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Celebrating Christmas?

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25 December 2016; last updated 30 December 2019

Christmas

Every Christmas, CMI publishes a Christmas Day article, and offers Christmas specials. From time to time, some people object to the use of the word ‘Christmas’ and claim that by using it we are not following Scripture. However, we most certainly do base our thinking in every area on Scripture, and are concerned that brothers and sisters in Christ might think otherwise.

One of the texts we base this on is:

from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15–­17; compare The authority of Scripture and Are biblical creationists guilty of circular reasoning?)

This implies that Scripture contains all the doctrine and moral law we need. Therefore all things necessary for our faith and life are either expressly set down in Scripture or may be logically deduced from Scripture. So if something is sinful, it will be forbidden by Scripture, either expressly or by logical deduction. A corollary: if something is not forbidden by Scripture, then it is permissible.

We think Christmas is an example. Scripture neither commands nor forbids it. Therefore Christians have the freedom in Christ to celebrate or ignore it, as long as the means of celebration are not unscriptural. The key passages about Christian liberty are:

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. (Romans 14:5–6)
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 (Colossians 2:16)

Pagan celebrations?

But some critics claim that Christmas violates Scripture because it derives from paganism. First, even if this were true, this commits the genetic fallacy, the error of trying to disprove a belief by tracing it to its source. For example, Kekulé thought up the (correct) ring structure of the benzene molecule after a dream of a snake grasping its tail. However, chem­ists don’t need to worry about correct snake biology or dream psychology to analyze benzene! Similarly, the rightness or wrongness of these celebrations is independent of the truth or falsity of their alleged parallels. Most importantly, the truth of Christianity depends on the historical facts of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, not on Christmas traditions.

Furthermore, the pagan derivation claim is not supportable by history. Many alleged pagan parallels are either nothing of the kind, or actually post-date Christianity, so were borrowed from Christianity. See Was Christianity plagiarized from pagan myths? Refuting the copycat thesis and Copycat copout: Jesus was not made up from pagan myths. But let’s take a few common claims.

Inconsistency of critics

There are far more familiar things that really are derived from paganism, but about which few people worry. It is illogical to avoid a Christian-based holiday that brings people together in worship (a good thing) because of some perceived tie to paganism, while using everyday products and ignoring their obvious pagan heritage. You might have your muffler replaced by Midas, wear shoes designed by Nike, chew Trident gum, or watch a movie by Orion Pictures. Several days of our week and months of our year are named after Norse gods, except for Saturday that comes from the Roman god Saturn, and Sunday and Monday after the sun and moon. Several months are named after Roman gods. The eight planets and many of their moons are named after Roman deities. Mazda cars are named for a Zoroastrian deity, and many people drive a Saturn, Mercury, Ares, Aurora … etc. Even the Latin alphabet with which the critics write to us was invented by pagans.

But even in God’s Word, some of the heroes in the Bible had paganized names. E.g. Mordecai, the real hero of the book of Esther, has a name related to the Babylonian high god Marduk. Consider also Daniel’s three friends who were prepared to be thrown in the furnace rather than worship any but the true God. They were originally named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but are better known by the names the Babylonians gave them: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 1:7). Abednego means ‘servant of Nebo’, the pagan god. And the New Testament was written in the Greek alphabet, invented by pagans.

December 25th

There is no evidence of a 25 December date for Mithraic mysteries, as liberal theologians once asserted. There was a 25 December date for Sol Invictus, or ‘Unconquered Sun’, but this did not specifically pertain to Mithraism, which had no unique public festivals. Furthermore, this celebration post-dates Christian celebrations of the same date. Observation of this date by Christians goes back at least as far as AD 202 by Hippolytus of Rome in his Commentary on Daniel:

For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the kalends of January [December 25th], the 4th day of the week [Wednesday], while Augustus was in his forty-second year, [2 or 3 BC] but from Adam five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty third year, 8 days before the kalends of April [March 25th], the Day of Preparation, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar [29 or 30 AD], while Rufus and Roubellion and Gaius Caesar, for the 4th time, and Gaius Cestius Saturninus were consuls.

But it wasn’t until AD 274, 72 years later, that Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed a celebration of Sol Invictus, and no clear evidence that this celebration on this date actually took place until AD 354. One article, ‘Calculating Christmas’, concludes:

Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the ‘Sun of Salvation’ or the ‘Sun of Justice.’1

So clearly the pagan celebration on that date is the counterfeit, not the original.

In that case, what is the real source of the 25 December date? It is an extra-biblical Jewish tradition, called the ‘integral year’. This means that a prophet’s lifespan would be an exact number of years. Originally, the death day was said to be an anniversary of his birthday, and the Talmud applies this to Moses and Abraham. But the early Christians modified this he would die on an anniversary of his conception, the real beginning of life. Jesus’ death was calculated as 25 March by the Western church, and 6 April by the Eastern Church. Therefore this same date was celebrated as the date Christ was conceived, and called Annunciation Day. Nine months later is 25 December or 6 January, and the latter date is still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox church (and many branches of the Western church celebrate ‘Epiphany’ on the same day, now to commemorate the arrival of the unknown number of magi and their three gifts).

For example, the leading Church Father Augustine explicitly taught this integral year concept, and implied that it was old news even in his time:

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.2

Objections to 25 December

It’s common to object to 25 December with claims that Jesus could not have been born on this date. CMI doesn’t say that Christ was definitely born on this day (we doubt that it’s possible to know for sure), or what we should or should not do then. But we do say that many common arguments against this date are fallacious—see Christmas–Why? and the answers to critics below the article.

E.g. one claim is that late December is too cold for shepherds to be out in their fields. However, even if shepherds in Canada or Montana don’t watch their fields by night in December, it doesn’t follow that they don’t in Bethlehem. Actually, they do. Indeed, December is a very good time, because the grass is lush, because December is one of the three rainiest months in the year in that land, after the dry summer. And it is not that cold; it’s about the same temperature as northern Florida. A ‘white Christmas’ in Bethlehem is rare; most Decembers are never below freezing.3 For comparison, Jacob, living much further north in Paddan-Aran, tended his uncle Laban’s flocks outdoors even during freezing nights (Genesis 31:38–40; Hebrew qerach קֶ֫רַח = ice, frost). So shepherds in the Ancient Near East were hardier than modern critics think.

Others claim that Jesus must have been born during the Feast of Tabernacles, in September. However, it is unlikely that Jesus was born on a Jewish feast day. Matthew’s Gospel in particular often linked Jesus’s sayings and actions as a fulfilment of an Old Testament saying, and mentions any time He did something on a Jewish Holy Day. So if He had been born on a feast, at least one of the Gospel writers would have mentioned it. This is not an argument from silence, which in formal logical terms is a type of invalid argument called denying the antecedent (see the explanation in Conditional Statements and Implications). But the above is an argument from conspicuous absence, which is a type of valid argument called denying the consequent.

Santa Claus

This name is a corruption of ‘Saint Nicholas’, via the Dutch Sinter Klaas. He was no pagan, but a real historical Christian figure, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in the 4th century (270–343). He was known for his generosity. Hanging stockings comes from an instance where he gave some three daughters of a poor man money for their dowries by putting it in their stockings, which were drying by the fireplace.

Saint Nick was equally famous in his day for defending the deity of Christ very strongly. Indeed, one legend says that at the Council of Nicea, he slapped the heresiarch Arius for his blasphemous denial of that vital truth.

Of course, the mythology that has grown around this figure distracts from any remembrance of the Saviour’s birth. But this is hardly the fault of the original Nicholas.

Gift-giving

This originated from both the gifts of the Magi (albeit about a year later than Jesus’ birth) and from Saint Nicholas. And if people are buying gifts for others at this time (again, neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture), then it seems fair to promote Creation magazine or, say, the new book The Genesis Account, as a worthwhile gift. Such a Bible-centred gift will do much more good than much of the junk that people often receive.

Again, just because Christmas can be a time of associated rampant commercialization, it doesn’t mean that gift giving itself is a bad thing. Rather, in itself, this is morally neutral, and should not be condemned because some can abuse it. We don’t condemn all food because some people misuse it, for example, or refuse to drive cars because some use them to commit crimes.

Christmas tree

This is also a modern innovation that has no origin in either Christianity or Paganism. There is no evidence of this earlier than the 15th century, in what is now Estonia. Then in the next century, Christians in what is now northern Germany performed mystery plays with an evergreen ‘Paradise tree’ hung with apples, and one apple was plucked. 24 December was a traditional ‘name day’ for Adam and Eve. We can appreciate this link of Christmas to the Fall, which is the whole reason Jesus, “the last Adam”, came to die, according to the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 15).

The Christmas tree was introduced to England by Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert. In fact, many of what we think of as ancient Christmas traditions began in Victorian England only a little over a century ago!4

Some appeal to Jeremiah 10:2–4 to prohibit Christmas trees. But this was written 500 years before Christ was even born—and about 2,000 years before the first Christmas trees—and is referring to a tree chopped down for the wood to make an idol. This has nothing to do with modern Christmas trees, which are not worshipped.

wikimedia.orgJesus-Christ-Hagia-Sophia

Icon of Jesus Christ with nomina sacra, from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Xmas

It’s certainly likely that many christophobes write ‘Xmas’ to take Christ out of it. But they are unaware that this expression was originally a Christian abbreviation, because the ‘X’ was the Greek letter chi, the first letter of Χριστός (Christos). Some of the earliest NT manuscripts also abbreviate sacred names (Latin term nomina sacra, singular nomen sacrum), and they were written in all capitals (i.e. uncial manuscripts). E.g. they would abbreviate the nominative ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ to ΧΣ, which was often written as XC, and the genitive ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ as ΧΥ, and the abbreviations would have a line over them, which I can’t do here. In this icon (right) from the great Hagia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’) cathedral in Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul in Turkey, there are the nomina sacra IC XC with wavy lines over them, standing for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, Jesus Christ.

Christ Mass?

Some critics object to the derivation of the word, making a connection to the Roman Catholic Mass. In reality, the word ‘mass’ in both cases derives from the Latin missa, which originally meant ‘dismissal’, but in the Christian world, took on the meaning of ‘sent out on a mission’. So the Christ Mass is the celebration of God the Father sending God the Son on a specific mission to man, in becoming one of us.

Also, other languages call the same celebration by terms having nothing to do with missa. For example, the modern Greek word is Χριστούγεννα (Christouyenna), literally ‘Christ’s birth’, from γεννάω (gennaō), to give birth. Another example is the Mandarin Chinese word 圣诞 (Shèngdàn), literally Holy birth.

Even in largely Catholic Italy, the word for Christmas is Natale, with the primary meaning of ‘birth’, and the fact that it’s Christ’s birth is understood. This in turn comes from Latin itself, where Dies natalis Christi literally means ‘Christ’s birth(day)’.

The Hanukkah precedent

Another point to add comes from the feast of Hanukkah. This celebrates the ‘re-booting’ of the Second Temple after the Maccabees expelled the Seleucid defiler Antiochus IV, who had proclaimed himself ‘Epiphanes’ meaning ([God] manifest). This included lighting the Menorah, the multi-part candle, and the story goes that one day's supply of oil lasted all eight days.

In John 10:22–23, we see Yeshua/Jesus walking on the Temple Mount during Hanukkah, using this Feast of Lights to explain how He is the Light of the World, and God (the Second Person of the Trinity) come in the flesh! Thus He saw nothing wrong with celebrating a ‘man-made’ festival to proclaim the good news of His coming.

Many Messianic Jews even make the celebration into an illustration of the Messiah. On Hanukkah, Jews light the middle candle, the Shamash, meaning ‘Servant’, then use this to light the other candles. This represents our Lord Jesus, the Suffering Servant prophesied in Isaiah 53, who is the Light of the World (John 8:12). The other candles represent believers in Him, both Jew and Gentile, who should show His light, not hide it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15).

Conclusion

Taking the analogy of Jesus’ celebrating Hanukkah, I personally see nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas. Under the Law of Christ, we are all free to choose whether to celebrate Christmas or refrain from this celebration. The claim that Christmas is pagan fails on objective historical and logical grounds, and the 25 December date originally came from a Jewish tradition and pagans plagiarized this date. Finally, God is the creator of the day-night cycle, so He owns all days; no day is owned by Satan or pagans.

References and notes

  1. Tighe, W., “Calculating Christmas” touchstonemag.com, accessed 20 January 2012. Return to text.
  2. Augustine, On the Trinity 4:5, Tr. Arthur West Haddan, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff, 1887; newadvent.org. Return to text.
  3. See Bethlehem Climate History, myweather2.com, accessed 11 November 2016. Return to text.
  4. Abshire, B., Essays on celebrating Christmas: Christmas as the creation of the Victorians, christian-civilization.org, accessed 20 January 2012. Available via web.archive.orgReturn to text.

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