(All Bible quotations, expect otherwise stated, are from the New International Version)
Much has been written about the pagan origin of Christmas and the need to jettison the celebration of this festival among Christians. This article does not intend to rehash the history of Christmas, which can be accessed from many sites on the internet. It’s not in dispute that our Lord Jesus Christ couldn’t have been born on the 25th of December, as the snowy winter in Palestine at this time of the year couldn’t have permitted shepherds to be out in the field watching their flocks by night. In fact, no date set for the birth of our Lord can be accurate, for the simple reason that it wasn’t recorded in the Scriptures. So, any attempt at date-setting for the Lord’s birthday is speculative at best, and doesn’t really matter, because we don’t need to know the exact date he was born! The most important thing is that, the incarnation took place, as well as the nativity, to give humanity the Saviour!
The feast that was celebrated in ancient Rome on the 25th of December, before Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, was in honour Mithras, the pagan sun god. There’s no doubt about that. The Church, in a bid to woo pagans to Christianity and still give them something to celebrate on that day, converted the day into the celebration of the birth of Christ. The question is, is it permissible to introduce a festival into the Church, outside of the biblically mandated ones, that honours and celebrates God or a godly cause? We shall examine the Scriptures to answer this question.
In the Mosaic Law, certain annual festivals were given to Israel as obligatory religious feasts to be observed at set times of the year. The Law mandated the Jews to observe six major festivals, all of which have unique significance in relation to Israel’s history as a nation, as well as her journey from slavery in Egypt to the promised Land of Canaan. These feasts were more or less memorials to remember God’s dealings with the nation, as well as her past. They were to serve also as the basis of history lessons to the coming generations who could learn the nation’s history from these festivals. The major feasts of Jehovah for Israel included the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First Fruits, the Feast of Pentecost, the Feast of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles. These were the perpetual feasts of the Lord which Israel was to celebrate throughout their generations. The details of these feasts, including when and how they’re to be celebrated, can be found in Leviticus 23:1-44.
However, another feast was added to the six feasts listed above, towards the end of the Babylonian captivity. During the reign of the Persian King Xerxes, the Jews in captivity were threatened with extinction by the evil Amalekite, Haman. When the plot failed and the Jews destroyed their enemies instead, the widespread celebration of the glorious deliverance God granted the Jews was declared a national festival to be celebrated annually, by Mordecai and Queen Esther. This was the origin of the feast of Purim, during which the Jews celebrate their victory and deliverance from their enemies with great joy and exchange of gifts. It became an addition to Israel’s annual festivals, and continues to be celebrated to this day. The feast of Purim wasn’t among those God gave to Moses for the Jews, but it was recognised and honoured by all subsequent generations because of the symbolic significance for the nation. The account concerning the inception of the feast of Purim can be found in the 9th chapter of the book of Esther. However, I’ll quote the last few verses of that chapter here for consideration.
Esther 9:20 Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far,
Esther 9:21 to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar
Esther 9:22 as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
Esther 9:23 So the Jews agreed to continue the celebration they had begun, doing what Mordecai had written to them.
Esther 9:24 For Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them and had cast the (that is, the lot) for their ruin and destruction.
Esther 9:25 But when the plot came to the king’s attention, he issued written orders that the evil scheme Haman had devised against the Jews should come back onto his own head, and that he and his sons should be impaled on poles.
Esther 9:26 (Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word .) Because of everything written in this letter and because of what they had seen and what had happened to them,
Esther 9:27 the Jews took it on themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed.
Esther 9:28 These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province and in every city. And these days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews —nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants.
Esther 9:29 So Queen Esther, daughter of Abihail, along with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter concerning Purim.
Esther 9:30 And Mordecai sent letters to all the Jews in the 127 provinces of Xerxes’ kingdom —words of goodwill and assurance —
Esther 9:31 to establish these days of Purim at their designated times, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had decreed for them, and as they had established for themselves and their descendants in regard to their times of fasting and lamentation.
Esther 9:32 Esther’s decree confirmed these regulations about Purim, and it was written down in the records.
Another instance of the introduction of a new feast into the Jewish calendar, in addition to the feasts of the Lord given to the Jews via Moses, occured during the reign of the Maccabees, in the inter-testamental period (the “silent years” between Malachi and Matthew, spanning about four centuries). During this period, the Maccabees, a family of priests, ruled in Judea. During the reign of the Maccabees, Judea was invaded by the Syrian Antiochus Epiphanes, who entered into the holy temple and pillaged and desecrated it, sacrificing swine (an unclean animal by Jewish tradition) on the altar of sacrifice. The Maccabees later organised a Jewish revolt to retake the Temple and expel Antiochus’ soldiers from Jerusalem. They then undertook the cleansing and dedication of the Temple to the Lord. This cleansing and dedication of the temple is commemorated every year by the Jews for eight days, starting from the 25th of December, as the Feast of Dedication. This account is found in the first four chapters of the apocryphal book of 1st Maccabees. The portion of that book where the Feast of Dedication was first instituted is reproduced here.
1 Maccabees 4  Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up betimes in the morning,
1 Maccabees 4  And offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made.
1 Maccabees 4  Look, at what time and what day the heathen had profaned it, even in that was it dedicated with songs, and citherns, and harps, and cymbals.
1 Maccabees 4  Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success.
1 Maccabees 4  And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise.
1 Maccabees 4  They decked also the forefront of the temple with crowns of gold, and with shields; and the gates and the chambers they renewed, and hanged doors upon them.
1 Maccabees 4  Thus was there very great gladness among the people, for that the reproach of the heathen was put away.
1 Maccabees 4  Moreover Judas and his brethren with the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu, with mirth and gladness.
1 Maccabees 4  At that time also they builded up the mount Sion with high walls and strong towers round about, lest the Gentiles should come and tread it down as they had done before.
1 Maccabees 4  And they set there a garrison to keep it, and fortified Bethsura to preserve it; that the people might have a defence against Idumea (KJVA).
The Feast of Dedication, as instituted by the Maccabees, was celebrated by our Lord and the Jews of his time. It’s instructive to note that the Feast of Dedication wasn’t among the scripturally mandated feasts of the Lord given to Israel by Moses. It is essentially an extra-biblical feast introduced after the completion of the Old Testament canon of Scriptures. Yet, Jesus and the rest of the Jews celebrated it to the glory of God, because it was a feast that honoured God and his Temple. By partaking in this extra-biblical but God-glorifying feast, Jesus authenticated it and thus showed that whatever would glorify or honour God, even though not expressly contained in the Scriptures, is permissible. Whatever is done to the glory of God, as long as it does not violate any extant law of God, is accepted before God. Jesus’ great discourse about being the Good Shepherd was actually given during the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem.
St. John 10:22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter,
St. John 10:23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.
St. John 10:24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
St. John 10:25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,
St. John 10:26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.
St. John 10:27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
St. John 10:28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
St. John 10:29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all ; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.
St. John 10:30 I and the Father are one.”
St. John 10:31 Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him,
St. John 10:32 but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
St. John 10:33 “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
St. John 10:34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ’I have said you are “gods”’ ?
St. John 10:35 If he called them ’gods,’ to whom the word of God came —and Scripture cannot be set aside —
St. John 10:36 what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ’I am God’s Son’?
St. John 10:37 Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father.
St. John 10:38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”
St. John 10:39 Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.
St. John 10:40 Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. There he stayed,
St. John 10:41 and many people came to him. They said, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true.”
St. John 10:42 And in that place many believed in Jesus.
We’ve seen two examples of extra-biblical feasts introduced among God’s people to celebrate unique victories, which became incorporated into the feasts of the Jews, and which were even celebrated by the Lord Jesus. This goes to show that extra-biblical feasts can be introduced and celebrated by God’s people if such feasts honour God and glorify him. As long as a tradition does not negate any biblical precept or doctrine, but actually honours God, there is nothing wrong in celebrating it. What the Bible is against are traditions that oppose or violate God’s words and make them of none effect. Whatever gives God thanks and glorifies him is acceptable before God. We presently celebrate personal birthdays, Thanksgiving Day, Fathers’ Day, Mothers’ Day, etc., all of which are intended to glorify God. All these celebrations are not mandated in the Scriptures. Yet, they do not contradict any biblical precept, as giving thanks to God and honouring our parents on special days are in accordance with God’s will.
Romans 14:1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.
Romans 14:2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.
Romans 14:3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.
Romans 14:4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Romans 14:5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.
Romans 14:6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Romans 14:7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.
Romans 14:8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
Romans 14:9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
Romans 14:10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister ? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.
Romans 14:11 It is written: “’As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ’every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’”
Romans 14:12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Romans 14:13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
1 Corinthians 10:31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
Now, let’s get back to Christmas. Though the celebration on the 25th of December in ancient Rome was originally to honour a pagan deity, by converting it to commemorate the birth of the Son of God, Christianity effectively converted a pagan festival to a godly one that honours the Son of God. There is nothing wrong in setting aside a day to honour a historical event like the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though we don’t know the exact date of his birth, and though 25th of December is a very unlikely date for this historic event, the idea of bringing out a day to commemorate the nativity, though extra-biblical, is not anti-Biblical. By drawing global attention to the story of the nativity, we increase awareness to the gospel. What Christians should be bothered about is how people celebrate the day. It should be a solemn festival devoid of the debauchery, revelry, and wantonness most people display during this period. Christmas should be a day of thanksgiving, rejoicing, sharing of gifts, taking care of the poor and needy, and preaching the good news of salvation that the birth of Christ brought to mankind. Once we get the celebration right, Christmas is a festival worth celebrating!
Another part of Christmas that should be jettisoned is the whole stuff about Santa Claus (“Father Christmas”), which has nothing to do with Christ or Christianity. Satan Claus is a patently pagan myth that should have no place in the celebration of the birth of Christ. The deceptive story told to kids of Santa Claus visiting and granting their wishes overnight with gifts is imparting lies and falsehood to children. If we’re to observe Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, the event should strictly focus on the story of the nativity and its significance to humanity. Any mythological addition to the celebration that cannot be justified by the word of God should be tossed out. We cannot replace one pagan myth (the worship of Mithras) with another (the worship of Santa Claus) while celebrating the birth of Christ. It would amount to the same idolatory!
If the celebration of Christmas will lead to a worldwide holiday for Christians and provide a forum for Christian assemblies to meet and worship God and remind ourselves of the first coming of Christ and the purpose of his coming, it will serve a great evangelistic purpose. We should use whatever means that’s available to us to project the message of Christ to the world, even if that means hijacking a hitherto pagan festival and converting it to a godly use. We can sanctify an unholy day by turning it over to God and thus making it a holy day. Paul did a similar thing at Athens during his evangelistic campaign in that city. While promenading through the city, Paul saw many altars dedicated to the pagan idols the people worshipped, and was grieved in his spirit at the wholescale idolatory of the Athenians. However, when he sighted an altar with the inscription, “to an unknown God”, Paul decided immediately to put it to good use. He turned this their “unknown God” to Jehovah, and even quoted one of their pagan poet’s description of humanity as God’s offsprings, and used it to make them realise that God could not be like those animal idols they were worshipping, if humans are his offsprings (Aratus, the Greek poet Paul quoted, was actually referring to Jupiter as the supreme God, but Paul turned it around to make the Supreme God Jehovah). This is one instance of using the enemy’s weapons against him, and of sanctifying an idolatrous practice to the glory of God, by converting it to a godly use. Christmas, based originally on a pagan celebration, has been so sanctified to the glory of God, by being converted to the birthday celebration of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. We should ensure that every aspect of the celebration is Christian and godly, and reflect only the nativity story and its implications for mankind.
The Acts 17:15 Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.
The Acts 17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
The Acts 17:17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.
The Acts 17:18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
The Acts 17:19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?
The Acts 17:20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”
The Acts 17:21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
The Acts 17:22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.
The Acts 17:23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship —and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
The Acts 17:24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.
The Acts 17:25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
The Acts 17:26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.
The Acts 17:27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
The Acts 17:28 ’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ’We are his offspring.’
The Acts 17:29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone —an image made by human design and skill.
The Acts 17:30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
The Acts 17:31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
The Acts 17:32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”
The Acts 17:33 At that, Paul left the Council.
The Acts 17:34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
In conclusion, though the origin of the feast we now celebrate as Christmas was initially idolatrous, it’s been sanctified by its Christian adoption to commemorate the birth of the Son of God, rather than the pagan sun god, Mithras. We don’t need to know the exact date that the Lord Jesus Christ was born before we can honour his birth. Any day set aside to commemorate the birth of the Lord and to honour him is acceptable to God. It’s true that there’s no precedence of the celebration of Christ’s birth in the Scriptures. But, the Scriptures allow for the celebration of extra-biblical festivals that honour and glorify God. As long as Christmas focuses on the celebration of the nativity story and God’s love to mankind in giving us his only begotten Son, and as long as it provides a basis for evangelism and the demonstration of God’s love to others, the celebration should be encouraged. The only parts we need to remove from Christmas are the pagan myth of Santa Claus, and the irreverence and ungodliness associated with the celebration. Outside of these, Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of the Saviour to the world, and to preach the gospel to every creature. The Church recovered a day dedicated to the pagan sun god Mithras, and rededicated it to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Let us celebrate that!
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