Christmas and Christianity, Part 3

Christian Living, Culture

Blessed-Christmas-Tree-redPart 1.

Part 2.

What About History?

Most opponents of Christmas make the assumption that Christmas began during the time of the emperor Constantine around 313 AD. While there are many questions about Constantine, the historical record bears proof that he was most likely a Christian after 324. In fact, Constantine eventually forbade all pagan practices in Constantinople to include sacrifices, idol worship, and festivals not honoring Christ of any kind. Thus, the common argument opposing Christmas as a combining of a Christian celebration with a pagan festival on December 25th is on shaky ground, at best (more below). Additionally, many will point to the very name “Christ-mass” as proof that Christmas is a uniquely Roman Catholic invention, intertwined with the ungodly invention called Mass. However, history simply says otherwise. “Catholicism” was not a religious institution until Theodosius I reigned in 379. In other words, the church up until 325 AD wasn’t Roman Catholicism and everything else, but rather the Eastern Church and the Western Church. The Catholic Mass, as it is known today, was an invention of the 5th Century and very unlike the early liturgies of the Christian church.

It is true that the first two centuries of the Christian church did not list the birth of Christ as a regular festival, however there is evidence from the church father Clement of Alexandria suggesting that as early as 200 AD Christ’s birth was being celebrated in Egypt. [1] Clement also made note of Christian celebrations of the Baptism of Christ (Epiphany), which eventually became part of the celebration of Christ’s birth, as is even observed in the Church of Armenia today.

“But…” Christmas dissenters will say, “Christmas was adopted from a pagan Roman festival called Saturnalia which was held during the winter solstice on December 17-24th each year, where Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored.” There is no doubt that the day of Christ’s birth is unknown. In fact, it most likely was not in December, and yet no one can say for sure. Additionally, the Romans certainly did, along with many other cultures, celebrate the winter solstice through various festivals and idol worship. Saturnalia was the most popular festivity which included merriment, gift-giving, and several days of revelry. However, it is not likely that December 25th was decided by the church to be Christmas because of Saturnalia. Christ’s birth was being observed on December 25th as early as 336, based on the Chronography of the Church of Rome. [2] The Armenian church observed the birth of Christ on January 6 each year.

But why did the majority of the western church decide of December 25? Many suggestions have been offered, but the most probable is most widely agreed upon. It is likely that the church decided on December 25 to turn people away from the feasts of paganism being observed at the same time, most notably a feast dedicated to the Sun god. While there is no solid evidence on this being the reason for the church’s choosing of December 25, sermons from fathers of the church seem to point to this reality. [3] So the issue was not an attempt at identifying the actual birth of Christ on December 25, nor was it to incorporate pagan festivals into the life of the church and Christian home. Rather, it was a date most likely chosen to counter a very popular pagan festival that occurred each year. In no way does this mean that Christmas is a pagan holiday! It’s a non-sequitur to suggest that because Christmas was on the same day of a pagan festival — indeed in opposition to that pagan festival —that it too was a pagan festival! Such reasoning is historically fallacious and inconsistently applied. Were this a legitimate line of reasoning for the elimination of Christmas, we must also eliminate the names of the days of the week, for they are all drawn from the names of Roman deities.

“But, what about all of the customs associated with Christmas today? They all have pagan origins.” Indeed, they very well may, just like the ordinance of baptism in the Christian church. [4] Similarity does not equal dependence or derivation. Festivals throughout the history of the world have included things like trees and lights, however I’m certain they also included something similar to our potluck meals, so are they of pagan origin too? While it is certainly well advised to question our customs and practices, it is again a non-sequitur to conclude that similarity and even origin equal like-participation. It is very unlikely that Christians are being drawn into pagan worship through their Douglas Fir tree and blinking lights. The two need not be synonymous.

What Then Shall We Do?

Any reader of this might assume that I have a house covered in Christmas lights, a tree full of decorations, and a pile of presents for my children to open on December 25th. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, most people who know me assume my convictions about Christmas are very much the same as those who would seek to eliminate it all together. We have sought to observe a modest Christmas celebration to include the reading of Scripture, prayer, and singing in our home. We enjoy a festive meal and give simple gifts, remembering the greatest gift that was given to us in the Christ child who came to save his people from their sins. Leading up to December 25th, we recall the significant events of Scripture moving toward the birth of Christ through the use of a Jesse Tree (cf. Isaiah 11:1ff.). Additionally, we save money in stockings for missionaries. The children put money in the stocking, pray for the missionary, and on December 25th the money is sent to the missionary with a letter, and replaced with small gifts for the children. Any casual observer of our celebration would conclude, by God’s grace, that our time together is thoroughly centered on Jesus Christ, not Santa Claus, presents, trees, lights, missile-toe, or a yule log. We enjoy the season and seek to make memories, loving our neighbors and reminding all who will hear of the great and glorious first advent of our Lord Jesus Christ.

An Appeal For Balance

I hope to have made a convincing argument to keep the car in the middle of the Christmas road. Excesses are enticing, but rarely helpful when considering the full counsel of God and the freedom afforded us in Christ. If you love Christmas, enjoy it, but please question why you do what you do and whether or not it honors God. Avoid the sins of poor stewardship, gluttony, drunkenness, and materialism while focusing your attention and love toward Christ. Likewise, if you’d prefer to avoid Christmas altogether, you are more than welcome to do so. However, please do not insist that others do the same lest you condemn what God does not. It is neither safe nor right to bind the conscience of another Christian to that which God has not clearly revealed. If there is true, God-glorifying music and preaching focused on the incarnation in your church on the Lord’s Day leading up to December 25th, do not despise it because of your distaste for the holiday – remember, it is biblical truth being proclaimed so long as your pastor is faithful to what the Bible says. “I can’t think of anything more pleasing to Christ than the church celebrating his birthday every year.” [5]

 1. Stromata, I, 21.

 2. Herman Wegman, Christian Worship in East and West (New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1985), 103.

 3. cf. Augustine in his sermon 202 and Leo the Great, PL 54.

 4. Many pagan religions used baptism in their regular rituals believing in the purifying properties of water. In ancient Babylon, water was used to signify the spiritual cleansing of those in the cult of Enke. In Egypt, the book of Going Forth by Day included a discussion on newborn children being baptized to be cleansed from the impurities of their mother’s womb. The Osiris myth included the practice of water baptism in the Nile river, which was believed to have regenerative powers. Many ancient cultures baptized their dead as a ritual purification signifying their death to this world. In the ancient Greek world, immortality was associated with baptism along with purification and initiation into cultic practices. Language used in Ancient Near-East literature suggests that many believed baptism served to transform lives and remove sins. Others believed that it was merely symbolic of spiritual regeneration, representing a new beginning. The point is, all pagan religions recognize some form of baptism, oftentimes using very similar language as the Christian Church. In other words, baptism was not a uniquely Jewish or Christian practice, and in fact it is almost unanimously agreed that baptism’s use in pagan religious ceremony actually pre-dates its Jewish beginnings.

 5. Sproul, “Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?”

3 thoughts on “Christmas and Christianity, Part 3

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