Reformed believers have never liked Christmas. The Regulative Principle states that what God has not commanded in worship, is forbidden; since there is no command to celebrate Christmas, many Reformed folks think Christians shouldn’t either. The more historically minded will cite the Puritans and Presbyterians who denounced Christmas and banned it when they could. Some will even insist that Christmas is really a Popish plot to seduce Protestants back into Romanism.
Furthermore, they often point out that most of our Christmas traditions derive from pagan sources and surely, no right-thinking Christian would want to participate in an essentially, idolatrous celebration, would they?
Yet many other Christians, without a particular theological axe to grind, are also very uncomfortable with celebrating Christmas. Every year I get at least one email or letter from some concerned reader quoting those verses in Jeremiah about the foolish idolater who cuts down a tree and worships it. And I am not above criticism here; a number of years ago I wrote an article for a national magazine explaining how most of our Christmas traditions actually arose out of Roman and Celtic nature worship.
When I first began my campaign to “expose” the “pagan origins” of Christmas back in the seventies, I rather enjoyed debunking this most sentimental of holidays to smug, self-satisfied Christians who never thought about WHY they were doing, what they were doing. The Apostle Paul warned about those who thought they knew something (1 Cor 8:1) because a little knowledge can make a man arrogant. And, to be honest, there was more than a little arrogance on my part over the years when I would sit down with someone and take an unholy delight in telling them that all their holiday traditions were little more than demonic inspired pagan rituals baptized with the thinnest veneer of “Popish” Christianity.
However, as I have had a chance to read more, think more and reconsider whether the dubious pleasures of being a cynical, condescending, self-righteous jerk is worth the cost of God’s eternal judgment (it isn’t): eventually I concluded that I needed to re-think these issues from the bottom up. First, there IS a legitimate theological question on whether or not it is ethically appropriate for Christians to celebrate Christmas, since we have no explicit command to do so. But as I am going to try and demonstrate in this essay, in reality, MOST of the reasons given against Christmas are misinformed at best; and sometimes are mere rationalizations to justify something a bit unsavory in our characters. So if you think you already KNOW all about “Christmas” and its “Pagan past” maybe I can help you to rethink some things.
When people debunk Christmas, usually they begin with calling the date into question. It is often said that while no one is sure exactly when the Lord Jesus was born, it probably wasn’t in December since shepherds did not keep flocks outside during the winter therefore, being no need to watch them. So how did we arrive at December 25 as Christmas? The traditional debunker’s answer is that the early church chose December twenty-fifth because it was part of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a celebration of the birth of the unconquerable Sun god.
At this point, the reasonably astute scholar will cite sociological or psychological factors demonstrating the widespread celebration of the winter solstice in European pagan cultures. For example, in primitive times, winter was always the low point of the year; the harvests were all in, and no further sources of food would be available until the next harvest. If the harvest was not sufficient, starvation was inevitable Furthermore, modern research only now is beginning to understand the serious physiological and psychological effects of the lack of sunlight.
The pagan presupposition of the prime nature of reality meant that the gradual darkening of the days until the winter solstice was an implicit threat that spring might never come. Supposedly, somewhere in the dim, dark past when our ancestors squatted in caves and the height of erudite conversation consisted of “Ug,” they feared that the spring would never return. Often, human sacrifices were made to ensure that the days would again lengthen and spring with its new life would return. And sure enough, once the sacrifices were made, the days starting getting longer again! Thus it is said that many pagan cultures over time, developed the custom to celebrate some sort of midwinter festival; a festival that came down to us as (dire music here) Christmas!
However, let’s think about this for a moment shall we? This approach is based essentially on an evolutionary presupposition about the origins and development of human culture. Winter solstice festivals, especially in Northern Europe are assumed to evolve out of the recurring fear that the world was headed into eternal winter and therefore, when the days began to lengthen, and enough food was on hand to provide assurance of surviving until spring, it became a time of celebration. Rome is assumed to have had this same tradition and being a civilized and depraved society, turned into a rowdy orgy. Gifts were freely exchanged, slaves often exchanged places with their masters for the day, and drunkenness and debauchery were common.
Most Christmas detractors cite the above as reason enough to regard celebrating the nativity as just another example of the Church compromising with paganism. However, new research is coming out that is overturning this “traditional” view of the holiday’s origins. First, some writers seem to jump between what may have been certain Celtic traditions and Roman ones without really thinking about the differences. The Mediterranean winter is considerably different than the ones experienced in Northern Europe and it is unlikely that different environmental factors would have resulted in similar social customs; i.e., there is a big difference in surviving a frozen winter in Northern Germany and a wet, but reasonably warm winter in Rome! Yet, debunkers switch between the two traditions without really seeming to appreciate the differences between the cultures.
Secondly, the assumption that Christians “baptized” a pagan holiday appears to be the work of two scholars who each had an axe to grind. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wanted to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity transforming “pure” apostolic Christianity into Roman Catholicism. Since he was already predisposed to hate Christmas (and Catholocism), he sought arguments why Christians should not celebrate it; attributing its origins to paganism is an effective way to poison the well. The second scholar was a Roman Catholic, Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, who tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.
However, there is now available from good evidence that rather than Christians copying a pagan festival, that the Romans actually copied the celebration of Christmas from Christians! The below quote is quite long but well worth the read.
“But in fact, the date [December 25th] had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him. There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.
As things actually happened, Aurelian, who ruled from 270 until his assassination in 275, was hostile to Christianity and appears to have promoted the establishment of the festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual “rebirth” of the sun. He led an empire that appeared to be collapsing in the face of internal unrest, rebellions in the provinces, economic decay, and repeated attacks from German tribes to the north and the Persian Empire to the east.
In creating the new feast, he intended the beginning of the lengthening of the daylight, and the arresting of the lengthening of darkness, on December 25th to be a symbol of the hoped-for “rebirth,” or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire, resulting from the maintenance of the worship of the gods whose tutelage (the Romans thought) had brought Rome to greatness and world-rule. If it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.”
Thus rather than Christians co-opting some pagan festival, it looks as if the pagans stole one from us! The old evolutionary assumption of primitive, superstitious pagans creating a festival back in the dim dawn of human history in response to misunderstood environmental forces must give way to an advanced culture intentionally creating a religious celebration for purely civil purposes. Therefore the widespread assumption is that Christmas is just a baptized version of “Saturnalia” is not historically maintainable.
The feast of the Nativity seems to have sprung full blown in the fourth century (AD 336); yet a moment’s reflection shows that this assumption is unwarranted. It implies a degree of centrality of power that the Church would not have until many centuries later; the fourth century church was NOT the monolithic institution it became in the late Middle Ages; the “pope” at this point was simply the bishop of Rome. Therefore to assume that a brand new feast could be created out of whole cloth and imposed on the entire church is stretching things a bit.
Furthermore, if a festival appears suddenly with traditions and customs, then it is highly unlikely that it is something new. Most likely, the festival had been celebrated quietly for a long time BEFORE it became publicly acceptable. Remember, the real reason why Christianity was suppressed under the Roman Empire, was for civil, not theological reasons. Rome required an annual sacrifice to the Emperor recognizing him as “Lord;” the ultimate connection between heaven and earth. Christians could not in conscience offer a pinch of incense to a statue of the Emperor and call him “Lord” because Jesus, and Jesus alone was Lord. Thus, Christianity was seen as a revolutionary movement and its members as traitors to the Empire.
Celebrating the birthday of the King or Emperor was more than just a social custom, but an important political reality; it demonstrated one’s allegiance and submission to the civil order. Thus for Christians to openly celebrate the birth of Christ would have been to invite intense persecution BECAUSE the culture of the day would have seen it as a treasonable act. Hence, the nativity was NOT openly celebrated for several hundred years.
Yet, the church fathers in the fourth century, when Christianity became legal, openly acknowledged that Christmas HAD BEEN recognized and celebrated for a very long time-and that December 25 was widely held to be the Lord’s birthday (and thanks to Valerie Jacobson for doing the research on these).
Augustine (354-430) of Hippo, On the Psalms, Psalm 133 “For from Christ comes the dew. No light is set on a high place, save Christ. How is He set on high? First on the cross, afterwards in heaven. Set on high on the cross when He was humbled; humbled, but His humiliation could not but be high. The ministry of man grew less and less, as was signified in John; the ministry of God in our Lord Jesus Christ increased, as was shown at their birth. The former was born, as the tradition of the Church shows, on the 24th of June, when the days begin to shorten. The Lord was born on the 25th of December, when the days begin to lengthen”
Augustine also specifically titled one of his points of Sermon 22, “The Festival Has Nothing to Do with Sun-worship, as Some Maintain.” Thus in the fourth century, Augustine both refuted that Christmas had its origins in Saturnalia while also clearly attributing the Lord’s birth to December 25th as the “tradition of the church.” Why December 25? Well, the argument is too long and complex to go into here except to say that it had to do with trying to reconcile Roman and Jewish calendars; a headache for everyone involved. Furthermore, Christians at the time had certain theological presuppositions that governed how they actually dated certain events; they assumed a relationship between the death of the Lord Jesus and when He would have been born; and by carefully calculating the dates of certain “known” events, they arrived at December 25th as the day of His birth. Whether their calculations were based on a sound basis is really immaterial; the point is that the Lord’s birth was NOT celebrated just because it coincided with a Roman pagan festival. Their calculations might have been wrong, but they were not blindly being subverted by pagan influences or accommodation to cultural norms.
Despite this, many debunkers insist that when the gospel penetrated Northern Europe, many of THEIR winter solstice customs found their way into Christmas celebrations, thus unwittingly introducing paganism into the church. Again, this is not quite so easy to determine as some have assumed. Granted, there was a tradition of a religious observance of Christmas AND a cultural custom of feasting and merry making that had long been a part of European culture, but how much of the actual customs and traditions actually derived from pagan sources just cannot be determined. Did the pagans influence Christians or did Christians influence the pagans? Which came first?
For example, St. Boniface is usually credited with the idea of “Christmas trees” as he cut down Druid groves and secured the decorated trees in Christian homes to prevent pagans from worshipping them. So, does the “custom” of having Christmas trees come from pagan, Druid tree worship, or is it a Christian custom? Or is there even another explanation altogether?
Most people assume that our current Christmas customs come down from pagan history, passed down from generation to generation with their origins being lost in the mist of times (until the debunkers write articles exposing the pagan origins of Christmas). However, what few Christians seem to appreciate is that almost ALL of our modern day Christmas traditions only came into existence in the 19th century when Queen Victoria brought her new German husband, Albert, to England. Albert introduced Christmas trees to English and American homes. Germans had a long history of Christmas trees that was unknown in Britain; in fact Martin Luther is usually credited with putting the first lights on trees to show his children the glory of God he witnessed one night by glimpsing stars through the trees one dark night. Albert brought this custom to England, and suddenly, everyone else wanted Christmas trees to!
If you remember your Dickens, try to reconcile the “traditional” Christmas celebration of today, with what happened in Ebenezer Scrooge’s experience; despite the cultural differences between middle 19th century England and modern America, is there ANYTHING in Dickens that looks like our Christmas? Scrooge is vilified because he is a miser who takes no joy in life, lives in a cold, unheated home, eats gruel and only grudgingly gives his workers the day off. After his “conversion” he buys Bob Cratchet a goose and eats dinner with his nephew (at least I think that is what happened; I’ve seen too many movies to distinguish between the book and film versions). The point is, there is no tree, no presents, no mistletoe, holly, ivy, etc. There is no Santa Claus and the holiday has NOTHING to do with children. The story is in reality about a grumpy, nasty old man learning how to lighten up, become a bit more cheerful and nice to others while enjoying a feast with his family.
However, when Victoria and Albert’s Christmas celebration was popularized in a British magazine, within a decade, a whole new tradition was created, almost out of whole cloth. Christmas became popular and new customs were invented, literally overnight. There is even evidence that some people self-consciously tried to create the appearance that certain symbols were ancient ways to celebrate Christmas, just to give the new holiday some sort of authenticity and credibility. Thus mistletoe, holly, ivy, wreathes, etc., all within just a decade or two, were deliberately chosen as Christmas “symbols” and accepted by the public BECAUSE they gave people the feeling of antiquity. In fact, an argument can be made that it was only later on that some scholars made a connection between these symbols and how some ancient pagans might have used them. But the connection is tenuous at best; it is simply inaccurate to say that somehow these customs originated in ancient pagan religion and survived down into the present time when in reality, they were NOT a common part of Christmas celebrations UNTIL the late 19th century! Thus our modern celebration of Christmas, in reality, has NO direct connection with ancient pagan religion or their symbols because MOST of what defines a “traditional” Christmas was in fact deliberately and self-consciously created by the Victorians!
Even the much maligned Santa Claus (the English “Father Christmas”) who began life as a Celtic version of Bacchus, the god of wine and drunkenness is not quite what you think. In England, going back to antiquity, traveling groups of actors made a bare living by putting on various religious plays. One of the favorite recurring characters that showed up around Christmas time was “Father Christmas” who was universally considered a crude, drunken, lecherous individual. He was a comic relief kind of character, and probably was in fact intended to be a Christian ridicule of ancient pagan religion and excesses. He was never taken seriously, never honored and he certainly was not the sort of person you would want to dangle your children on his lap.
However, though there is some connection between “Father Christmas” (as he is still called in England) and Santa Claus, the two are distinct individuals. Santa is a creation of good old American ingenuity and is an amalgamation of a number of different traditions, “Father Christmas” being only one dim source for the legend. The Dutch who settled New York had their traditions of “Saint Nicolas” which was far more influential in creating the myth than “Father Christmas.” In fact, it is likely that the British inflated the traditional “Father Christmas” as their own version of the American “Santa Claus” (the Brits are very sensitive about American cultural subversion).
But most of what constitutes the “Santa Claus tradition” was actually the result of an invented, fictional character no more intended to be considered “authentic” or as a tie to Christmas past than Superman! The point being is that there was NO history of some jolly old elf who gave toys to good little boys and girls UNTIL what’s his name wrote that stupid poem “The night Before Christmas.” Identifying Santa Claus with “Father Christmas” or “St. Nicholas” is revisionist history pure and simple; an attempt to give some credibility and historicity to what was a created character intended to be no more real than Winnie the Pooh!
And so for all the rest of the “traditional” customs that are so often associated with paganism. So what if a Christmas wreaths looks like the sign of Oromous: the snake that swallows its own tail (hence a pagan symbol of eternity, i.e., a circle has no beginning or end) or that Christmas colors are red and green, both of which had profound magical meaning in ancient cultures. So what if the first “Christmas” trees were originally literally living idols, or that holly and ivy had some association with Druid worship, or that mistletoe, according to ancient Nordic myths, was placed over marriage beds so that the couple might be fruitful and bear many children. None of these “symbols” were in fact highly regarded UNTIL the Victorians decided to invent a whole new holiday and needed things that would make Christmas look “traditional.”
A Christian Response
So if Christmas is so innocent, why were the Puritans and Presbyterians in the 17th century so opposed to its celebration? We must never forget that we are all subject to historical conditioning; that the events we see around us can and do have a profound effect on our perceptions and ideas. For the English Reformers, Christmas was not to be celebrated PRIMARILY because they were trying to purify the worship of God from all the man-made rules and regulations that had grown up under the Roman church. Remember, the prime cause of division between Protestants and Catholics was the issue of authority. Rome insisted that authority was vested in the church and therefore could change doctrine and bind men’s consciences at will. The Reformers insisted that final authority rested in the Word of God.
Therefore in the 16th and 17th century, men literally fought and died over this issue of authority. The Roman church had created all sorts of feasts and festivals demanding that Christians celebrate them or suffer temporal and eternal sanctions. The Reformers insisted that only God, through His Word had proper authority. Christmas, Easter and other feasts, fasts and festivals of the church calendar were infringements of the doctrine of the liberty of conscience. Therefore, they denied that Christmas SHOULD be celebrated because there was no specific Biblical warrant for doing so.
However, there was also another reason for the Puritan hatred of Christmas; Christmas as a feast, was well known for being a time of drunkenness and debauchery, with the church often turning a blind eye. Even in the 19th century, “Christmas Carolers” or the “Here we go a wassailing gang” was not the innocent custom we have today. Gangs of rowdy young men were known to go house to house singing songs and demanding free drinks; sometimes roughing up those who refused to “celebrate” the custom. Thus the Puritans and Presbyterians wanted to stamp out an ungodly practice that was associated with the worst sorts of behavior. It is just folly to look at our modern celebration of Christmas and assume that THIS was what the English Reformers were so concerned about. I doubt if there is an American evangelical alive today whose conscience is bound that if he does not celebrate Christmas, God will be displeased with him and he might lose his salvation. And the last time Christmas carolers came to my door, hardly any of them threatened to burn my house down if I refused to give them free booze!
Thanks to the sentimentality of the Victorians, Christmas was made into a family-oriented holiday, focusing on children. Because they were a religious people (and revivalism had deeply stamped all evangelical Christianity with a strong emotive cast by the end of the century) the Victorians made a clear connection between the birth of Christ and the strong emotional bonds towards their own families. Christmas thus was no longer an adult festival, but a family one.
Frankly, if I had lived in the 17th century I would have had no problem preaching against Christmas because at that time, it WAS a hindrance to sanctification. But that is NOT the case today; history has moved on and so should we. Granted, there is much today to criticize in the way that even Christians celebrate Christmas; for example, going into credit card debt to buy unneeded presents is pretty dumb. Materialism is of course a prevalent sin today and we often equate happiness with possessions. Christmas celebrations COULD become sinful if people spent money they did not have, or become absorbed with giving and receiving presents. Some people might find that they tend to get drunk at Christmas parties, or kiss other men’s wives under mistletoe; but then the problem, quite frankly is NOT Christmas, but of a lack of basic Christian character.
But what about the worship issue; where do we get the right to celebrate Christmas since we have no Biblical command to celebrate the birth of Christ as a religious ordinance? Seriously though, who in this day, outside of the Roman church IS celebrating Christmas as a divine command? How can it be sin, to celebrate an historical event? Can Christians lawfully celebrate Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Reformation Day, or Mothers’ Day? Why or why not?
A few years ago, after publishing a piece on Christmas, I received a letter from a “truly reformed” sort who was anti-Christmas and took exception to my writing that it was OK to recognize the Savior’s birth. He even included with his letter a copy of his church’s bulletin to show me what a “really” Reformed worship service looked like. In the announcement section was a blurb for their annual upcoming “Reformation Day” celebration with a special speaker in the morning, and a costume party for the kids after the evening service. Now just hold on a moment; where in Scripture did this truly Reformed brother receive a command to celebrate the Reformation? What divine mandate makes it acceptable to dress our kids up in costumes and have special games? Did you see what he has done? Celebrating the birth of Christ is somehow bad and evil; but it is OK to celebrate the Reformation! “Mr. Pot, Mr. Kettle on line two” If we can lawfully celebrate ANY event in history, such as the Reformation, or the American War of Independence, then we can also lawfully celebrate the birth of Christ.
No, December 25th is NOT a “religious” holiday in that God has commanded us to do certain things on that day and if we do not do those things, we incur His wrath. A “Christmas” worship service is bound just like any other worship service to be conducted in certain ways; i.e., we sing, pray, read the Word, preach the Word and administer the sacraments. Sure, Christians ought to be careful not to introduce elements into the worship service such as advent candles and plays that replace the preaching of the Word-all things that would be unlawful in ANY worship service. Christmas trees and Santa Claus are just as inappropriate in worship services just as idol worship or temple prostitution (and yes, I am referring to YOU; roller-blading down the sanctuary dressed as Santa Claus-what were you thinking!).
We are NOT free to create new elements of worship just because we think they might be nice or aesthetically pleasing. Worship is our religious duty to give back to God that which He has demanded of us; and if He hasn’t commanded it, we have no right to offer it; sorry, the theology of the Little Drummer boy is saccharine sweet but heretical. There is a recurring problem of sinful men wanting to create worship services that please us rather than God-but really, that’s a whole different issue. But come on people, why is it that I can preach messages about mothers on Mother’s Day, sermons on patriotism on Veteran’s Day, sermons emphasizing the Reformation on Reformation day, but I cannot preach on the incarnation in December! Give me a break!
Furthermore, there are many things we may lawfully do outside of worship that are forbidden IN worship. For example, do you celebrate birthdays? Can you give your wife or children birthday presents, sing a special song to them, have a special cake with candles that can be blown out after they make a wish? If so, what is your Biblical mandate for doing so? What, God has not bound your conscience regarding celebrating birthdays and leaves it up to your personal choice? I agree; God is neither pleased nor displeased with you celebrating someone’s birthday other than whether the general provisions of His law are obeyed. However, if we can celebrate OUR birthdays lawfully, why can we not celebrate the birthday of the Lord Jesus just as long as we do not bind men’s consciences OR break God’s law in worship?
But what about all the parties and gifts and special meals; surely all this consumption is unholy and displeasing to God. However, is it? God gave the ancient Israelites many different feasts and festivals; in fact they had to even set aside a third of a tithe so that every third year they could hold a big party! God certainly does NOT object to feasts and festivals, to enjoying the good things he provides, to remembering the weak and downtrodden, to giving gifts in memorial to His gracious gift to us.
And that is really the unspoken problem that a lot of Christians have with Christmas despite their theological or historical rationalizations. They don’t like feasts and festivals; somehow being happy and joyous seems unspiritual to them. They may well have unconsciously adopted a Greek mindset that sees the body as inherently inferior, therefore making physical pleasures innately sinful. They conclude that there must be something wrong with people laughing and feasting, giving and receiving presents and having a good time! I am dead serious here; over the years when I talk to many, many Christians, it appears that the real reason why they hate Christmas is because they think that it is wrong to have fun. There really are a lot more people like Scrooge, and the Grinch than we think.
The twenty-fifth of December as just another day, and is of no religious significance. There is nothing “holy” about it, and it despite the efforts of the Fathers to calculate the right date, probably was not the day Jesus was actually born. However If the angels of heaven could publicly proclaim His birth, what possible problem can there be for us to likewise commemorate that wondrous event? How can it be wrong to sing those wonderful, postmillennial hymns which celebrate the birth of Christ during the month of December? And since the incarnation is so central to human history, then where is the problem with preaching a special series of sermons exploring the implications of the advent of the Lord Jesus?
And though most of what we think of as “traditional” Christmas customs are less than 100 years old, how is anyone violating God’s law by putting up a Christmas tree or giving kids some special presents on December 25th?” Where does Scripture say that God is offended if wives make some special foods for dinner that day? Where does He forbid us to invite friends, neighbors or members of the church over to laugh and joke and play silly games and rejoice in all the blessings that He gave this past year?
So folks, lighten up, rejoice in your liberty of conscience in Christ. If you choose not to celebrate Christmas, then Lord bless you-take advantage of having the day off and read a good book or something. But grant your brother the same liberty of conscience-and literally, for God’s sake, do not create a law where He Himself has not done so. But as for me and my house, we intend to feast and celebrate and rejoice that the Lord has come into the world with a cheerful heart and a good conscience.