Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?
Over the years, I have encountered a number of Christians who argued that Christians should not celebrate Christmas. They have a variety of reasons, including its pagan background and its secular nature today. But, while there is some truth to these arguments, are they a valid reason to skip the observance of Christmas this year?
The Pagan Background of Christmas
Christmas, at its heart, is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. We remember Emmanuel, God with us, taking on human form to live among us for a while. The announcement of the angels to Mary, Zacharias, and the shepherds. The trip to Bethlehem. The visit of the shepherds and magi. All of this is thoroughly Christian and found in the pages of the Bible. Manger scenes, Christmas carols, and Christmas Eve services all help us to remember and celebrate Emmanuel.
But it is true that some of what we see at Christmas is pagan in origin. The actual date of Jesus birth is unknown. Nothing in the Scripture helps us to identify a specific day of the year. Most scholars I have read suggest that it was not in the winter, but more likely in the spring. This is based on the shepherds having the flocks out in the fields near Bethlehem. But others argue against that as well.
So why do we celebrate his birth on December 25th? This was indeed a date already on the calendar for many peoples. Many of the Romans celebrated the birth of Mithra on December 25th. And the Romans had other celebrations that took place around the winter solstice. Co-opting this date provided Christians with a celebration of their own to replace the pagan celebrations happening at the same time.
Christmas trees also have a pagan origin, as do some of the decorations and other traditions we incorporate into our celebrations. But does that really matter? I don’t believe so. How those things originally came into our celebrations is immaterial. What matters is what we do with them now.
Christmas as a Secular Holiday
Today, at least in the United States, Christmas is essentially two distinct celebrations. One of them is the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The other has grown out of the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth and has become thoroughly secular.
The secular Christmas is, more and more, removing any mention of its Christian origins. It is a time when families and friends gather. A time for retailers to make one last attempt to make a profit before the end of the year. And a time for the giving and receiving of gifts. “Merry Christmas” is replaced with “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” Christmas music is no longer about the one born in Bethlehem and placed in a manger, and public displays of manger scenes are becoming controversial.
The world around us is indeed co-opting Christmas as a celebration of consumerism. But that does not mean that we should abandon our celebration of Jesus’ birth. Gathering together, decorating our homes, and exchanging gifts are not bad things. And they can actually enhance our celebration if we keep in mind what Christmas is all about – remembering the gift of God to us.
Christmas as a Time of Remembrance
There is no indication I am aware of that the earliest church celebrated Christmas. Their focus was really on what he had come for and the life they had been called to live as his disciples. But eventually the church began to celebrate, not just his death and resurrection, but his birth as well. The first recorded celebration of the birth of Jesus in Rome was in 336 A. D., according to History.com. The first recorded time it was called Christmas, or Christ Mass, was in 1038.
The celebration of Christmas has evolved over the centuries with more and more being added to the celebration. Many cultures have contributed to the different traditions that make up the Christmas observance today. And not every home that celebrates Christmas makes use of the same traditions.
But, as a Christian, Christmas is a time to remember God coming to live among us. Starting in the womb of a young virgin, born into humble circumstances, celebrated by some and hated by others, growing to adulthood, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. Dying on a Roman cross as the atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world and raised to life on the third day. Whether Jesus was born on December 25th or not is immaterial. What matters is that he was born and began his life and work among us.
Be Fully Convinced in Your Own Mind
Should you, as a Christian, celebrate Christmas? I believe that is a question that only you can answer. The Scripture is silent on the issue of celebrating Christmas. It does however mention a number of annual celebrations that the Jewish people were supposed to remember. And that, in general, was what they were – times of remembrance of what God had done for them. So, adding other days to that calendar of remembrance would not be out of line.
The bigger question might be how much of the secular nature of this season should you participate in. Is it ok to hang lights on your house? To put up and decorate a Christmas tree? Take the kids to see Santa? Participate in the exchange of gifts or go to Christmas parties? I think you can find the answer to that in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” If you can do those things with a thankful heart and honoring our Lord, then I see no reason not to. But if you cannot, or do not, then you probably should not.
In the end, I believe that Romans 14:5-6a provides the most definitive answer to the question about celebrating Christmas. Paul, while discussing disputable matters, says “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.”
I believe that the celebration of Christmas is something that Paul would identify as a disputable matter. There is no absolute right or wrong to it. If you celebrate Christmas, do it to the Lord. And if you choose not to celebrate Christmas, do that also for the Lord. But, as the rest of this passage in Romans teaches us, we should not look down on, or condemn others who do not practice the observance, or non-observance, of Christmas like we do. It is a personal matter that each person needs to decide for themselves.
For myself, I celebrate Christmas. I have some lights up on the house and some simple decorations inside. I exchange gifts with family members. We usually send out Christmas cards. And we often attend special Christmas services with our church community.
But we try very hard to keep the focus on Jesus, Emmanuel. And not just his birth, but the reason for his incarnation. That baby lying in our manger scenes came to die on a rough Roman cross as the atoning sacrifice for my sin, reconciling me to God, and bringing me into his glory. And that gift of God is what we celebrate most over Christmas.
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Photo credit: Unsplash/Rodion Kutsaev
Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.