Is this the season to be jolly or is it the season to avoid? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
I had originally set a post on this to be published today, but something seems to have gone wrong. If a similar post shows up again, I will deal with it and go with this one. Also, for those wondering where I’ve been, my wife and I both have had the stomach bug and so it had been a hard week. Today, we are resuming our regular schedule and it’s starting with a topic that came up with some friends.
You see, around the time of Christmas, one thing I can always predict on the internet is that there is a strong anti-Christmas crowd. Now these people don’t want to celebrate Christmas on their own. If that’s your choice, well I disagree and we can discuss it, but that’s your choice. An anti-Christmas person however is worse and no, my friends are not like this. These are the people who are not only convinced the day is pagan, but that if you are celebrating it, you are endorsing a pagan holiday. You are less Christian if you celebrate Christmas.
Look. If you don’t want to celebrate Christmas, that’s fine. We can talk about that. But if you want to go after others who do for not being as “Christian” as you are, I think that is in fact decidedly anti-Christian and not a biblical stance at all.
Most of us aren’t like that. Instead, many of us have simple questions. So I think of my friends who had the concerns many of us often have. Isn’t Christmas based on a pagan holiday such as Saturnalia? Doesn’t the book of Jeremiah condemn Christmas trees? Aren’t we caught up in a gross materialism this kind of year when it comes to the buying of and exchanging of gifts? What should we do about Santa Claus?
Let’s start with the first. Is it based on Saturnalia? Well, no. Consider this from the Commentary on Daniel from Hippolytus of Rome who lived from the late second to early third century.
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 3BC] 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.
The text at this can be spurious, but my source is actually the excellent work of Roger Pearse and he defends it and shows it to be reliable. This would be an early Christian testimony to Jesus being born on December 25th. More on this can be found here.
Those wanting to say Christians did this based on Saturnalia will need to provide documentation on when the ancients celebrated Saturnalia and that the Christians either stole this or set up something in competition. The main sources I know touting this are those who already hold the position and just cite one another instead of pointing to an external source. The reality is Christians were extremely resistant to paganism. There was only one exception. Artwork. They would use the artwork, but that’s because that was reclaiming it for Christ as God is the original artist through creation.
It’s also worth pointing out that many people will claim Mithras, Dionysus, Horus, and other pagan deities were born on December 25th. As always, be suspicious of these claims. When they are given, do not ask for just a web site, but ask for primary sources. If you are given a web site, look and see if the site itself provides any primary sources for the claim. So far, the evidence for these claims has been negative.
Those wanting more on this are invited to read the excellent book of my ministry partner here.
Okay. But don’t we have pagan practices today? What about Christmas trees? I mean, look at the text in Jeremiah!
2 This is what the Lord says:
“Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
though the nations are terrified by them.
3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
4 They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.
On the face of it, this can seem convincing. However, one problem with reading a text is that we often read modern notions and usages into the text. What we have to ask is “What was Jeremiah specifically talking about?
In the passage, he is talking about idolatry. Why would you cut down a tree? Because many people made idols from trees. Wood was easy, cheap, and renewable. Working with metal cost more and required special skill. Now of course adorning with silver and gold would cost something if you did that, but it was still far easier. They would also fasten it with hammer and nails because they didn’t have the same precision tools we have today necessarily. (Although they were quite good with those pyramids and the temple and other ancient works)
But Jeremiah was NOT talking about Christmas trees. If you are concerned that this is what is being talked about, well here are some criteria to follow.
If you bring us a Christmas tree into your house, you may not bow down to it to worship it. (Bending down to put gifts under a tree is not an act of worship and more than bending down to turn on an electric blanket by your bed or plug in your IPhone is an act of worship.) If you do this, you may not burn a sacrifice to it. You are to treat it as a tree and not hold any rituals of pagan worship around it. Avoid this and you should be fine.
But when Christmas trees were started, didn’t that come from pagans?
No. The pagans had long since been dead by then. Why Christmas trees? Picture yourself living in say the 16th or 17th century in Europe. It’s the time to celebrate the birth of Christ. You want to decorate your house some. How about a tree? Okay. What will you bring in. You have to use an evergreen! Every other tree is dead at the time. So to add a touch of beauty to your house, you bring in a tree. Does that sound odd? If it does, why do so many of us bring in plants to our own homes throughout the year for a touch of beauty? Why do so many of our wives like it when we bring home flowers to them?
Okay. What about the materialism?
Okay. Gifts can distract children at Christmas. I get this. However, let’s also remember children learn on a graded scale. If I want to raise my children to be Christians, I’m not going to start by reading them Aquinas’s Summa Theologica when they’re five years old. They have to work their way there. When we start teaching children right from wrong, we don’t give them a moral dissertation. We instead give them rewards, such as cookies when they do good, and punish them when they do wrong, such as going to bed early without TV. As they get older, we expect that with maturity, they will grow into a state where such rewards and punishments are not needed and even if they are, the rewards and punishments disagree. Sorry, but your 16 year-old will not be as happy at the prospect of getting a cookie as will your 6 year-old.
I have no problem then with you letting your children see this as a happy time of year by getting them gifts. In fact, there is a danger that if this is not done, they will come to see this as an unhappy time of year. They could see religion as something that is meant to keep them from other things and when they get old enough, they will be more than happy to break away from that religion. Do they have an incorrect view of religion? They sure do, but it is hard to get past the first impressions.
I was one who grew up looking forward to the gifts, but you know what happened? Now I still like the gifts. When you put a gift in my hands on Christmas day, I enjoy opening it and seeing what I’ve got, but that just doesn’t matter as much. In fact, aside from books, it is harder and harder to think of things that i want for Christmas. How did that come about? Because as I matured, I came to appreciate my Christian worldview even more on my own. No one had to tell me the gifts weren’t the focus. I just learned it.
Okay. So what about Santa Claus?
Now this one I understand can be a bit more difficult. We want to be honest with our children, and we want them to still have some magic about Christmas. My personal recommendation is that if you do the Santa Claus, then be sure to tell them also about the original Saint Nicholas. This was someone who was even said to have been at the Council of Nicea on the side of orthodoxy and according to legend, punched the arch-heretic Arius in the face.
In fact, you can have some fun by looking at Christmas traditions all around the world. Not every place has Santa Claus for instance. Some have a woman who gives gifts. Some have an animal. It can differ and looking into each of these can give insights into how different cultures celebrate Christmas. One culture even for awhile had a creature called Krampus, a devilish looking beast who was meant to be a sort of anti-Santa. He certainly was not worshiped and/or respected.
This can also bring us to another point. Christmas is celebrated all the world around. That makes Christmas an excellent time for the spread of the Gospel. It’s easier to talk about Jesus. You don’t just talk about God in a generic sense. You talk about Jesus specifically. This would be a great time to educate yourself some on the reality of the Christmas faith.
So what do you do in the end? Well if you choose to not celebrate. That’s your call. Don’t think yourself better than those who do and don’t consider them as if they’re giving into pagan celebrations. If these people are fully justified in their own minds, let them be. Again, by all means have discussions on the nature of Christmas and why you celebrate it. Even if you disagree, you could have a wonderful chance to learn why someone believes and practices the way they do.
If you do celebrate, don’t look down on those who don’t. Let them be fully convinced in their own mind. This is like the case of meat offered to idols in 1 Cor. 8-10 and in Romans 14.
But just like any other day, when December 25th comes, whether you have a tree or not, whether you give gifts or not, and whether you have visits from Santa Claus or not, do whatever you do to the Lord and for His glory.