Should Christians celebrate Christmas? It sounds like a ridiculous question to the average person, but it is important to those who seek to obey God’s Word. We can easily find the birth of Christ recorded in the pages of the New Testament of the Bible. We can find the message of the angel who announces it and the words of praise from a multitude of the heavenly host who celebrates it in the Book of Luke. We can find prophecies about his birth recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. What we cannot find anywhere in the Word of God is the holiday we call Christmas.
Let’s begin our discussion about Christmas by looking at the early Church as described in the New Testament. Most Bible-believing Christians base their present worship model on how the original Believers in the early years following the death and resurrection of Jesus gathered and worshiped God. Yet, they did not celebrate Christmas. Why? To find that answer, we must look at the history of this holiday which actually predates the birth of Jesus.
History teaches us that the earliest known observance of any Christmas celebration occurred over two hundred years after the birth of Christ. This celebration took place in December. It sought to merge the ancient Pagan celebrations known as Saturnalia (a Roman festival which took place each December 17th to 24th, celebrated the winter solstice and honored Saturn, the Roman god of sowing), the birth of Mithra (the Iranian sun god of righteousness born on December 25th) and a Roman feast dedicated to the birth of the Sun (which occurred around the same time as Saturnalia) with the idea of honoring or celebrating the birth of Jesus.
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Early Christians originally opposed the celebration of Saturnalia because it was a pagan holiday that involved exchanging gifts and was filled with all kinds of exaggerated behaviors involving food and drink and rampant immorality. It was not until after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that a Roman Emperor known as Justinian created the holiday known as Christmas. In doing so, he replaced the worship of Saturn and the celebration of the birth of the Sun with the worship of the birth of Jesus.
It’s important to understand that when Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion, it was not the Biblical Christianity that most Bible Believers accept today. It was an unholy marriage between many pagan beliefs and practices and what the early church taught. This marriage produced a new religion. It was a perversion of Christianity that leads to many traditions and extra-Biblical practices that are not found in the Word of God being honored and accepted equally with Scripture. Bible Believers have always rejected this creation by the Roman Empire and continue to do so today.
Sometime after 500 A.D., the celebration now known as Christmas was mandated by the Roman Empire. People had to celebrate this holiday. The excesses of Saturnalia were retained, and Bible Believers of that time were often shocked at the socially and morally depraved way that Romans celebrated the Savior’s birth. By this time, additional pagan elements had been added to the holiday. These include various festival celebrations originally tied to the early days of January. This is why people celebrate Christmas and New Year’s so close together today.
January 1st was the Roman New Year. The celebrations surrounding this festival included decorating houses with candles, green plants, and small trees. Gifts were given to children and the poor. Again, these festival traditions slowly became a part of the Roman Christmas celebration so that the festivals of Christmas and New Years’ merged. December 25th became the focal point of all these celebrations because the Roman Emperor Aurelian had much earlier declared that the pagan festival of Natalis Solis Invictus (or the birth of the unconquered sun) should occur on that date beginning in the year 274 A.D. It was a popular festival and seemed to present an easy transition from celebrating the sun’s birth to celebrating the birth of God’s Son.
Additional elements were added to the Roman Christmas after Germanic tribes infiltrated Rome, overran the empire, and moved on into Gaul and Britain. Many in these tribes readily accepted and gravitated toward the Druid and Celtic traditions they encountered. Thus, German, Druid, and Celtic traditions became intermingled, and the celebration known as Yule was born. Elements of the Yule festivals were later added to the Roman Christmas celebration. Yule rites included the setting up of decorated celebration trees in the home, the yule log, and exchanging gifts.
The very idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus came from the pagan ritual of celebrating the birth of great kings. For example, Middle Eastern Kings (like Herod) and whatever current Pharaoh of Egypt in power would have had birth celebrations every year of their reign. If early Christians celebrated anything, it tended to be the death of beloved martyrs or great leaders of their churches. Thus, they considered birth celebrations to be pagan.
Even the idea of Santa Claus does not entirely originate from a compilation of the life of Saint Nicholas or the various other Christian saints and theologians to which it is attributed by popular tradition. During the feast of Yule, the Germanic god known as Odin was said to ride through the skies on top of an eight-legged horse or a cart pulled by horses or reindeer. Children would leave their boots filled with carrots and straw for the animals and sugar or food for Odin in their chimneys. Odin would acknowledge their offering by leaving candy or gifts in their boots.
After learning all this, we are still left wondering whether Bible-believing Christians should celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The short answer is that we should not. There are many Biblical warnings against the celebration of holidays, feasts, or festivals connected to false gods. For example, in Jeremiah, chapter ten, we see a warning to Israel against astrology and the practice of setting up and decorating trees as the heathen do. Jesus himself told the Jews in Matthew 7:9 (KJV): “And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.”
Things get a bit complicated when it comes to how involved Bible Believers should be with celebrating Christmas. That’s because although Christians are commanded to come out from among the heathen and follow the Lord (2 Corinthians 6:17), we’re also told in 1 Corinthians Chapter Eight that eating meat and other items offered to idols is a personal choice. Therefore, if doing so means causing a weaker Christian to question our sincerity, we should not do it. However, Paul (the writer of the letters to the Corinthians) is quick to point out that the gods worshiped by others are not gods and that only one true God exists to us.
Paul presents us with the recurring theme of all his letters and the overall message of the New Testament of the Bible: Christians are free from the bondage of sin. It’s a freedom that was bought and paid for by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is not one to be taken lightly or flaunted in any way. However, Christians have been set free from the rules and regulations of the Mosaic Law. We live in the world, are a part of it, and are bound by whatever legal system services us. For example, chapter 13 in the book of Romans tells us to pay tributes, dues, and customs fees to those they are due. We are not exempt from being good citizens, as long as that means we can still obey God and do His Will.
I believe that observing or celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday goes against what the Bible teaches. If we celebrate it as a national holiday (in the USA), we are on safe ground as long as it does not present a poor witness of our Christianity to others. Thinking of it as a national or secular holiday allows us to participate in most of the public festivities without dishonoring the Lord unless that would cause a Christian to sin in some way (Example: Alcohol consumption or partying among immoral revelers).
The truth is that Christians are constantly subjected to the influence of false gods. A good example of this is Saturday. The day of the week we call Saturday is named for the god Saturn. Should we refuse to observe Saturday? Or, change it to a name we like and confuse everyone? Of course not. That’s not to say we should go to the other extreme and attend services at a church that does not believe or teach the Bible or presents a false gospel just because it offers midnight services on Christmas Eve.