What are the origins of Christmas and can a Christian celebrate it?
Christmas is the most popular holiday in America. Both the secular and the sacred celebrate it, but for different reasons. Some see it as the greatest business time of the year which is fueled by the exchange of gifts. Others consider it the time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Either way, it is a very important holiday.
The word "Christmas" comes from two old words: Christes maesse. It means, "the Mass of Christ." This comes from the Catholic Mass, that practice where the priest re-offers the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross during the time of Communion.1
The Origins of Christmas
The origins of Christmas go back to before the time of Christ when many ancient cultures celebrated the changing of the seasons. In the northern hemisphere in Europe, for example, the winter solstice, which was the shortest day of the year, occurs around Dec. 25th. These celebrations were based on the decline of winter. Since during winter animals were penned, people stayed in doors, crops didn't grow, etc., to know that winter was half over and on its way out was a time of celebration.
In the ancient Roman system of religion, Saturn was the god of agriculture. Each year during the summer, the god Jupiter would force Saturn out of his dominant position in the heavenly realm and the days would begin to shorten. In the temple to Saturn in Rome, the feet of Saturn were then symbolically bound with chains until the winter solstice when the length of days began to increase. It was this winter solstice that was a time of celebration and exchange of gifts as the hardness of winter began to wane and the days grew longer.
December 25th specifically coincided the day of the birth of the sun-god named Phyrgia a culture in the ancient Balkans.
In the Roman Empire, by the time of Christ the winter festival was known as saturnalia. The Roman Church was unable to get rid of saturnalia, so early in the 4th Century, they adopted the holiday and tried to make it a Christian celebration of the Lord's birth. They called it the Feast of the Nativity. This custom has been part of western culture ever since.
The Christmas Tree and Mistletoe
One of the symbols of the life found in the celebration of saturnalia, was the use of evergreens. These plants which stayed green all year long, were often used in different cultures as symbols of life and rebirth. They were sometimes decorated as a form of worship in varied cultures in religious ceremonies dealing with fertility.
Mistletoe was considered a curative plant and was used in many ancient medicine recipes. The Celts even believed that the plant, which is a parasite that lives on trees, contained the soul of the tree on which it lived. The Druids used Mistletoe in their religious ceremonies. The Druid priests would cut it up and distribute it to the people who would place the cuttings over the doorways of their homes. This was supposed to protect the dwellers from various forms of evil.
On What Day Was Jesus Really Born?
No one knows for sure what was the month, not to mention which day, on which Jesus was born. Various theories have been raised that put Jesus' birth in April, October, and September. But no one knows for sure.
Additionally, our calendar is inaccurate. It set about 4 years too late. This is known by comparing the biblical accounts of gospels and the extrabiblical records known about Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:2) and Herod the Great (Matt. 2:19) who died in 4 B.C. in the year of Jesus' birth. Humorously, that would make Jesus, born in 4 B.C.
Can the Christian Celebrate Christmas?
Is the Christian free to celebrate a holiday that not only has pagan origins, but also is used by the unbelieving world as a promotion of commercialism? In my opinion, it depends.
The Christian must hold his standard of righteousness and devotion to God above those of the world. The Old Testament says that we are to worship God in truth according to the dictates that He has established (Exodus 20:1-4; 24:12-31:18). Christmas was not established by God. In addition, there are no records at all of the early church celebrating the birth of Christ.
On the other hand, there are those who say we have freedom Christ and can celebrate any day we desire. Paul says, "All things are lawful, though not all are profitable" (1 Cor. 6:12). Should we then participate in the celebration of a festival whose origins are based on exceeding commercialism?
It is my opinion that we are free to celebrate the day. This is why.
In the Bible in 1 Cor. 10:23-33, Paul speaks about meat sacrificed to idols. This meat was often sold in the meat market and the question arose, "Should a Christian each such meat?" Paul said in verse 25, "Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience' sake." The origins of the meat were, essentially, pagan. Many animals were raised for the purpose of sacrificing to pagan deities and their meat was offered in the market place. In reference to this Paul said it was okay to eat the meat.
Then in verses 28-29 he says, "But if anyone should say to you, 'This is meat sacrificed to idols,' do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience' sake; 29I mean not your own conscience, but the other man's; for why is my freedom judged by another's conscience?" (NASB). Paul is saying that if you are with someone who might be affected by your eating meat that was sacrificed to idols, then don't eat it -- not because of you, but because of the other person. In other words, eating that meat won't affect you. The false gods are not real. They have no power.
1 Cor. 8:-7-9 echoes this idea. It says, "However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 8But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. 9But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." Though this passage requires a bit more examination, it still carries the sense of freedom. And, Jesus has definitely set us free.
However, if you are not comfortable with this conclusion and you don't want to celebrate Christmas, that is okay. You must answer to the Lord.
The Lord, through His sacrifice, has cleansed us of our sins. When we came in contact with Him, it is we who were cleansed. It is not Him who was made dirty. The woman with the issue of blood who touched Jesus (Mark 5:25-34) was made clean. It was not Jesus who was made dirty. Likewise Jesus touched the unclean lepers and cleansed them (Matt. 8:3). Jesus came in contact with many people and it was never Him who was dirtied. It was they who were cleansed.
I think this principle can be applied to Christmas. Yes, Christmas has pagan origins. Yes, it is a highly commercial time. Yes, many do not have their eyes on Jesus. But for the Christian it is a time to reflect upon the birth of our Lord and to celebrate. We are making the day holy.
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- 1. Because of its strong Catholic associations, Christmas was often opposed by those in the Protestant Reformation. This opposition was based largely on the belief that it contradicts the biblical teaching of the finality of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. (Cf. Heb. 9:12, 24-26; 10:10-14).
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