Nov 302009


Now that Christmas is almost upon us, it is fitting that we turn our attention to the words of Christians who are doing their best to spread the message of their deeply cherished beliefs about the true meaning of this holiday season:

"There is nothing Christian about Christmas. Sure, religion has tried to make it appear Christian, but anything like CHRIST must line up with the Word of God and Christmas doesn’t. It is full of lies and hypocrisy, from Santa to the giving of gifts to the nativity scene…. I know that many Christians say that they disassociate themselves from all of the lies and paganism of Christmas, but that, my friend, you can’t do. If you take the lies and paganism out of Christmas, you'll have no Christmas, for that’s what it is made of."

(For more, if that's not enough, see here.)

Such thinkers abound in chat rooms and churches alike.  What inspires them to hold these heartwarming beliefs?  Usually, their supporting arguments are something like the following:

  1. Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25.  December 25 was originally a pagan holiday that the church attempted to Christianize.
  2. Traditional symbols like mistletoe, holly, the Yule log, evergreens, and the Christmas tree were originally pagan symbols and/or deities.
  3. There is no Biblical injunction to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the Lord forbids us to add to His commands.

Although such people seem to have cornered the market on the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, allow me to be the first to cry, “Bah! Humbug.”  Let’s examine the merits of these arguments:


1. "Jesus was not born on December 25." Why, of course not.  Neither was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. born on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, but that doesn’t stop the American people from celebrating the memory of a great man.

We could attribute the neglect of Dr. King’s actual birthday to some racist conspiracy in Washington, that is, if we liked to attribute the worst possible motives to people.  But it’s more reasonable to say that it was put where it is because, perhaps, Americans are more likely to celebrate a holiday that involves a three-day weekend.  We hardly need to attribute evil motives to anyone to explain that.

In the same way, putting Christmas on December 25 could be a way to incorporate pagan idolatry into the church, or it could be:

  • Putting the celebration of Christ on a convenient day when all the pagan neighbors were celebrating anyway.
  • Providing an alternate celebration so “weaker brothers” would not be tempted to lapse back into paganism. (Ever see a church hosting a "harvest party" on Halloween?)
  • Placing the celebration of Christ’s birth nine months after the day in the liturgical calendar that commemorates the Annunciation (March 25).  That day, as it happens, was never a pagan holiday but was chosen because it was near the date of the Crucifixion.  (Our forefathers believed these things would have happened in round numbers.)

When a simple explanation covers all the facts, conspiracy theories are automatically disqualified, cut from the list by Ockham’s razor.  There are plenty of reasons to celebration Christmas on December 25 that do not involve any concession to paganism.  You may now return to decking your halls with boughs of holly—oh wait; we’ve forgotten numbers 2 and 3.


2.  "Many elements of the Christmas celebration are actually pagan symbols." You wouldn’t be using that holly to deck your halls if you knew what the pagans did with it.  Want to hear what the Druids believed about pine trees?  And no prizes for guessing what mistletoe symbolized.  How can a Christian endorse such elements of paganism?

Sounds pretty impressive, and doubtless packs a strong emotional wallop, until you reason it through.  Let’s put it in as simple terms as possible:

  • Holly is not a pagan symbol.  It is a plant.
  • A pine tree is not a pagan symbol.  It is a plant.
  • Mistletoe is not a pagan symbol.  It is a plant.
  • God made plants.

Plants are not forms of communication, which means plants don’t mean anything unless you choose to associate a meaning with them.  The meaning is not part of the object but something a cultural group intentionally associates with it.

The meanings the ancient pagans gave to plants are doubtless at odds with Christian beliefs, but it hardly follows that the plants must have those same associations hundreds of years later for people in different cultural situations.  When I give my wife a red rose, I am not saying that I support the house of Lancaster instead of the Plantagenets, even though that’s precisely what it would have meant had we lived in 15th-century England.  (Bonus points to anyone who knows who the Plantagenets were.)  Associations change easily and are almost entirely subjective.  As for us, most Christians agree that “Only God can make a tree.”

Of course we should not worship God with sinful practices that are borrowed from idolatry, as you might have read in Deuteronomy 12.  But that is not what’s at issue here. Nobody I know of is celebrating Christmas with present-day pagan symbols such as pentagrams, unless they're extremely religiously confused. Plants aren’t inherently sinful, nor were they created to be used in pagan worship or any other sinful practice.  The ancient pagans simply hijacked God’s creation and used it for their own purposes.  That’s their problem, not ours.  It wasn’t the fault of the plants, and there’s nothing sinful about the plants themselves.  Deuteronomy 12 simply doesn’t apply here.

413px-Marley's_Ghost-John_Leech_1843-detailFurthermore, the Christians who argue that we should avoid everything that has roots in paganism are being terribly inconsistent.  They have overlooked a significant piece of our culture that not only comes from ancient pagan worship but (unlike the plants) still shows the association.  All the names of the days of the week are derived from pagan deities—Wednesday is “Woden’s day,” Thursday is “Thor’s day,” Friday is “Frey’s day”—except for Sunday and Monday which come from the worship of the sun and moon.  Yet even the most anti-Christmas Christians talk about holding prayer meetings on Wednesday or Saturday.  Why don’t they consider that even more sinful than putting up a Christmas tree?

The answer is that nobody today, but nobody, says “Saturday” and means “the day which we have dedicated to the worship of Saturn.”  Even though that is obviously part of the word’s etymology, an etymology is a word’s history, not its definition.  The definition must be based on the way the word is used today, and today’s users do not include Saturn-worshipers.  Thus, when the culture changes significantly, even an obvious pagan reference can become perfectly benign.  If Christians can say “Saturday” with a clear conscience, and we obviously can, we certainly don’t need to worry about Christmas trees.


3. “There is no Biblical command to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the Lord forbids us from adding to His commands.” This is an argument that does seem to carry a bit of weight, and undeniably has a strong emotional pull among Christians who claim to believe in Sola Scriptura.  Who wants to be guilty of adding their own ideas to God’s Word?

Many Christians would be content to observe that many other things, like cars, toasters, and banana cream pie, aren’t mentioned in the Bible either, and hardly anyone has any scruples about using them even in church.  The Bible after all is not a manual of how to create a culture, but an inspired record of how God has revealed Himself to people throughout the flow of history.

I’ve got a better argument which I’ve never seen used on the subject, so watch carefully.  In John 10:22-23, we see that Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem when “the Feast of Dedication took place.”  Which feast is that?  You will search the Old Testament in vain for any reference to it.  In Hebrew it is called “Hanukkah.”

As those familiar with Jewish culture know, the festival of Hanukkah was started c. 165 B.C., in the period between the Old and New Testaments, to commemorate the rededication of the temple (long story, see under “Maccabees.”)  The Old Testament contains no mention at all the holiday or the historical events that led to its creation.  (Hanukkah did not originate until after the O.T. canon was closed.)  The holiday was not ordained by God, but Jesus still celebrated it.

If the Lord Jesus Himself was comfortable celebrating a religious holiday that was not found at all in canonical Scripture, surely the argument that Christmas as a holiday cannot be found in the Bible carries absolutely no weight whatsoever.

373px-Scrooges_third_visitor-John_Leech,1843In short, Christmas passes the test.  All these arguments against it are nothing but (oh, how I enjoy saying this word) humbug!  It is high time for this anti-Christmas sentiment to be boiled in figgy pudding and buried with a stake of holly through its heart.  Bah!  And again, humbug!

All that being said, however, there are still plenty of things about Christmas for Scrooge-minded Christians to legitimately object to.  The rampant commercialism and blatant materialism are undeniably contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.  Santa Claus may be harmless for those who trace his lineage back to the generous St. Nicholas of Myra, but for others he can become “replacement religion,” a convenient substitute for the Christ of Christmas.  And who hasn’t been fed up with the loathsome retail rush and frenetic schedules that crowd all the time and energy out of the season?

God help us, every one.

I’d give an inspiring message on what we should do here, but I think it’s fairly obvious.  Stop and smell the peppermint.  Focus on the giving.  Remember the first five letters of the holiday.  And remember that this may be the best opportunity you’re likely to have all year to share the message of Christ with your neighbors.  Don’t waste it on petty squabbles about mistletoe.

In other news, a poll has found that “only 5 percent of Americans are offended by the phrase ‘Merry Christmas,’ while 46 percent are offended by the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ when spoken by someone who is afraid someone else will be offended by the phrase ‘Merry Christmas.’”  (QT, Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 17th 2006)

And a happy Hanukkah to you too.