The nature of Christmas

Christmas is a hodgepodge of celebrations, personal behaviors and attitudes, rituals of worship, the selling and buying of a lot of gifts, and public and private gatherings that are brought together from ancient pagan festivals, a variety of ethnic traditions, the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth, historic religious traditions and practices and beliefs, and secular business strategies that are all focused around December 25th.

There is a lot of personal and collective controversial opinion regarding whether or not Christmas is a Christian holiday, a pagan festival that should be rejected by Christians and ignored by enlightened citizens of the modern world, a set of nice stories and traditions about love and giving that are worthy of being emphasized once a year, or just a very agressive business strategy to get millions of people to buy and give a lot of goods.

A brief history of Christmas

It was common in ancient cultures for people to gather together in festivals at the time of the Winter Solstice on December 22nd. These gatherings were associated with the worship of sun gods, as with the Stonehenge community and the Romans. In Europe the festival was associated with the slaughter of cattle that could not be fed during the winter months and the subsequent feasts and relaxing social activities. Yule logs were burned in German and Scandinavian countries, and candles were burned in many of these festivals. Fruit was tied to the branches of trees to encourage the return of the warm sun in Spring.

In regard to the influence of the biblical stories and the birth of Jesus in these celebrations, the accounts are not without pagan comparisons. “The Hindu god Krishna, Gautama Buddha and Zoraster were reputedly the product of virgin births. Alexander the Great, Constantine and Nero claimed to have virgin births....In the ancient world virgin birth was a sign of distinction.” 1

The date of December 25th for the birth of Jesus is not biblical. “December 25th was celebrated worldwide for thousands of years before Jesus was born....” 2 “This date was first officially recognized on Roman calendars about 336 A.D. having been decreed by Pope Sylvester in 320 A.D. to coincide with the sun-god feast, Saturnalia.” 3 It is generally recognized that if the visiting shepherds had been out in the fields with their flocks (as reported by Luke in the New Testament book of Luke 2:8), the birth of Jesus would not have been in December.

The biblical story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1- 12) has been interpreted and illustrated in various Christian legends, artistic drawings, songs, and children’s pageants since Medieval times. Three gifts are mentioned, but it is not certain that there were only three Magi. Other details regarding the Magi have been given unsupported interpretations, such as their races and ages.

The features of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, and the giving of gifts also have their particular histories. Saint Nicholas became a bishop at the age of 17. At the age of 30 he served as the bishop of Myra (the city of Demre in Turkey). After being jailed by the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire for ten years, he was released by Constantine. Later he helped him in Constantine’s conflict with Arius that produced the Nicene Creed in support of the unity of the trinity at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.

After this victory, Saint Nicholas became the subject of many legends. One of these including a poor family with three daughters who had no wedding dowries and were faced with the prospect of having to become prostitutes. He threw bags of gold through a bedroom window for two of the daughters and another bag down the chimney, which landed in a stocking that the third daughter had hung by the fireplace to get dry. He was noted for his generosity with children, and became the patron saint of Greece and Russia.

The veneration of his legends was abolished by Luther in many European countries, but not in the Netherlands. In Germany the figure of Saint Nicholas was replaced by “a tall Christ child” (Christkindl) who was known as Kris Kringle in English-speaking countries. 4 “The transformation of Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus happened largely in America -- with inspiration from the Dutch. In the early days of Dutch New York, Sinterklass became know among the English- speaking as ‘Santa Claus’ (or ‘Saint Nick’).” 5 In 1809 Washington Irving created a tale of a “chuppy, pipe-smoking little Saint Nicholas who road a magic horse through the air visiting all houses in New York. The elfish figure was small enough to climb down chimneys with gifts for the good children and switches for the bad ones.” 6 The poem “The Night Before Christmas”, reputedly by Clement Moore in 1823, “replaced the horse with a sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer” and an “elf”who brought children only presents without any switches. 7 Thomas Nast, head cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly magazine, “depicted Santa Claus from 1863 to 1886 as an unaging, jolly, bearded fat man who lived at the North Pole....” 8 He had a red suit trimmed with white fur. “The first department store Santa Clause was at J.W. Parkinson’s store in Philadelphia in 1881.” 9

Pros and cons regarding the celebration of Christmas by Christians

The annual celebration of Jesus’ birth is not taught in the Bible. “Celebration of birthdays -- even including that of Christ -- was rejected as a pagan tradition by most Christians during the first three hundred years of Christianity....” 10 But in order to counteract the heretical Gnostic claim that Jesus had not been a mortal person, Christians began to emphasize the Nativity account of “the Incarnate God as a lovable infant born to a holy mother”. 11 But they “condemned the inclusion of Saturnalia customs such as exchanging gifts and decorating homes with evergreens” and cutting and erecting and decorating trees (which is condemned in Jeremiah 10:3–4). 12

The Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe resulted in the rejection of many teachings and practices of the Roman Church and a return to the authority of the Bible for the practice and teaching of the Christian faith. So these Protestants did not observe the celebration of Christmas, the “mass of Christ”, which had been established by Constantine.

Presbyterians suppressed the celebration of Christmas in Scotland where it was considered a normal working day until 1958. 13 English Puritans abolished the celebration of Christmas in 1647, and they didn’t resume the tradition of caroling until the 1800s. Christmas was not widely celebrated in New England until 1852. 14 In 1836 Alabama became the first State to recognize Christmas. Some “fundamentalists still regard Christmas to be an un-Christian pagan holiday, which they do not celebrate”. 15

In the light of these different traditions, legends, pagan associations, unbiblical additions to the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the Bible, and controversial history among Christians each person has to decide whether or not to celebrate Christmas and what to do during this annual festival in their various locations. Some groups within our society want to remove all references to Jesus, the Christ, from any public statement regarding Christmas. They are satisfied if it is only celebrated as a festive holiday for merry feasting and the sharing of gifts without reference to Christ.

Parents are challenged with the difficult task of trying to explain the relationship between the historic biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus and all of these legends and traditions as their children grow older and begin to ask questions about various details. Christian ministers and priests have to decide how to balance the biblical story with the non-biblical legends and traditions in services of worship and their preaching and teaching ministries. Companies have to decide how they are going to advertise and promote the celebration of Christmas to their customers. The leaders of governments and the representatives of their citizens have to decide how they are going to legislate that all of the people of their nations behave during this world-wide festival.

The basic significance of Christmas

The basic message of Christmas is the announcement that God, the almighty creator of the universe, has come into the world in the human form of a person whose birth name is Jesus. This is the news of God’s incarnation in human flesh. The apostle John has given the appropriate meaning to this historic event in his statement that, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only (referring to Jesus Christ), who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18 ).

In his account of Jesus’ life and ministry, John does not mention the details of Jesus’ birth that are cited by the other writers Matthew and Luke, not even the name of his mother, Mary, nor the presence of any shepherds or Magi who brought him gifts. In this account (John 1:1–18), John refers to Jesus Christ as “the Word” (verses 1 and 14) This term (“Logos” in the Greek language) was understood by the Jews to refer to “an agent of creation” and by the Romans in their knowledge of Greek philosophy as “the principle of reason that governed the world”. 16

In regard to gifts, the gifts of the Magi that were given to Jesus and Mary and Joseph in their act of worship, or the gifts that are shared between family and friends in this Christmas festival, it should be recognized and emphasized in our celebrations that the primary and most important gift is God’s gift of “his one and only Son” (John 3:16) whom he sent into the world “to save the world” (John 3:17).

Without the message of God’s incarnation in human flesh and the gift of his Son, Jesus, for the salvation of the world, the celebration of Christmas by Christians or anyone else is just another secular festival among many on one’s calendar of annual holidays. There can be no “peace” on earth or real “joy” in a human’s heart apart from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. The gifts of these blessings through the birth of Jesus Christ is worth celebrating and the sharing of God’s love to the world is worth repeating over and over again in gifts and contributions, but we Christians need to make sure that our Christmas celebrations are for the glory of God and nothing else; certainly not for the worship of any sun god, saint, or material gift.

I pray that this brief statement regarding Christmas has been helpful as you observe this festival. You may check these references for further information regarding this annual holiday: The History of Christmas (an article) and An American Christmas (the message from becauseHeLives "Origin of Christmas" in a Christian forum).

1. The History of Christmas by Ben Best
2. An American Christmas> bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=8;t=000651;p=1
3. ibid
4. Ben Best, op. cit.
5. ibid
6. ibid
7. ibid
8. ibid
9. ibid
10. ibid
11. ibid
12. ibid
13. ibid
14. ibid
15. ibid
16. Life Application Bible, New International Version (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, Wheaton, IL 60189 and Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991) note on John 1:1ff, p. 1869.

The above Scripture quotations are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978 1984 by International Bible Society, Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.