I’ve never roasted chestnuts on an open fire, but have enjoyed tree decorating, gift wrapping, sneaky shopping, holiday tunes in the background, families converging, lights twinkling, carolers caroling, and stocking stuffing. But, with all that activity also come the nativity scenes, religious hymns with added musical instrumentation, and pressure from the denominations to “Keep Christ in Christmas” since “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
So, what’s a Christian to do with Christmas? Some members of the church advocate total abstention from the holiday, whereas others think we should dive right in and observe Christmas religiously as Jesus’ birthday. We think the right answer is between the extremes, where it is often found. As with any other subject, biblical principles should inform our thinking on Christmas.
First, the gospel demands no religiously observed days, other than Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). When Paul wrote the saints in Colossae, brethren were having to deal with outsiders trying to pressure them into observing days and rituals, evidently carried over from a now-defunct Judaism. Paul told the Christians not to let the world pressure them into feeling guilty for not celebrating those things. “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16-17, ESV). No one has the right to religiously bind on others any special day carried over either from pagan practice, or an expired divine religion (i.e. Judaism). And, when attempts are made to do so, Christians should not let themselves be pressured to conform.
Second, when it comes to religious expression, no one has the right to combine authorized with unauthorized practice. When he wrote the churches of Galatia, Paul was fearful the saints were beginning to mix true religion with false. “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:10-11). The Galatians were evidently religiously keeping certain days as though such days were part of Christianity, when, in fact, they were not. This mistake of alloying truth with error was so serious that Paul feared for their souls.
Third, there is leeway for Christians to emphasize certain days above others, as long as (1) nothing sinful is done in the emphasizing, and (2) it is not bound as obligation on others. For example, it would be sinful for a Christian to keep the Jewish Day of Atonement (cf. Lev. 16), since it involves ritual and sacrifice that have been superceded by the law of Christ. On the other hand, a Christian could set aside a specific day (such as January 1) to focus his thoughts on duty to God in the coming year, but it would be wrong to bind the practice on other brethren as a religious obligation. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom. 14:5-6). I could devote an hour each Tuesday evening with my family to worship God. But, I could not insist that others follow suit, since the New Testament does not command the practice. Likewise, no one could condemn me for the practice, since it is an authorized option left up to my individual judgment. If I set aside July 1 as a special time to concentrate on the birth of Christ, that would be fine. As a father, I could even bind it on my immediate family. Just so, an entire congregation could, if it chose, set aside July 1 as a special time to study Jesus’ birth. If there is nothing sinful in pondering Jesus’ birth in July, then there is nothing sinful in pondering it on December 25. Let’s not overreact against Christmas to the extent we end up with the unfortunate concept that Jesus should not be remembered at all on December 25. To be sure, the gospel does not demand anyone celebrate Jesus’ birth on any given day. But, it does not condemn anyone for remembering Jesus’ birth on any given day, either.
As for our national holiday of Christmas, no one knows Jesus was born on December 25. The best that can be said is that December 25 is Christ’s birthday, by tradition. Had God wanted us to know the exact date, he would have told us (there are plenty of places in Scripture where God mentions a specific day of a specific month). The fact no one knows Jesus’ date of birth is evidence God never intended for it to be religiously observed. The first mention of celebrating Jesus’ birth in the extant historic records does not occur until A. D. 336 (three hundred years after the church began). No apostle told Christians to make an annual celebration of Jesus’ birthday.
Even though December 25 cannot be known to be Jesus’ birthday, some may ask, “Isn’t it still good that so many think about Jesus on that day?” Well, it is certainly good to think about Jesus. The problem is, most do not think about him enough. They do not meditate on his message. They do not let the gospel bring them to obedience. In the end, what good does it do a person to keep Jesus’ birth in his thoughts during a particular season, if he is not going to obey the Lord throughout the year? As Jesus remarked, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Jesus commanded many things, including repentance (Luke 13:3), baptism (Mark 16:16), and putting God first in everything (Matt. 6:33). Jesus never demanded we celebrate his birthday. To remember his birth while forgetting his commands does no one any lasting good. If one wants to focus on the Lord’s birth at Christmas, then he ought to follow up by focusing on the Lord—including all his commands—every day. The gospel is not seasonal (2 Tim. 4:2).
It is likely some Christmas traditions have ancient roots in pagan festivals. Ancient Rome held end-of-the-year festivals to honor Saturn and Mithras, the gods of harvest and light, respectively. Ancient northern Europeans held harvest festivals in mid-December, including special foods, giving gifts, decorating homes, and singing. Do these roots taint our modern traditions? Not necessarily. A practice can evolve to such an extent it loses its former meaning altogether. For example, when we mention the days of the week, we give no thought to a god of war named Thor (Thursday), or to an idol called Woden (Wednesday), or to a god of seed sowing named Saturn (Saturday), or to a day for the moon goddess (Monday), or a day devoted to the sun (Sunday). The fact is, those pagan names incorporated into English as our days of the week have lost their former connotations. If everything traceable to anything unwholesome is perpetually tainted, then we need to find other names for our days of the week. Likewise, traditions that may have sprung from pagan festivities centuries or millennia ago, if they are no longer associated with the active pursuit of paganism, can be observed today. Modern Christmas trees, the singing of carols, exchanging gifts, and house decorating have no pagan overtones in twenty-first century American culture. Some traditions are harmless in the present, regardless of their past.
If a Christian wants to abstain from Christmas, that is his prerogative. If I want to observe it, that is mine. Neither of us can condemn the other. Neither of us can bind his practice on the other. There are some things that Christians who celebrate Christmas need to avoid. First, personally, I would have nothing to do with nativity scenes, since I don’t want to leave the impression I think Jesus was really born on Christmas. Second, it is still wrong to sing hymns with musical instruments (since we have no New Testament authority for the practice [cf. Col. 3:17; Rom. 14:23]). Many so-called Christmas songs are actually religious hymns. Since I cannot sing hymns with musical instruments and do it “from faith” (Rom. 14:23; cf. 10:17), I do not like to listen to recordings of other people doing the same. If I’m playing holiday music and someone starts singing a hymn with musical instruments (such as “Joy To the World” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”), I skip that song and find “Silver Bells” or “White Christmas,” etc. Third, I would not let the world make me feel guilty for failing to “Keep Christ in Christmas” in a religious way. The world does not even know what Christianity is, so why should we take its advice on how to remember the Savior? Fourth, I would not get overly exercised about trying to correct everyone I came in contact with about December 25 not being Jesus’ birthday. People outside the Lord’s church have far more serious problems than a misconception about the date of Christ’s birth. If a conversation about that can lead to a Bible discussion that helps a person see and obey the gospel, that is great. But, if the world insists on a mistaken concept of Christmas, then, at least for me and my house, we will try to have a more accurate view of things.
Should Christmas be a religious holiday? No, not if we respect simple New Testament teaching. Yet, there is much about it to enjoy as a national holiday, so long as we strain out any element not in harmony with Bible truth, giving God the glory for every day and every good gift (cf. Jas. 1:17). In Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, having been scared by the third ghost, mended his ways, adjusted his attitude, and took a whole new outlook on life—
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”
– Weylan Deaver