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Section 8B ... Controversial Issues/ Christmas

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Christmas
 

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

by Carol Brooks

The pagans have taken back a festival that originally belonged to them (very effectively taking Christ out of the picture) so should Christians do?

The Christmas Story
Christmas (derived from  late Old English Cristes mæsse (Christ + mass) is meant to be a Christian festival observed annually in memory of and honoring the birth of Christ as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Note: Jesus probably wasn't even born in AD 1 - a date based on a miscalculation made in Ad 533). Exact date aside, the Gospels tell us an angel announcing Jesus' birth to shepherds watching their sheep, told them that on that day a Savior, who was Christ the Lord, had been born n the city of David.  (Luke 2:11)

There is an interesting article on the Year of Jesus' birth HERE

In a separate event, mentioned only by Matthew, an apparently unusual star in the sky started the Magi (often portrayed as 'kings' or wise men but who were probably astronomers) on a journey until they came to the stable where Jesus was born. And of course, they came bearing valuable gifts as was the custom when approaching royalty, (Matthew 2:1-12). See The Star of Bethlehem

However, the word 'Christmas' that conjures up warm feelings surrounding family, cherished traditions, cheerful decorations, special music, gift-giving, good food and tender sentiments of "peace and goodwill toward all" has evolved into a worldwide secular celebration.  "Merry Christmas" has been replaced by the generalized and 'inoffensive' "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" and in the market place a fierce battle for your money takes place during the several weeks leading up to Christmas day a fact that is hardly surprising considering that over 60% of annual retail sales occur during the Christmas season. The much touted 'Christmas spirit' seems to have more do with selling merchandise than celebrating the birth of the Savior. As Grant Stewart writes, Christmas has become

    a commercialized farce, along with other similar secular celebrations such as Mothers Day and Valentines Day. The original meaning and "reason for the season" has been replaced with lavish parties, extreme festivities, entertainment and expensive gifts. While there is nothing wrong with any of those things, they certainly do not represent Christmas. No longer is it "the thought that counts", rather the value of the gift which apparently demonstrates the level of affection one has for the recipient. Rarely is the birth of our Saviour brought into the picture on Christmas... [01]


The Controversial Questions
The secular adoption of a day meant to honor the birth of Christ is only one of several objections raised against Christmas celebrations. The Jehovah's Witnesses and the World Wide Church of God officially reject Christmas and are not alone in their condemnation. Many evangelical Christians also believe that Christmas is nothing but a pagan celebration hiding under a veneer of Christianity. Other Christians observe the day by honoring Christ and giving thanks to Him for the incarnation but eject Christmas trees, gift giving, Santa Claus etc.  

The controversy most often swirls around a few facts, including the following,

    a.) Pagan Origins: Many, if not most, of our Christmas traditions, find their genesis in pre-Christian and pagan traditions. (some even believe that the Bible forbids Christmas trees - Jeremiah 10:1-16 cited as Biblical disapproval )

    b.) Jesus Wasn't Born in December: the Bible gives no indication as to what date Jesus was born on.  December 25 was the date on which a pagan festival was celebrated.

    c.) Christmas is not found in the Bible and birthdays are portrayed in a less that favorable light

And so, on and so forth


Pagan Origins (Jesus Wasn't Born on December 25th)

The December 25th date is thought to have been influenced by the pagan festival Saturnalia, the most popular of Roman festivals dedicated to the Roman god Saturn and originally celebrated on December 17, but later extended to three then seven days. The focal point of the Saturnalia festival was the temple dedicated to Saturn in the north-west corner of the Forum of Rome.

     Depictions of the god in surviving art have him wearing a veil and brandishing either a sickle or a pruning knife suggesting a close relation with agriculture and especially seed-growing or seed-corn. With links to indigenous Italian deities and perhaps, too, a version of the Greek god Kronos, he was regarded as a primordial deity who had taught humanity important agricultural skills. He was thought to have ruled when the world enjoyed a Golden Age of prosperity and happiness, hence the general frivolity of his festival. [02]

     It was the merriest festival of the year: all work and business were suspended; slaves were given temporary freedom to say and do what they liked; certain moral restrictions were eased; and presents were freely exchanged.  [03]

Saying that certain moral restrictions were eased may very well be an understatement. Some sources say the festivities were characterized by an orgy of overindulgence of alcohol and promiscuity, slaves had the freedoms enjoyed by ordinary citizens, and that people went singing naked in the streets (often taken to be a precursor of modern caroling).

According to influential Puritan clergyman Increase Mather, president of Harvard College from 1681 to 1701

    "Hospinian (Swiss Reformed theologian) speaketh judiciously, when he saith, that he cloth not believe that they who first of all observed the Feast of Christ’s Nativity in the latter end of December, did it as thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian." [04]

Jesus Wasn't Born on December 25th
Against this backdrop many Christians refrain from celebrating Christmas largely celebrated by what they perceive as non Christian customs such as gift-giving, feasting and decorating.

In any case, it is very, very unlikely that Jesus was born in winter. Luke described the night the angels appeared to the shepherds,

    In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. (Luke 2:8-9 NASB)

The English words 'staying out' was translated from the Greek agrauleo - to camp out or to live in the fields. This could never have never happened in December. Not only was it extremely cold, but December was well known for rain as mentioned in the Song of Solomon and the book of Ezra.

    'For behold, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone.  (Song of Solomon 2:11 NASB)

    So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain. (Ezra 10:9 NASB)

The 9th month, Kislev, occurs in late November to mid-December.

However, one has to ask whether this fact invalidates Christmas? It nice but not necessary that a birthday be celebrated on the actual date. The intent or purpose can be more important than the actual date. For example,

    Washington's Birthday is a federal holiday in the United States celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States, who was born on February 22, 1732.

    The Queen celebrates two birthdays each year: her actual birthday on the 21st of April and her official birthday on (usually) the second Saturday in June.


Christmas Isn't Found in The Bible
The book of Romans says,

    The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:3-6 NASB)

The passage above clearly states that we can regard one day above another, and one Christian is not to judge another's observance of special days - as "to His own master he stands or fall.”. In other words, if we so choose we can look on a certain day as a 'holy day', but we are not to judge what others choose to do.

If one insists that we can't celebrate on any special days unto the Lord because it's not commanded, then this passage is absolutely meaningless. Besides which, the idea that we cannot commemorate or celebrate a Biblical event without clear Biblical command or precedent is absurd.


Birthdays
Based on the fact that Scripture only records two birthday celebrations both of which are presented in an unfavorable light, the Witnesses believe such celebrations displease God. ...and since everything in the Bible is there for a reason. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) they shun birthday festivities. [05]

    Thus it came about on the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. He restored the chief cupbearer to his office, and he put the cup into Pharaoh's hand; but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had interpreted to them. (Genesis 40:20-22 NASB)

    But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod, so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Having been prompted by her mother, she *said, "Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist." Although he was grieved, the king commanded it to be given because of his oaths, and because of his dinner guests. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison. (Matthew 14:6-10 NASB)

However, there are two points to be made here

    1.) Neither crime portrayed birthdays themselves in a bad light .The Bible isn't mentioning birthdays in general but was pointing out the despicable things both these men did - Pharaoh killed his chief baker, and Herod killed John the Baptist. Herod did so because he promised the daughter of Herodias (who danced for him on his birthday) to give her whatever she asked which turned out to be John the Baptist's head. What is also not mentioned is that Herod was not at all happy about this. We have absolutely no idea why exactly Pharaoh hanged the chief baker. Verse 1 only says that he and the cupbearer had "offended their lord, the king of Egypt" - the baker's offense obviously seen as more serious.

 2.) Although the Bible does say that some things are lawful but not edifying, God does not forbid any celebration of practice as  long as it does not violate any Biblical moral principle. Birthdays do not - unless of course they are celebrated with immoderate amounts of alcohol, and/or some other dissipation. Here again is a passage from Romans

    One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6 NASB)

    If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)  in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.  (Colossians 2:20-23 NASB)


Christmas Trees
The traditional celebration of Christmas usually involves a Christmas tree. However, those who oppose Christmas celebrations often quote Jeremiah to support their claim that God Himself is opposed to the idea of a Christmas tree.

    Thus says the Lord, "Do not learn the way of the nations, And do not be terrified by the signs of the heavens Although the nations are terrified by them; For the customs of the peoples are delusion; Because it is wood cut from the forest, The work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. "They decorate it with silver and with gold; They fasten it with nails and with hammers So that it will not totter. (Jeremiah 10:2-4 NASB)

While what Jeremiah describes bears some resemblance to the traditional Christmas tree, the resemblance is superficial. The chapter has nothing whatsoever to do with a Christmas tree but, as is commonly done, is wrenched from its context to 'prove' what is already believed. The very next verse makes it very clear that what Jeremiah was describing was an idol or representation of a false god that has to be carried around because it was powerless to move on its own accord. Not exactly something we do with Christmas trees.

    Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, And they cannot speak; They must be carried, Because they cannot walk! Do not fear them, For they can do no harm, Nor can they do any good." (Jeremiah 10:5 NASB)

A similar sentiment in Isaiah 40:18-20 exemplifies the fact that the decorated objects made from a tree were objects of worship. Again, something we do with Christmas trees.

    To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him? As for the idol, a craftsman casts it, A goldsmith plates it with gold, And a silversmith fashions chains of silver. He who is too impoverished for such an offering Selects a tree that does not rot; He seeks out for himself a skillful craftsman To prepare an idol that will not totter. (Isaiah 40:18-20 NASB)

So where then did the idea of a decorated tree originate? The Christian Research Institute cites the following information from the Encyclopedia Britannica:  

    The modern Christmas tree, though originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a fir tree hung with apples (Paradise tree) representing the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a "Paradise tree" in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the host, the Christian sign of redemption); the hosts eventually became cookies of various shapes. Candles, too, were often added as a symbol of Christ.

    In the same room, during the Christmas season, was the Christmas pyramid, a triangular construction of wood, with shelves to hold Christmas figurines, decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century, the Christmas pyramid and Paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.

Since Christmas trees are not worshipped but are essentially decoration there is nothing wrong with the practice. However, I wish people would tell their children how the practice started so that they understand the relationship of the tree to the Christmas story and how the tradition developed.

Gift Giving
No one can deny that gift giving was a common practice in the Bible

     A shekel of silver was given a man of God (1 Samuel 9:7-8) ; Saul was sent "a donkey loaded with bread and a jug of wine and a young goat " by Jesse - David's father. (1 Samuel 16:20)

    Jacob prepared "two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams,  thirty milking camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys" as a gift (more like a bribe or inducement) for his brother Esau (Genesis 32:13-15)

    Abraham sent Rebekah "articles of silver and articles of gold, and garments and his servant also gave precious things to her brother and to her mother. (Genesis 24:53 NASB)

Additionally, the people of the east never approached the kings and other personages without a present in their hands  - king Solomon is a case in point,

    They brought every man his gift, articles of silver and gold, garments, weapons, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year. (1 Kings 10:25 NASB)

The Magi who knew that the star that they saw in the east signified that the King of the Jews had been born (Matthew 2:2) brought gifts fit for a king. Some believe that the Christmas tradition of gift giving originated with the Magi. However, throughout Europe it was more closely identified with St. Nikolaus. As human beings, we often express our feelings through the giving of gifts.  They can be given as expressions of love, appreciation, gratitude, etc. and can strengthen the bond with the other person. Giving a gift that is very appreciated can the giver an enormous sense of satisfaction

However, in our very mercenary society gift giving has been taken to ridiculous extremes. Children now associate Christmas with nothing but what they can find under the tree. Shoppers are encouraged to buy the biggest and best, often finding Christmas shopping complicated, stressful and very hard on the wallet.

In other words, it's all about the merchandise.

If we wish to cite the Magi as one reason we give exchange gifts at Christmas, it is important to note that they brought gifts for Christ. They didn't exchange gifts among themselves nor did they give presents to others.

And finally we come to...


Santa Claus
Most people believe that the legend of Santa Claus originated with St. Nicholas [Nikolaus] a fourth century bishop whose great reputation for generosity is the subject of endless enduring legends. While there is little doubt that a Bishop of that name did exist in Myra (modern-day Antalya province, Turkey) in the 4th century (a church was built for him in the 6th century, which continues to be a tourist attraction in Myra). Many, many miracles [one more extravagant than the next] and good deeds have been attributed to St. Nick, including saving sailors from storms, restoring life to murdered boys, providing dowries for poor unmarried girls and destroying several pagan temples. Nicholas was so widely revered that more than 2,000 churches were named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England”.

However, the original Nicholas is a shadowy figure. It is difficult to reconcile the popularity of this man with the almost complete lack of verifiable detail about his life. 

And there is absolutely nothing to connect him to the celebration of Christmas on December 25th. The Feast of Saint Nicholas, is observed on the 6th of December (the date of his death in AD 343) in Western Christian countries. In other words, the tradition of St. Nicholas is not synonymous with the role of Santa Claus.

While undoubtedly Santa Claus was based in part on St Nicholas and the gift giving legends associated with him, the modern day Santa Claus bears remarkable similarities to other sources - a blend of many different cultures, customs, legends and mythological creatures with astonishing similarities to early legends.

 Jesus' place has been usurped by a pleasant fat fellow boasting a red hat and team of reindeer. So how do we understand the Santa Claus phenomenon? What do we REALLY know about Santa? Is he just a harmless, friendly fellow? Or is there something or someone else hiding behind the façade? See Santa Claus


Personal Thoughts
I realize I have probably been less than helpful in answering the many questions that arise in regards to Christmas. For instance, whether believers should ignore the fact that many of our traditions are rooted in pagan festivities and customs and focus on Christ during this season. Also

    Are there certain Christmas traditions which are acceptable, while others are taboo for the Christian? Or, should Christians pay no attention at all to the goings-on at that time of year and try to ignore the undeniable influence it has on everyone's life? Should the church speak out in opposition to the celebration of Christmas, or should the church quietly partake in it while bearing in mind that the day itself has no spiritual meaning above any other day? Is celebrating Christmas a decision which should be left to the individual?

    What form should a church service take on Christmas day, and if it doesn't happen to fall on a Sunday, should there be a special service held at all? What would be the appropriate message to be brought to the people gathered there?

    Does avoidance of these types of celebrations due to religious convictions, rather than because of Scriptural instruction, not amount to Pharisaical legalism and hypocritical self-righteousness?

    Does Scripture prohibit the Christian from partaking in a secular celebration? Is Christmas a secular celebration? Is the Christian free to partake in these celebrations as long as they are not idolized? [06]

While I have very a very strong aversion to anything to do with Santa Claus, my husband and myself usually avoid doing anything 'Christmassy'. We have no tree and do not buy gifts but do however have dinner with some of my husband's relatives - not because it's Christmas but because it is about the only time apart from Thanksgiving when we see most of them.

However, I am less stridently intolerant of Christmas celebrations than I was in the past simply because I recently came to the conclusion that since the pagans have largely taken back their festival rather effectively taking Christ out of the picture, there is little reason for virulent opposition.

Having said that, I also believe that, regardless of the fact that we cannot pinpoint a definite date, setting aside one day to joyfully celebrate Christ's birth is a worthy thing to do. if Christians can, with the right heart and attitude, decorate their homes and give gifts in celebration of the birth of the Savior, then they should go ahead. If Christmas has become nothing but a time when you spend enormous amounts of money and indulge in ridiculous shopping sprees, then I suggest it is time to sit back and evaluate your beliefs and your actions. 

 Perhaps the short article below can help you to come to your own conclusions and decide what you want to do from now on.
 

Should Christians Observe Christmas?
by Don Fortner

     Without fail, at this time every year, I receive numerous letters, pamphlets, and tracts denouncing the evils of Christmas as a pagan religious holiday. I fully agree that no believer should ever observe pagan religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. We must never incorporate pagan customs into the worship of our God.

    We must not observe any religious holiday. We should attach no spiritual, religious significance to any day. Yet, we do not need to act like super-pious religious idiots over a day that has absolutely no religious significance. I would never teach a child that such a thing as Santa Claus exist, or that Christ was born on Christmas day. But, as Paul said concerning idols, Santa Claus is nothing and Christmas is nothing.

    Did you know that every DAY of the week, every PLANET in the universe, and many of the CARS we drive are named after pagan gods? Yet, we still call Sunday Sunday, Mars Mars, and a Saturn a Saturn. No one would ever dream of calling us pagans for doing so. We worship our God on Sunday, and would laugh at anyone who suggested that we observe the pagan Roman holiday called "Sun's Day" in doing so. If your car is a Saturn, use it for the glory of God; and laugh at anyone who thinks that you are worshiping the Roman god of agriculture by driving it.

    We must not, and I trust do not, worship Christmas trees and lights, or even attach spiritual significance to Christmas day. However, I do suggest that we seize this opportunity afforded us by Divine providence to tell people who Christ is, why he came into this world, what he did, and how they may obtain his salvation. It is no accident that once every year every human being in the world is confronted with the fact that the Son of God assumed human flesh and came into the world to save men.

    Certainly, no one can think that it is wrong for believers, during this season of the year, to express thanks and praise to God for his unspeakable gift, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is never wrong, but always right to think of him, speak of him, and sing his praise. Rather than not singing Watts' grand old hymn, Joy To The World, we ought to sing it year round.

    While I loathe the religiosity of this holiday season, the silly plays, the idolatrous pictures and representations of Christ and the angels of God, and pretense of spirituality by people who have no interest in the glory of God, I am delighted for this season of the year (for any season) that brings families together, encourages kindness and good will, and promotes thoughtfulness of and generosity to others. It is perfectly all right to exchange gifts with and send cards to family and friends. (I cannot imagine a reason for anyone objecting to that!) But I suggest that each of us find a way to acknowledge and do something special for someone from whom we expect nothing, maybe even from someone from whom we expect abuse. "Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive." [07]


End Notes
[01] Grant Stewart. https://fortheloveofhistruth.com/2013/12/02/christmas-and-the-christian/

[02] Mark Cartwright. Saturnalia. 16 December 2016. https://www.ancient.eu/Saturnalia/

[03] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saturnalia-Roman-festival and https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saturn-god

[04] Increase Mather. A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New England (London, 1687), p. 35. Also   https://www.covenanter.org/reformed/2016/5/5/chapter-iii-against-profane-christ-mass-keeping.

[05] Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Birthday https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1101989214

[06] Grant Stewart. https://fortheloveofhistruth.com/2013/12/02/christmas-and-the-christian/

[07] Don Fortner. Should Christians Observe Christmas? https://www.gracegems.org/D/christmas.htm

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