These days, you’ll get two groups of people telling you that Christmas is a sham Christian holiday, because it’s origins are pagan. The first group are the irreligious agnostics you might know who seem to take some Grinchy delight in exploding your sense of Christmas specialness. The second group are the very religious, very rigid Christians who condemn anything that is directly or even remotely associated with paganism, witchcraft and spiritualism. Also, the second group is often having a hyper-protestant overreaction to Catholicism. The effect is like that of the militant ex-addict we all know, who no longer sees any difference between a beer and a binge. Ironically these two groups share arguments for completely opposite reasons, and yet the result is the same: make everyone feel lousy about celebrating Christmas.
So is December 25th Jesus’ actual birthday? No one knows for sure when Jesus was born. Some very creative biblical study can be done to make a case for December 25th. But after reading all the arguments for why Jesus was possibly born in December or September or even the Spring, you find all of them lack this one thing: explicit biblical support. They are all cases built on circumstantial evidence and Scriptural inferences. Which doesn’t mean these theories have no merit, it just means we DON’T KNOW for sure. And that means it doesn’t matter, for sure.
Clearly, Jesus was really born. Anyone who celebrates that event, is going to be doing so on a somewhat arbitrary date. We celebrate the births of presidents on days that do not correspond to their actual birthday’s. It doesn’t mean they weren’t born (Mr Agnostic), and it doesn’t mean we’re being sacrilegious (Mr No-Christmas Christian).
But why on that date, and why with the trappings we do, like trees and holly are yule logs and stars? A lot of these traditions have unclear beginnings. It’s true the Romans had a mid-winter celebration, and they lit fires and lights to Saturn. The pagan Germans used evergreen trees at the winter solstice and yule logs and holly. So should we assume that if these things began as part of idolatrous worship they should be forbidden?
Well, the Bible nowhere forbids people to put a tree with lights in their living room in December. The principle some Christians imagine forbids this, is that of God’s people separating from pagan beliefs and practices – in Jeremiah 10:1 for example. This is an important Christian principle to honor. But let us have a complete understanding of how this principle played out before we apply it to Christmas. Jeremiah 10:2 says, “do not learn their ways”. What were those? The same Prophet lists these in chapter 7:5-9: idol worship, murder, infanticide etc. Idol worship is clearly a huge concern, but are the symbols and trappings of Christmas idols? No one I know, who puts a tree in their home or holly on their door, is doing so to appeal to a god who is not the Lord. They don’t do so to gain favor with that god and they surely don’t support the immoral practices that God detests in Jeremiah 7 – which pagan idolatry did. So the principles forbidding the occult can’t apply to Christmas traditions as MOST people practice them.
A case might be made that the commercialism we attach to Christmas IS idolatrous, since it elevates acquisition and materialism above God in our heart’s affection. There’s plenty of Scriptural principle forbidding that. And in that area, we might say Christmas gift giving can lead us into real temptation. But in and of themselves, that, and other traditions are harmless. As music is harmless, depending on how it’s used.
Both Christian and non-Christian Christmas debunkers admit a certain amount of strategic thinking on the part of the church as it accepted and changed pagan rituals and infused them with Christian meaning. One author claims, “the Church said, ‘bring your gods, goddesses, rituals and rites, and we will assign Christian sounding titles and names to them…'”. Well, let’s be clear: the church, even at it’s lowest point, never told people to bring their gods into the church to worship along side of Christ! It did however, accept many pagan rituals. Rather than the great compromise, this has to be seen as great genius on some level.
Without compromising the truth about Christ, it showed that the Christian message had deep relevance to the spiritual lives of pagan hearers. It showed (as Paul did with the Athenians in Acts 17) that what they did in ignorance, the Gospel would fully explain/fulfill.
So for example, having Christmas at the winter solstice, might have been done because the Church retained a distant memory of the actual date, or it might have simply been done for strategic reasons. But if the latter, what shame in that? Since no one can deny it’s a beautiful natural expression of what Jesus birth represents: Light coming to a dark world. What a great teaching vehicle! Same with taking the German’s evergreen tree and seeing in it the promise of eternal life, or taking holly and seeing the blood of Jesus and the crown of thorns. Same with the lights and fires that point to the Light of the World, and same with gift giving showing us how God so loved the world that he GAVE his only Son.
In this way, the Church was saying the Gospel didn’t repudiate paganism as a whole but rather FULFILLED it. A more liberal view perhaps, but a better one for making converts, and also a view more attuned to the reality that God is the author of the Nature pagan’s worship.
Yes, many perversions about God are in paganism – but it’s basic instinct was to see spiritual reality in the cycles of nature the Creator made. Well, do we think it’s for no reason that Resurrection is celebrated in Spring? The date of that event is known with certainty (unlike Christ’s birth) and I see God’s perfect touch in the timing. God is a romantic! We propose to our girlfriends in the place we first dated, or first kissed or first saw each other. You can propose anywhere, why do it there? Because the time and the place and the setting add weight, symbolic significance to the moment – which enhances memory and affection. That God was raised from the dead in Spring is perfectly consistent with that same God calling for New Moon festivals, the sacrifice of animals, and who had palm trees and flowers carved into his Temple, and who created festivals around the cycles of the harvest.
We follow in His example then, when we freely use symbols, settings, and rituals to add weight to our memory of his work and his love.
Uptight Christians have this lesson to learn: because a thing is from nature, doesn’t automatically make it pagan, or demonic. And the truth is, just because the devil will use some natural thing, animal worship or a physical ritual to imprison people to himself, or expose his power or dumb down our view of God (Romans 1:23) nature finally doesn’t belong to him!! If he is using it to promote his power or obscure God, then it is the right and privilege of the people of God to relieve him of it! If it’s the devil’s rituals, they are stolen goods and we, the children of God, rightly steal them back! He holds no ground in this world that’s rightfully his. He only perverts what isn’t his originally. Evil is a merely a parasite, as Lewis once said.
So I would not approach the use of formerly pagan trappings with fear, cowed by their former meaning, former owner, former usage, or former evil associations. The earth is the Lord’s and I am the Lord’s and so the earth is mine. So a Yule log is mine to burn in the fireplace and my redeemed heart remembers the warmth of God’s grace coming to a cold world. A wreath is mine to hang on the door and say to my neighbors, eternal evergreen life is promised!
Yes, I think the no-Christmas stance not only borders on legalism, it marches right on in!