A baby in a manger, Santa Claus and Christmas trees, holly wreaths and poinsettias, colored lights and joyous carols, endless shopping and gift giving: these are the many sights and sounds of the beloved holiday called Christmas. From the day after Thanksgiving until December25, cartoon specials, radio programs, store displays and houses lit up with lights tell the world that Christmas has come. For most Americans, the Christmas season is a heart-warming time of good foods, delicious fragrances, colorful fantasies and fun with friends and family. Yet, Christmas is also a time of crass commercialism, consumer debt, crowded malls and crushing depression. Hundreds of websites on the Internet reveal the popularity and the controversy of the holiday, as debated in the site entitled, “Christmas in Cyberspace: A Christian Perspective,” whose authors boldly state, “No Santas here, just the Good News!” Yearly, faithful Christians wonder if the true message of Christmas is forever obliterated and tainted by the many cultural expressions associated with this religious celebration. Is Christmas a pagan holiday or a Christian holy day? In order to answer these questions, one needs to look at the roots of the holiday celebrated by over a billion people worldwide.
Early Christians did not celebrate birthdays, especially the birth of Jesus Christ, according to “The Christian Book of Why” by John C. McCollister. In a chapter entitled “Festivals and Seasons,” McCollister says that celebrating birthdays was a custom of the ‘pagan’ non-Christian culture from which these early Christian communities sought to separate themselves. It was not until the fourth century A.D. that Christians chose to celebrate the birthday of their savior. Were the early Christians adopting a pagan practice in celebrating the birth of Christ? Probably not, instead, Christians began to recognize the importance of celebrating the incarnation as a historic fact. The New Testament teaches that God put on flesh, or was incarnated as the man Jesus of Nazareth to fulfill the promise of a delivering Messiah (Matthew 1:23). Christmas wasn’t intended to be a mere birthday celebration for Jesus. Rather, it was the reenactment of the literal incarnation of God as a human being. The word Christmas is actually a contraction of Middle English words for the phrase “Christ’s mass,” a worship celebration and holy communion service honoring Jesus Christ’s nativity or birth.
MYTH#1: Christmas was once a pagan holiday.
Bishop Liberius of Rome in 354 A.D. declared that Christians in the western part of the Roman Empire acknowledge Christ’s incarnation on December 25. This day was a Roman holiday, the feast of Sol Invictusor the feast of the “Unconquerable Sun.” In non-Christian pagan Roman culture, December 25 represented the day the sun came alive again. On this date of the winter solstice, the daylight hours stopped getting shorter and began getting longer, which assured this ancient culture that the world would not end. Christians at this stage of history were still a hunted, persecuted minority in Roman society, therefore Bishop Liberius brilliantly seized upon this general time of celebration as a cover for the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. While the masses worshipped Roman gods, Christians worshipped the God of the Bible and celebrated the incarnation of the son of God. Those that say Christmas is pagan in origin, because it occurs on the date of a pagan holiday, are ignorant of the historical reasons for the occurrence. The safety of the Christian community was being protected and they were establishing a rival celebration in opposition to Sol Invictus. Interestingly enough the strategy worked, the world does not remember the celebration of the Roman god, but each year is reminded that Jesus Christ the Son of God was born as a little baby in Bethlehem.
MYTH #2: Christmas trees are mentioned in the Bible and prohibited.
But what about the Christmas tree, is Jeremiah 10:3-4 a biblical injunction against this tradition?
“For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest,
the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver
and gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”
In his article, “Is Christmas Christian?” Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute states, “A closer examination of Jeremiah 10 reveals that God is in reality condemning the creation of permanent wooden idols carved from the trees of the forest.” In fact, the Christmas tree originated centuries after Jeremiah 10 was written. In an attempt to rid German of idolatry, St. Boniface, an English missionary to Germany in the eighth century, cut down “the sacred oak tree in the city of Gelsmar.” According to McCollister, in order to pacify the residents, Boniface gave them an evergreen fir tree as a symbol of their break with paganism and turn to Christianity. The evergreen symbolizes the eternal life we receive by faith in Jesus Christ. The great German preacher and Protestant reformer Martin Luther is perhaps the first person to bring a fir tree into the house for Christmas, according to McCollister. On a beautiful Christmas eve night, Luther saw a fir tree silhouetted against a starlit sky. The beauty of the sight so overwhelmed him that he could not find the words to adequately describe it to his wife and children. Impulsively he cut down a fir tree, brought it inside and set lit candles on its boughs. In later years Luther spoke of the candle lights as symbolic of Jesus the Light of the world, and the evergreen tree as representing the everlasting life in Jesus Christ.
MYTH #3: “Xmas was adopted to take Christ out of Christmas.”
The Christmas tree is just one of the many popular symbols used by earlier Christians to communicate the message of the gospel. Holly wreaths are symbolic of the crown of thorns Jesus Christ wore at his crucifixion. McCollister reveals that Christians hung wreaths on their doors to let their neighbors know a Christian believer lived there. The “merry’ in Merry Christmas is an old English term meaning “blessed” or “happy”. The star on top of the Christmas tree symbolizes the star of Bethlehem which led the wise men’s journey to the Christ child. Poinsettias, interestingly enough, came into the Christmas celebration through an American minister, Dr. Joel R. Poinsett, who brought the flower-like plants from Mexico to the northern United States. The deep red flower which peaks in December as striking in contrast to the drab foliage of the wintery north and was emblematic of the birth of Jesus – beauty in the midst of bleakness. And what are we to do about the dreaded word, “XMAS?” This abbreviation is really not a slight on Jesus Christ at all. The “X” is actually the Greek letter “chi” which is the first letter in the Greek spelling of Christ. The “X” represents Jesus’ title, “Christ” or Messiah. This “x” or “chi” has been used by Christians for hundreds of years as a sacred Greek language abbreviation for “Christ” as in the symbol “XP” (“chr” in English).
MYTH #4: Santa Claus is based on a mythical figure.
But what are we to do with of Santa Claus? Certainly he has pagan origins. Actually, the tradition of Santa Claus stems back to the celebration of the feast day of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia. Nicholas was an important Bishop (church leader) in the fourth century, known for his generosity to the poor, especially children. His feast day, celebrated December 6, was a time to give presents to children. The saint Nicholas orSanta Niklaus from the Dutch language eventually became Santa Claus in American English. The current image of the chubby man in a red suit was popularized by Rev. Clement Moore, professor of theology at New York Theological Seminary, who published the poem, “The Visit of St. Nicholas” on December 23, 1923. The poem later became known as “The Night Before Christmas.” We can tell our children that the real Santa Claus, the saint Bishop Nicholas, was a Bible believing, Jesus loving Christian who did so much good helping poor children, that he is remembered to this day in the mythical jolly man we call Santa Claus. We all can follow his example of helping to make life better for children and adults who are poor and oppressed.
Although contemporary mass market culture has taken over the symbols of Christmas as marketing ploys to motivate Americans to buy commodities, at the heart of most Christmas traditions is a Christian message. Christians need to research and reclaim the truths earlier Christians infused in the symbols so beloved at Christmas. Christmas need not be a time thought of as “xing out” Christ. If current Christians recover the truths invested in Christmas traditions, they can communicate the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ to a world eager to enjoy the warm feelings of the holiday season. In I Corinthians 9:22, the apostle Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” For Christians, Christmas is a holy day of celebrating the historic fact of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, not just a holiday. It is sacred time for us to spread the joy and good news of God’s free gift of salvation for all people who consent to believe.
By Elder Oscar O. Owens, Jr., M.Div.
President, West Angeles Bible College