Christmas can be a controversial subject in Christian circles.
In our modern climate of culture wars, the battle of Christmas creeps up every year. You know what I’m talking about: the debate between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” as the appropriate seasonal greeting. Secular extremists claim that being wished “Merry Christmas” forces Christianity upon them, and Christian extremists claim to be persecuted by political correctness if any other greeting is used. As I have written before, I refuse to take offense about such things, so this particular controversy is not a great concern to me. I sympathize with the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd, but it is not a banner I regularly wave. I cheerfully wish “Merry Christmas” to people without a second thought or any ulterior motive.
If you are not part of the fellowship of Churches of Christ, you might be unaware that some Christians actually have the opposite concern: they want to keep Christ out of Christmas. At first glance this may seem unbelievable, but traditionally, members of Churches of Christ have been uncomfortable with celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday (i.e. the birth of Jesus). To my knowledge, there are three reasons for this.
First, historically, Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25. The Bible does not tell us exactly when Jesus was born. He was born at a time when shepherds were out in the fields with their sheep, and although it is possible that sheep would be grazing in the outskirts of Bethlehem in the middle of winter, it is not prime sheep-grazing time. Since we don’t know when Jesus was born but do know that he most likely was not born on December 25, some people are uncomfortable with seeming to support a factual error. I understand that concern, but I think it is possible to observe the holiday while also maintaining historical accuracy.
Second, many people claim that Christmas has pagan origins. This is a common and generally-accepted claim, but it is also historically inaccurate. As far as I can tell, there may be specific aspects of the ways that people celebrate Christmas that have some pagan connections, but the origins of the holiday itself are not pagan. And even if they were, the reality is that there are a lot of things in our culture that have roots in paganism that don’t bother us today. For example, the names of many of our months and days have roots in paganism, but I don’t ever remember anyone rising up in arms about how terrible it is that we celebrate the god Thor every Thursday. Regardless, the historical reality that Christmas was not co-opted from pagan celebrations should render this argument irrelevant.
Third, and perhaps most important, is the argument that the Scriptures do not command us to celebrate the birth of Jesus and thus, do not authorize us to do so. We do celebrate the death and the resurrection of Jesus through the Lord’s Supper and are commanded to do so, but we have no similar command to observe Jesus’ birth, so the argument goes.
Here’s the problem with that third argument: Jesus’ own behavior illustrates that it is permissible to observe religious holidays that are not prescribed in Scripture.
In the Gospel of John, one of the recurring themes that John uses to describe the life of Jesus is Jewish religious feasts. Frequently he will describe how Jesus went up to Jerusalem to attend one feast or another, and when He does, exciting things tend to happen:
- In John 2.13ff., Jesus goes to Jerusalem to attend the Passover and cleanses the temple.
- In John 5, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to observe an (unnamed) “feast of the Jews” and heals an invalid on the Sabbath.
- In John 6, while the Passover is at hand, Jesus feeds the 5,000.
- In John 7, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to for the Feast of Tabernacles and begins teaching in the temple, leading to sharp arguments about who He is and where He comes from.
In this list of feasts that Jesus attends, we should also include John 10.22-23:
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon.”
Again, His appearance at a Jewish religious feast leads to excitement: Jesus tells the Jews who gather around Him, “I and the Father are one,” and as a result, they want to stone Him to death. But what I really want to emphasize is the part about the “Feast of Dedication”. You won’t find that feast described and commanded in the Old Testament along with Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost.
The Feast of Dedication came about many years later, and we know it better by a different name: Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. It was instituted during the Maccabean revolt in 164/163 B.C. and celebrates the rededication of the temple after it had been defiled under Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire.
So John 10 tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem, walking in the temple, during a holiday celebrating the rededication of the temple. In other words, Jesus was celebrating a religious holiday that was not commanded by the Hebrew Bible. Based on His example, I think we are on safe grounds to do the same thing today.
I am certainly not arguing that the birth of Jesus is more important than His death or resurrection, but it is significant: it was God putting on flesh and becoming a human, and fully identifying with the trials and temptation of the human experience. It was the beginning stage of the prerequisite process that enabled Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. It was God establishing a beachhead in the realm of Satan and beginning the frontal assault that would ultimately result in the defeat of sin and death.
And thus, it is worth celebrating. The Bible doesn’t command that we do so, but the example of Jesus certainly shows that the Bible doesn’t forbid us from doing so, either. Besides, as Christians, we should celebrate Jesus—His birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension—each and every day of the year, Christmas included.
Ultimately, I think this whole discussion falls squarely into Romans 14.1-12, where Paul talks about how Christian brothers and sisters should avoid passing judgment on one another over disputable matters.
At the end of the day, if a Christian brother or sister wants to celebrate the birth of Jesus and what it represents as a part of Christmas, you are not to pass judgment that person. And if a Christian brother or sister decides that it is inappropriate to celebrate Christmas in a religious fashion, you are not to pass judgment on that person either. In matters such as these, Paul says that we are to respect the beliefs of one another, rather than forcing our beliefs on others in a way that causes them to stumble.