Christmas is a Christian holiday (holy day, feast day) that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Most Christians observe Christmas on December 25. On this day, many go to church, where they take part in special religious services and later have a feast time. The celebration includes a number of aspects involving different kinds of home decoration (with holly shrub and its red berries, mistletoe, and Christmas trees, etc.) as well as ritual parts. The presenting of gifts and cards, singing of Carols, are some other important parts of Christmas celebration. When the sun goes down on December 24th and darkness covers the land, many families and churches prepare for participation in certain customs such as burning the Yule log, singing around the decorated tree, kissing under the mistletoe and holly, and attending a late night service or midnight mass.
Usually Christmas time is regarded as the ideal time to get away from the hustle bustle of routine life and share some good times with family and friends.
Dictionary meaning of Christmas
A Christian feast on December 25, or among some Eastern Orthodox on January 7, that commemorates the birth of Christ. (Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary)
Yearly celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, 25 December; the week beginning on 24 December. (Oxford Dictionary of Current English)
The festival commemorating the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, observed on December 25, except by Armenians. (Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions).
The word Christmas
The word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse or Cristes-messe, the Mass of Christ. Mass here means celebration, feast. So, Christmas means Christs feast not birthday. Nevertheless, it is meant to be the feast of the nativity or birth of Jesus. The present spelling probably came into use by about the 16th century.
Xmas the abbreviation for Christmas is of Greek origin. The word for Christ in Greek is Xristos. During the 16th century, Europeans began using the first initial of Christ's name, "X" in place of the word Christ in Christmas.
Yule (Danish Jul), is the ordinary word for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages.
BASIS AND AUTHORITY FOR CELEBRATION
Christians knew nothing of Christmas celebration for probably the first 300 years after the birth of Christ. It is a later development. So, historically, Christmas has been an issue of debate and controversy by the church leaders. The validity of the celebration is disputed on the following grounds:
There is no Scriptural command, precept, or basis to celebrate the festival; rather there is disapproval for it.
There is no precedence of celebration during the early Church history.
The exact date of Christ's birth is not known.
A birthday celebration is detested.
Its observance is attended with customs drawn from pagan sources.
The Bible: If Christmas is considered an important religious event in Christianity, then one expects to have its place in the Bible. But nowhere in the Scripture is there any warrant or precedent for remembrance of the day of Christ's birth as a day of special religious celebration. In fact, the word Christmas is not mentioned even once in the entire Bible. The New Testament, though states about the nativity (birth) of Jesus Christ, never suggests observing a celebration of his birthday.
Jesus Christ never urged his followers to celebrate his birthday.
Jesus disciples: There is no evidence that Paul or any of Jesus disciples or apostles ever observed Christmas.
Early Church: Christmas was not commemorated in any way by the apostolic church; it was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus1 and Tertullian2 omit it from their lists of feasts. It is reported that the celebration came into the church only with the "Christianization" of Roman pagan rites in the fourth century A.D. The Church at Jerusalem started celebrating Christmas by about 440 A.D, following the lead of Roman Catholicism.
JESUS DATE OF BIRTH
There is no authoritative source or evidence about the exact day or month of Christs birth. Even the actual year of his birth is doubtful. This is understandable because (a) in the early centuries, Christians were much more likely to celebrate the day of a persons death rather than birth, and (b) there is uncertainty in the present calendar itself. The calendar in use today is considered inaccurate by approximately four years.
Numerous encyclopedias plainly state that Christ was not born on December 25th. This day is only one of various guesses of early Christian scholars. This is common knowledge in the circle of priests and rabbinic leadership.
Inferences based upon the biblical and historical records:
The year of Jesus birth: Jesus birth did not figure in at a time when a clear demarcation was made between BC and AD3. It is believed that Jesus was born in BC (Before Christ!).
The Nativity account given by Matthew (2:19) indicates that Jesus was born during the time of Herod the Great, the Roman King of Judea (37BC - 4 BC). According to Lukes report (2:1-2) Jesus birth took place during the first census ordered by Augustus Caesar (Roman emperor, 27 BC -14 AD), when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was the governor over Syria. This presumably occurred between 7 BC and 6 BC.
The date of Jesus birth: Luke4 (2:8)5 mentions that at the time of Jesus birth the shepherds were staying out in the pasture land with their flocks, an event that does not take place in winter, which is also a rainy time; it could probably be in the spring or summer, but not in December. In Palestine the best time for tending sheep is in February-March. Some, therefore, think that Jesus was born on March 25th. There are certain Christian churches that celebrate Christmas on this date.
Some reports indicate that Bishop Liberius designated December 25 as Jesus birthday in 354 A.D. It is also reported that the choice of December 25 was made by the Pope Julius I in the 4th century AD. When the Julian calendar was switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, 11 days were dropped from the year. Accordingly, the December 25 date was effectively moved 11 days backwards. Some Christian church sects, called old calendarists, still celebrate Christmas on January 7 the date that corresponds to December 25 of the earlier Julian calendar.
The Dictionary of Living Religions reports: Speculation on the birth date of Jesus is as old as Clement of Alexandria6; he suggested May 20. The Catholic Encyclopedia reports April 19 or 20 and March 28 as some other speculations that existed in Alexandria. Earlier the nativity was celebrated by the Eastern Church on January 6, often united to the Epiphany celebration of Jesus baptism. The Armenian Church never accepted Christmas on December 25; it still celebrates the festival of the birth and baptism on January 6.
The most probable reason for the choice of December 25 was that it was already a familiar feast day in Rome and other parts of Europe. The Western church ordered it to be celebrated forever on the day of the Old Roman Feast of the birth of Sol (sun), as no certain knowledge of the day of Christ's birth existed.
Whether it is December 25th or any other day, certain Christian elders believe that commemorating Jesus birth is non-Scriptural, even extra-Scriptural. In fact, celebrating a birthday was considered a sin by the early Church. Origen7 asserts that in the Scriptures sinners, not saints, celebrated their birthday.
In its early history, the church had an annual observance of the death of Christ, rather than his birth, and also honored many of the early martyrs on the day of their death.
The birth of Christ ( the Lord and Savior) had no relevance to them because he had returned to heaven. In other words, it was the risen, exalted Christ whom they looked to, not to a babe laid in a manger, putting faith in the cross, not in the cradle.
ORIGIN & HISTORY OF THE FESTIVAL
Let us look into how and when the Christmas celebration entered the professing Church.
In the pre-Christian days, various mid-winter harvest festivals were held throughout the Roman Empire in conjunction with the winter solstice, when the day becomes the shortest. The pagans had the superstitious belief that the sun would go down, with the day becoming shorter and shorter, and would never come back if something ritualistic was not done. So they had the festival of worshiping the sun-god, and celebrated the beginning of the return of the sun, or the "rebirth of the sun" as the days of light would now begin to lengthen and the sun would now begin to regain its dominance. They celebrated this triumph of light over darkness. They had added the Persian sun-god Mithras to the celebration, since he was said to have been born on 25th December.
They called their festival of winter solstice "The Feast of Saturnalia", in honor of their god Saturn8, the god of sowing (planting), or the god of agriculture, or the fire god. They celebrated the festival seven days from the 17th to the 24th of December, marked by a spirit of merriment. During this period schools, businesses, and courts were closed as merrymakers exchanged gifts, drank wine, enjoyed music, and indulged in various other forms of entertainment. Usually they exchanged "gifts" on the last two days from house to house. Then on the 25th of December, they began the new celebration of "The birth of the unconquerable Sun".
In the year 274 the Roman emperor Aurelian declared the sun god now called Deus Sol Invictus(the Unconquerable Sun god) the official deity of the Roman Empire. He built a splendid temple of the sun in Rome, and set the sun's birthday celebration on December 25, the date then accepted for the winter solstice. In the time of Rome Emperor Constantine (306-337), the cult of Deus Sol Invictus was still at its height, and the portrait of the sun-god was on the coins of Constantine. After his controversial conversion to Christianity, he legalized Christianity, and by decree, combined numerous pagan customs with state Christianity. As an effort to bridge the gap between Christian and pagan traditions, and with an eagerness to gain pagan converts to Christianity, he found it expedient to adapt some of the pagan rites into the worship of Christ.
In the beginning, the Church could not suppress or stamp out the performance of these festivals. As it is said, "If you cannot beat them, join them", they started joining the pagan and heathen celebrations into Christianity. They upstaged the ancient festival of commemorating the struggle between "light" and "darkness", by applying the Old Testament concept of "Sun of Righteousness" (Malachi 4:2) 9, to the 25th of December event, justifying that in God's Son, the real "Light" (John 8:12)10 defeats darkness. By the year 336 AD, the pagan festival of the birthday of the "Unconquerable Sun" was thus Christianized by calling it as the birthday of "the Sun of Righteousness". Thus, the "festival of the Sun" became the festival of the Son. Later, the cultures of such nations as the Germans, French, English, Scandinavians and others, eventually influenced the celebration by their added traditions.
The practice spread widely, so that most part of the Christian world observed the new festival by the end of the 4th century. It was adopted in Alexandria by about 430 AD, and in Jerusalem by about 440 AD. When the Christianity spread northward into Europe, the pagans had their great "Yule festival". Once again the Christianity absorbed the pagan custom of the Christmas tree decorations.
By 1100 AD, Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe, and Saint Nicholas was a symbol of gift giving in many European countries. During the 1400's and 1500's, many artists painted scenes of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus. The popularity of Christmas grew until the Reformation (a religious movement of the 1500's, which gave birth to Protestantism).
During the Reformation, many Christians began to consider Christmas a pagan celebration because it included nonreligious customs. English Puritans sought to ban Christmas festivity by an act of parliament in 1644 AD. It was outlawed in England and in parts of the English colonies in America. The old customs of feasting and decorating, however, soon reappeared and blended with the more Christian aspects of the celebration. Thus the feast again became popular and remained so to the present.
In the 1800's, decorating Christmas trees and sending Christmas cards to relatives and friends became popular. Many well-known Christmas carols were composed during this period. In the United States and other countries, Santa Claus replaced Saint Nicholas as the symbol of gift giving. The celebration of Christmas became increasingly important to many kinds of businesses during the 1900's. Today, companies manufacture Christmas ornaments, lights, and other decorations throughout the year. Other firms grow Christmas trees, holly, and mistletoe.
Christmas Traditions in America
Christmas had a late arrival and in America, and was slow to catch on here, even facing with some hostilities. America's settlers, the "founding fathers" of so-called "Protestant America", considered Christmas a "popish" holiday, or a pagan ritual. The Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Calvinists and other denominations brought this opposition to early New England. In fact, Christmas was banned in Massachusetts and Boston in 1659, and this law remained on the books for 22 years. In Boston, public schools stayed open on December 25th. It was illegal in Massachusetts to even take December 25th off work.
It was not until 1836 AD that any state (Alabama) declared Christmas a holiday, and then there were no more state declarations until the Civil War. Christmas was declared as a national holiday for celebration on June 26, 1870. With the beginning of the 19th century, Americans embraced Christmas as a perfect family holiday, fulfilling the need of a growing nation to have some commemorative time or a festival. They transformed it from a mere carnival into a family-oriented day of feast, fun and frolic. It can be seen that in the capitalistic environment here, the so-called Christmas customs and traditions developed later more for commercial reasons than for religious.
IS IT REALLY A RELIGIOUS FESTIVAL?
The question arises: If it is known that paganism or polytheism lies at the very root of the annual celebration of Christ's birth, then can Christmas be still regarded as a religious festival?
In defense of Christmas, some Christian may say: Is there anything wrong with giving gifts per se, or with good-will, pleasant feelings, cheerfulness, and an enjoyment of a nice family holiday and talk about Jesus Christ at Christmas? They may say: Since the birth of Christ is a Biblical truth, we are at liberty to celebrate his birth anytime we wish, especially once a year set aside for this purpose.
Apparently there is nothing wrong in it, but then consider the following points:
It is reasonable to say that, in reality, Christmas is a thinly disguised version of the pagan celebrations, which themselves are leftovers from even more ancient rites.
A pagan festival and the worship of the true God do not mix. The prophets constantly warned ancient Israel against polytheistic practices and for good reason. God is the sovereign and supreme Lord of all creation. The gods of the nations were not. To mix polytheistic practices with the worship of God is the highest disrespect and dishonor to Him. Why? Because it lowers God to the level of the weak, worthless and false.
Some say, "Lets get Christ back into Christmas." I understand their point and definitely respect their motives. Yet shouldnt we rather be saying: "Lets get Christ out of Christmas?" (Joseph W. Tkach, Editor-in-Chief of the Christian magazine The Plain Truth, November/December, 1991).
Not only did God want to prevent people from being lured to worship false gods, but He also specifically revealed that He did not want His people to worship Him in the same manner in which the heathen worshiped their gods.11 The command here was to worship God only in His way, i.e., do only what God commands not adding to God's commands nor taking away from them. God never intended for His people to be imitators of the pagan customs of the world, but has called us to be separate and set apart. Accordingly, "putting Christ back into Christmas," would mean adding Christ to an essentially pagan holiday, and would imply worshiping "the Lord your God their way"! No sincere Christian can believe that God will be pleased when such a day and such practices are adopted to commemorate the birth of Christ.
It looks funny though, if one agrees to adopt the ways of celebration with no regard to the Scriptural instructions, then for the sake of argument it can be contended that many other important events related to Christs life and mission, should also be celebrated in our own way:
To celebrate Jesus baptism, why not have three days of swimming parties in the summer symbolizing Christ's three days in the grave, picking a speculated time when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist?
To celebrate Jesus ascension, why not have one day set aside every year for hot-air balloon rides in order to celebrate Christ's ascension to heaven?
Why not have one day set aside every year to celebrate the first of Christ's miracles? And since that was the turning of water into wine (John 2), why not have "Christian" wine-tasting parties?!
One should realize that celebrating Christmas as the day of Christ's birth makes no more sense than adding any of the above days as special days of Christian Celebration. The enormous pressure on families to spend more than they can afford, coupled with the encouragement to "eat, drink and be merry" at any price, cannot be considered part of a genuine Christian festival.
It is important to remember that:
(a) Christmas is not a command of God. It is a tradition of men. Jesus warns:
In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. Then he said to them, You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!
(b) The Scriptural command is to worship God in "spirit and truth" (John 4:24). The celebration goes against this command, since this is not worship in "truth".
(c) According to the Scriptures, trees, wreaths, holly, mistletoe and the like are strictly forbidden as pagan and heathen. To say that these are Christian or that they can be made Christian is not correct. Would any Christian choose a pagan temple as the ideal place to worship God?
Thus says the Lord: Do not learn the way of the nations, or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens; for the nations are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an axe by the hands of an artisan; people deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammers and nail so that it cannot move. (Jeremiah 10:2-4)
Some Christians may say: The celebration is nothing but an expression of our devotion and love for Jesus. Let them ponder on what Jesus has said in the Gospels:
Meaning Of Belief In Jesus:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do. (John 14:12)
Meaning Of Love For Jesus:
They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, (John 14:21)
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love; just as I have kept my Fathers commandments, and abide in His love. (John 15:10)
Jesus said to the Pharisees, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition ... thus making void the Word of God through your tradition that you have handed on." (Mark 7:8,13).
Jesus said to his followers, Not everyone who says unto me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven; but only the one who does the will of my Father which is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? Then I will declare to them, I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers. (Matthew 7:21-23)
THEN WHY IS IT CELEBRATED?
It is safe to say that most true Christians consider it wrong to call the celebrations a "Christian" tradition, as they are aware of its pitfalls. There are certain Christian groups, who do not celebrate Christmas or any of the pagan traditions connected to it. Nevertheless, it is a popular festival celebrated throughout the Christian world not surprisingly for the following main reasons:
Most people basically do what everyone else does because it is easy and natural. Among the commoners who celebrate Christmas, many do not have sufficient knowledge of its history and origin. Those who do not yet know this, or do not wish to know it, are either too firmly dedicated to tradition, or are too lazy to bother with simple research.
Those who have the knowledge of its pagan origin, prefer to ignore it. With a long-drawn tradition and nostalgia, it is almost impossible for them to look at the issue objectively.
Either they try to justify their actions through the reasoning handed down to them from their elders,
Or, they simply accept it as a social event. They are entangled so much in the tradition that it is difficult for them to distance from it.
People are easily tempted for merriment, fun and frolic, whereas spirituality and soul-searching is indeed a serious matter. Undoubtedly it has become a festival of self-indulgence for many. No wonder, even those who do not profess Christianity, also actively join the celebrations.
Christmas, a season of giving [gifts], is in fact a commercial season. It draws a big business during this time of the year than any other comparable season. It is sponsored and kept alive by the heaviest retail advertising campaigns, and indeed many commercial ventures rely on this season for their survival or growth.
The Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Encyclopedia Americana.
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.
Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions.
Holman Bible Dictionary.
The Plain Truth, November/December, 1991 issue.
Hislop, Alexander. The Two Babylons: Or The Papal Worship, 1959
Willcock, Shaun. The Pagan Festivals of Christmas and Easter. Bible Based Ministries, South Africa, 1992.
Schneider, Michael. Is Christmas Christian? Chapel Library, FL, USA.
Various articles on internet.
1St. Irenaeus: Bishop of Lyons, and Father of the Church, reported to be born between 115 & 140 A.D. (?)
2Tertullian: ca 160-220 African Priest and Church Historian.
3This division of history was made in 6 AD (by the scholar Dionysius Exiguus).
4Quotations from the Bible are taken from the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version).
5Luke (2:8): In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
6Clement of Alexandria: ca 150-211 (or 215). An early Greek Christian theologian and Church Father; head of the catechetical school of Alexandria
7Origen: Greek writer, teacher and an early Catholic Father; ca 185? - ?254.
8The planet Saturn was later named after this god because, with its rings and bright red color, it best represented the god of fire.
9Malachi (4:2): But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
10John (8:12): .Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.'
11Deuteronomy (12:30-32): Take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not enquire concerning their god, saying, How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same. You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.
2 Kings (17:15): And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the Lord had charged them, that they should not do like them.