just Gentiles).

      (And an interesting side note regarding circumcision. It was a covenant made with Abraham. But Abraham wasn’t a Jew, was he?)

      Does that contradict observing of God’s appointed times? Could appear that way. But I don’t see anywhere that God’s appointed times were a part of a temporary covenant. Do we observe them the same today? No, not at all. No need to slaughter a lamb for Passover for our sins. But to not observe or remember them at all?

      And I don’t believe Paul has the authority to set aside what God established, and Jesus reinforced. Jesus IS the story and the Source of the appointed times. Why would Paul “do away” with this?

      He did clarify. Very very important. But anyone teaching that Paul did away with God’s Word is teaching a false word.

      My understanding of the often-quoted Colossians is that these were people who knew the truth of Jesus. And were CORRECTLY observing the appointed times. But there were those – Gnostics or even those still under an old covenant understanding (Jewish leadership) – who tried to deceive them into doing them differently or “the old way” (worship of angels, false humility, etc). Paul was not saying “don’t observe the things of God.” He was saying “you know how to observe them, don’t let them trick you.”

      “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the traditions of men.” The appointed times were not man’s traditions. But they had definitely been added to and corrupted. Paul was warning that they not be tricked.

      I see that God has always been establishing a peculiar people who are called not because they are special because of who they are (blood-born). But because of Whose they are (blood-bought). Selected to testify of the One true God. That was true then with the 12 tribes. And it continues today. For us to read more into the NT use of “Jew” and “Gentile” allows or causes us to ignore things that were for God’s people (you and me, as well as Moses, David, etc).

      God’s appointed times were for His people, not “the Jews.” Otherwise they should have only been observed by just the one tribe known as Judah. Judah was all that was left of the 12 tribes when Jesus came… the reason the word “Jew” is used. “Gentiles” could have (and likely did) included descendants of the other 10 tribes, but there was no way to tell. They had been assimilated into the world.

      All God’s people were called to observe them, and any foreigners becoming a part of His people as well (which no longer means they’re “foreigners”). Because they told about Him, told of His first coming, and tell of His second coming.

      The appointed times have taken on a GREATER spiritual meaning because of what Jesus has fulfilled… another reason to observe and study them. They haven’t been done away with or become a personal matter of conscience, anymore than God’s commandments are a matter of conscience. Do I need to travel to the temple? No. The physical temple doesn’t exist, and the greater spiritual temple (which did away with the need for a physical temple) dwells inside of us. Do I need to set up a tent? No. But it’s a great teaching lesson for children, and teaching tells of our “tabernacling” with Jesus in the days to come.

      The meaning is greater now. Making them even more important.

      But let’s say that I were to agree with you that we are free to observe or not. I would still ask why these appointed times of God to “His people” are rarely if ever taught? If they were appointed by God (as opposed to manmade days of worship), why do we ignore them? There are actual days of rest built into them so we can take time to observe.

      Not to mention the final three have not yet been fulfilled, and give us insight as to Jesus’ return. How many Christian churches even acknowledge Trumpets, Atonement, or Tabernacles, let alone teach on them. They are all about His return. How are we suppose to see through a glass, darkly, when we don’t even talk about them?

      My family hasn’t “done Christmas” in 13 years. We aren’t critical of those who do, and know why they do. They are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have just made a different decision. I have and will be spending time with my children going over the story of the birth of Jesus this week (hot topic right now LOL). This past weekend, we focused on the prophecies fulfilled by His coming, as well as those not fulfilled yet.

      But the thing that God seems to have been impressing on me at this time this year is what I mentioned in my original post. We are called to worship in spirit and truth.

      And if one comes to the conclusion that Christmas is a manmade day of worship, then is that worshiping in spirit and truth?

      Each of us has to decide for ourselves… even though there is only one Truth. Where I am in my walk right now, I don’t believe I have the right to establish my own days of worship (like Christmas).

      And for those who say that Christmas isn’t a day of worship, then why do we include Jesus in it?

      Peace to you, my brother!

  • And this passage from Romans, also carrying a similar idea:
    One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭14:5-6‬ ‭ESV