Revisiting the story of Christmas

santa and reindeers, is christmas christianLast year, a cousin of mine, who is a Hindu, wrote to me just about this time, mentioning the coincidence of his date of travel with Christmas. He assumed the day was important to me and I politely shocked him otherwise. For a minute, he was confused. “You are a Christian right? Isn’t 25th of December Christmas? Have you nothing to say on that note”? He’s right. I’m Christian. 25th of December is celebrated as Christmas. And I do have something to say on why we, as a family, don’t celebrate Christmas.

Christmas has been an issue of debate for many centuries now. Throughout the history of the Church, many saints have been divided over whether or not Christmas is to be observed by the church. Today this argument is more or less lopsided with a majority of Christians celebrating the day, either extravagantly or in the quietness of their homes and churches.  I have many well-meaning friends who celebrate the  true “reason for the season” and strive to share the good news on this occasion. A week ago a dear friend of ours came home with his family and sang with us a few Christmas carols and blessed us with the message of the gospel of hope. You may be one of those who looks to Christ and recollects his blessed incarnation during this time of the year. I deeply treasure the faith and fellowship of such brothers in Christ. However, the Bible also encourages us to have a bereans, berean spirit, bereans searching scriptureBerean spirit (Acts 17:11) , to leave childish ways of understanding behind us (1Cor13:11), to move on from the elementary doctrines of Christ and further into maturity (Heb6:1) through our training in the word of righteousness. We must test all things, and hold on to that which is good and true (1Thess 5:21). The doctrine of religious holy days, specially Christmas, needs to undergo the acid test of time and Scripture, and this “Christmas”, that’s what I intend to do. I wish to do this in two parts, for the sake of readability and for establishing my case clearly. Part 1 will deal with the Historical test and Part 2 will deal with the Scriptural test and close with a concluding note.

Historical test

To discern the fruits of any institution or movement, we need to study its roots: it’s history. When we look back on history, we find that till about the 4th century A.D. Christmas was neither observed nor celebrated by the Church¹. This is a reasonable point for consideration – it was neither practiced by the early church nor recorded as a practice in the Scriptures. In fact, historians point out that although there is no record of the date of Christ’s birth, December would have been an unlikely time of his birth². The adoption of this festivity and the date was mainly driven by the pressure of pagan ritualism in Babylon, Rome, Scandinavia, Egypt  and some neighboring nations where the winter solstice was religiously observed and the sun god worshiped in its various manifestations².

sun worship, sun god worship

Rome celebrated Saturnalia for a week in December and according to Macrobius, a Latin writer, Saturnalia was a “festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth”³During this time, Romans decorated a fir tree with red berries, as was even the custom in Scandinavia, Babylon ( the evergreen tree representing Nimrod coming back to life ), German and celtic tribes (Yule log ), etc4. These ‘sacred’ trees were an important part of the pagan ritualism and worship during this season. Even as late as A.D. 245, Origen, a noted early church father, repudiated the idea of keeping the birthday of Christ, writing that “only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod)” celebrated their birthdays5. The ornaments of the Christmas tree, mistletoe, yule log, Santa Claus (though he came in much later), gift giving were borrowed ideas from the neighboring non-Christian culture of the day.

Now, you may ask: Is it wrong to use this occasion to spread the love of Christ and His Gospel? Is it wrong to look to these symbols as a reminder of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection? ( as do some Christians with the Christmas tree ). Let me help you see the answer to such questions in the light of something in our own day and age and context, here in India. Let’s suppose that starting tomorrow, you are given the freedom to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, as Christmas, the festival of the True Light alongside Diwali, would you celebrate it? Think about it for a moment. Would not your celebration be mingled with the pagan idolatry surrounding you and your witness be confused? Would you be able to light lamps reflecting Christ, and burst crackers in celebration of his birth? Would you use that occasion to propagate the gospel and no other? If someone says, “Yes, Amen” to this, then brethren, we need to seriously reconsider the effectiveness of our life and witness. Paul’s plea to the Corinthians to treat not the Lord’s table and the Devil’s table as one and the same, would be a stern warning for us, even as the Corinthians faced severe temptations of the pagan ritualism of their days (1Cor 10:14-22 ). Such pagan ritualism mixed with the true faith almost always tends to idolatry in due time. History shows us that although the feast date was sanctioned under Constantine’s rule in A.D. 3796 and some church fathers commemorated it as the Feast of Nativity, perhaps with good intentions of celebrating Christ’s advent, by the Middle-Ages, this festival had degenerated into a scrofulous drunken celebration2. Our Puritan fathers and Reformers were those that abolished the practice and returned to the simplicity of celebrating the God-ordained Lord’s day, and that alone2,7.  Brethren, ask yourself: has not a little leaven leavened the whole dough?

So then, you may ask: Today, there is no other festival celebrated with Christmas, as it was two millenia ago, and today it’s distinctly Christian. Should I not then observe it? God does not prohibit me from keeping a day according to Romans 14:5,6, then why do you bind my conscience this way?  Now that’s a good question. Let me take up this question under the Scriptural test in my next post.

( to be continued in Part 2 )

Footnotes
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas
2. http://www.history.com/topics/christmas
3. MacrobiusSaturnalia 1.1.8–9; also from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia#cite_note-4
4. Encyclopedia Britannica (1961 ed.), 6:623
5. Origen, “Levit., Hom. VIII”; Migne P.G., XII, 495.
Natal Day“, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911
6. “Christmas”The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913.
7. “Why did Cromwell abolish Christmas?”Oliver Cromwell. The Cromwell Association. 2001. Retrieved 2006-12-28.

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