Tis the Reason for the Season …
For most Christians today, December 25th is treated as one of the most sacred days of the year. We use numerous slogans to reinforce that- from “Keep Christ in Christmas”, “Wise Men Still Seek Him”, and others, like “He is the Reason for the Season”.
For many, the season is full of family traditions, and loaded with emotional meaning.
Virtually all Bible-Believing Christians are familiar with the text
in Mark 7:13 where Jesus blasts the Pharisees of his day because they
“Nullified the Word of God by their traditions”, and those sincere Christians
assent to the idea that it is a bad thing to put tradition ahead of
the Word of God. However, we always imagine that it is someone elses
tradition. What about if it was OUR tradition?
Ironically, most Christians also understand that Jesus was almost certainly not born in December. Everything in the Bible about his birth hints against that. For several hundred years after Christ, there was no indication in the writings of church leaders that December 25th had any significance to the church. We talk about his birth at this time of year, with a wink and shrug, acknowledging to the world at the outset that as Christians, we are purporting a fanciful myth. We say “well, we don't know the actual day, but this is as good a day as any”. So is December 25th really a day we ought to be celebrating?
Where the December 25th Date Came From
In Persia, it was the rebirth of Nimrod, and later, that of Mithras. In Egypt, the birth of the Sun god Osiris. In Rome, it was the festival of Saturnalia, which climaxed on the 25th with the “Brumalia”. Later in the 3rd century, many of the pagan traditions were consolidated into the Natalis Dies Solis Invicti, or “Birth Day of the Unconquered Sun”.
Other nations, before the entrance of Christianity, had their celebrations on that day, including the Norse “Yule” festivals in Scandinavian countries.
In most cases, the celebration involved either evergreen branches made into wreaths, adorned with candles, or a whole evergreen tree, adorned with silver and gold amulets of Bacchus, the god of wine and merriment. It usually involved the exchanging of gifts, also.
It is of critical importance to realize that these celebrations existed
in the Roman and Hellenistic cultures at larger during the early formative
years of the church, and it was a given that Christians wouldn't take
part in such idolatry.
At this time, there was some speculation by some Christian writers of 2nd and 3rd century when Christ might have been born... but no one even considered a time in December. Some thought a date in April. Some thought March. Many now think that, seeing that the great events of Christ's life were orchestrated around Jewish Holy Days, that they Feast of Tabernacles in the Fall would be a likely time. (This would seem to be also alluded to in the Gospel of John, when John specifically mentions how Christ, the Word of God, dwelt or literally was “tabernacled” with us, when speaking of his incarnation. -John 1:14).
The tipping point happened in the 4th century, when the Roman Emperor
Constantine, who spent most of his life as a sun worshiper, set by royal
decree, the birth of Christ to December 25th., in 336 AD. It is clear
that his only motivation to pick that date was to correspond with Natalis
Solis Invicti, and thus “synchronize” the Holy Days of the pagan empire
with the growing Christian population. The church apparently succumbed
to his wishes without too much resistance. The Roman bishops decreed
that the day would be marked with a special “Mass”, thus “Christ's Mass”
The first problem we should have with this is that all the cultural adornment of the pagan holiday came charging right into the church. The pagan December 25th holiday was marked by decorating and lighting an evergreen tree, and parties for exchanging gifts. That might sound familiar. As an afterthought, some Christians like to say that the “gift giving” has to do with the Magi bringing gifts to Jesus (it doesn't) … but they are of course, at a total loss to explain what a decorated tree has to do with the birth of Christ! To make it worse in the west during our contemporary times, the folklore of Santa Claus and Rudolph have far eclipsed the artificial veneer about Jesus anyways. It is, at best, a secular holiday. At worst, its a continuation of the idolatrous practices that the church of Jesus Christ rejected from the outset.
When you attempt to make a synthetic holiday by adopting anything from paganism, you simply pollute the truth. Look for example, how the church now celebrates Christ's resurrection with the synthetic holiday “Easter”- the very word being derived from a Babylonian goddess of fertility. The ensuing confusing has made the emblems of the supposed Holy Day colored eggs and bunny rabbits, the symbols of the goddess after who the day is named. The church attempted the same thing by “baptizing” the pagan holiday of Samhain, the feast of the dead, as “All Saint's Day” (Old English “All Hallows Eve ie “Halloween”). The Christian name stuck, but otherwise there is nothing “Christian” about it.
Here is a serious question that is germane to the whole issue: Looking at the Bible in it's entirety, when God's people were confronted with the cultural practices of a pagan land were they A) Told to assimilate those practices into their worship, and “baptize” them with a new name, or B) Told to utterly detest, reject, and abstain from the pagan practices, in favor of following God's Word?
There are scores of places in the Old and New Testament where God reiterates in no uncertain terms that God's people are not to adopt the religious practices of the heathen. When his covenant people did, it was considered sin, and they had to repent of it. They were told not only to not follow after the other gods...they were told to not worship the LORD in the same manner that the pagans worshiped their gods!
So what the church did in the 4th Century, at Constantine's behest, stands in clear opposition to what God commanded not only Israel, but the church regarding idolatry. And inasmuch as we follow the lead set by Constantine, we are continuing that error.
Where that Leaves us Today
Sometimes it is just an emotional attachment to the glee of opening gifts, to the familiar Christmas music, or to the special traditional family time. But as mentioned at the outset... what really is more important.. following our familiar traditions, or following the Word of God?
Some Bible believing Christians see the holiday in pragmatic terms-
although it is not really Jesus' birthday, but a thinly disguised pagan
holiday, they figure they can use it to introduce others to church or
the Gospel. However, what are we really communicating about the Gospel
if our segue to the unchurched is clearly pagan mythology that, at the
core, really has nothing to do with the truth of the Gospel?
Ultimately it is a matter of conscience. In Romans 13, Paul tells us that one may consider a day more holy than another, while one may consider them all the same. However, that still needs to be squared with the biblical admonitions against idolatry, and our desire to walk in the truth, in a way that is compromised by the culture.