Christmas Wars: Then and Now

The "War on Christmas"? Are we missing something here? Perhaps a look at church history might help.

The “War on Christmas”? Are we missing something here? Perhaps a look at church history might help.

It is that time of year again, December, when Christians in America face an annual existential crisis: Do you wish people a “Merry Christmas”… or not?

I must confess that I am not crazy about fighting amongst the shopping hordes at the mall, and the year after year pressure of finding the right gift can be really stressful. Sure, shopping online helps a teeny bit, but what I am talking about here is a more fundamental cultural anxiety. Increasingly over the past few years, I have heard Christians grumble throughout the month of December over how “they have taken Christ out of Christmas!” I have read angry letters in the local newspaper complaining how store operators are greeting customers more and more with the shallow and inadequate “Happy Holidays”. Where have the traditional nativity scenes at the community fire station gone? Have a “Joyous Winter Solstice”? What is that all about?

Folks. Let’s face it. We are moving more towards to a post-Christian society with every passing year.

Deal with it.

We could continue to get mired in frustration and disgust, or we can see this as a providential opportunity to reflect on what God is calling us to do as witnesses for the Gospel. What does this look like? Might I suggest some lessons from church history?

The “War on Christmas” Goes Way, Way Back

Where did we get Christmas from, anyway? “Christmas” is not even in the Bible.

Good point.

The common popular theory today is that Christmas originated as a “baptized” pagan holiday. The Christian church during the ancient Roman empire simply took the pagan Saturnalia festival, which supposedly began on December 25th, and tried to make it into a Christian festival, the “Christ-mass”, in an effort to stamp out the pagan competition. It sounds plausible, and there is some element of truth to it, but the full story reveals just how distorted and misleading this simplistic narrative really is.

Starting in the late second century, we find Clement of Alexandria writing about Christian speculation regarding the birthdate of Jesus. The ideas were all over the place. By the fourth century in the era of Constantine, the Christian communities had settled on two possible dates: December 25th in the West and January 6th in the East. Following the church in Rome, most Christians eventually adopted the December 25th date and then celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, separately celebrating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem (not on Christmas, as many nativity scenes have it!).

How did the church arrive at these dates? It is a little complicated, but essentially the thought was that the date of Christ’s crucifixion was also the same date as Christ’s conception, which puts the birth of Jesus nine months later in the neighborhood of those dates.

The fact that Christ’s birth coincided with the Sol Invictus festival of pagan Rome was therefore seen as a providential sign that Christianity was really the true faith. Granted, over time, Christmas began to collect more pagan trappings and the Roman church encouraged the adapting of pagan festivals and customs for the purposes of serving the Christian calendar. But this was seen as largely an effort to try to win over a largely pagan society to the newly established faith of the Roman empire.

Therefore, the idea that a corrupt church hierarchy was in effect injecting pagan customs into the life of the church reflects later concerns about Roman Catholicism, not something that was necessarily a criticism of the church when Christmas began to be regularly celebrated. However, as the established Roman church gained political power and cultural prestige over the centuries, these criticisms indeed began to emerge. The Protestant Reformation finally blew the lid off of things, but the celebration of Christmas tended to vary within the Protestant movement.

Ba Hum Bug!

By the time the English Puritans arrived in New England in the early 17th. century, America became the scene of the first full-scale “War on Christmas”. The American Puritan forefathers despised Christmas. Unlike most Christians today, they saw Christmas as an essentially “Catholic” practice, intermixed with pagan customs. Instead, the Puritans sought to ground all of Christian worship on the explicit teachings found in Holy Scripture, instead of the traditions of the Roman church.

Puritan leaders in colonial Massachusetts and Virginia frowned upon Christmas celebrations, but they found it difficult to wipe out the merry-making altogether. At one point in Puritan New England, Christmas was officially outlawed. Christians instead were encouraged to observe only the Christian Sabbath on Sundays as holidays. The laws were difficult to enforce and eventually they were relaxed, but most Puritan-influenced church leaders continued to play down Christmas and advise against it. This essentially American “War on Christmas” continued until 1870, when Christmas Day finally became a federal holiday (Alabama became the first state to officially recognize Christmas in 1836, followed by Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838).

Twenty-first century Christians may feel like they are in a fairly new “War on Christmas”, but this is simply a long standing American way of doing things.

A Different Kind of “War on Christmas”

Some Christian groups today are hoping to revive the early Puritan “War on Christmas”. Instead of trying to force their secular neighbors to adopt a traditional version of Christmas, they want to get rid of Christmas completely in an effort to get “back to the Bible”.  There is something to this, but I am concerned that some of these efforts miss the mark. I have a friend of mine who worshipped in a church that effectively banned the celebration of Christmas. When this friend joined me last year for a get-together of carol singing and feasting, he told me that it was the best celebration he had joined in for years!

He had really missed Christmas.

I find this incredibly sad.

Yet please hear me out: If you choose not to celebrate Christmas out of your conviction as to what the Bible teaches, then I respect that. When Christians desire to rid themselves of all elements in worship that promote paganism, this is truly a sign of godly obedience. Christian worship needs to be based on the Bible, absolutely. But please remember that the Bible does not explicitly condemn the celebration of our Lord’s birth in principle.

The celebration of Christmas surely has a number of murky things in it that we can get emotionally attached to that do not provide any spiritual benefit in honoring God (I am not much for the Yule Log, for example). We need to lighten up and not take our traditional celebrations of Christmas that seriously and instead take the Bible more seriously. If the choir does not sing the carol the way we grew up with it, or if someone criticizes some way that you like to do Christmas, is it really a big deal? Refocusing on what the Scriptures directly teach is the best way to show us how easy it is to get wrongfully hung up on “our” Christmas traditions.

It is not about the choir. It is not about the tree. It is not about the nativity scene. It is not about the decorations.

It is all about Jesus.

The Danger of Christians Being “Anti-Christmas”

However, when the “War on Christmas” from Christians becomes a subtle form of legalism that tries to enforce particular behaviors that are not condemned in Scripture and that improperly bind the conscience of others, I find this to be a violation of the freedom we have in Christ. Paul’s teaching about eating meat sacrificed to idols and how this impacts the conscience of the Christian is clearly instructive here (1 Corinthians 10:23-33)

Furthermore, simply sitting out on Christmas, while it may help someone feel like they are worshipping God in a more pure way, it can be a sure fire way to damage relationships. If you are trying to be a Christian witness to family members who do not yet know Jesus, what benefit is it if you refuse to join in their Christmas celebrations? Are you not missing an opportunity to share what Christmas really means, the celebration that God has come into the world to save people and mend broken hearts? Is boycotting Christmas an act of keeping worship pure, or is it just a cloak for promoting self-righteousness?

Here is my suggestion: Instead of  mindlessly going along with the flow of the crowd, and instead of responding in anger over the secularist “War on Christmas” agenda, and instead trying to posture ourselves self-righteously against people around us, the Christian community needs to be in the intentional act of befriending others. Just as God entered our world at Christmas, we need to enter the world of our neighbors who do not yet know the Savior.

I still wish people a “Merry Christmas”, even if it is not always the most politically correct, expected thing to do.  But I would want to ask the other person first whether they celebrate Christmas or not. You can learn a lot about others simply by asking good questions, as it often gives an opportunity for me to explain why I do celebrate Christmas. If someone hears me humming a favorite Christmas carol and wants to know what I am doing, it might be good for me to be prepared to tell my acquaintance what the lyrics of the carol are talking about. If you have a particular Christmas tradition that means a lot to you, would you be able to tell your inquisitive neighbor what your tradition tells you about the coming of the Savior?

So one must be careful about sharing a “Christmas” greeting in post-modern America. It might mean you actually have to engage the other person in thoughtful, and if the Spirit leads, life-changing conversation.

Additional Resources:

Much of this post was adapted from the resources I link to above, but by far the most informative article I found was from BiblicalArchaeology.org, by Andrew McGowan, President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

I am also grateful to the fine research of Dr. Philipp Nothaft, a research associate at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College in London. In his essay, The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research, published in the Cambridge journal of Church History, December 2012, Nothaft shows that the prevailing popular theory that Christmas had strictly pagan origins, “The History of Religions Theory”, has a number of weaknesses, with a certain measure of confirmation bias rooted in both 16th century Protestant polemics against Catholicism on the one hand and more secular and critical German History of Religions research pioneered in the 19th century on the other. Alternatively, the “Calculation Theory”, the opposing idea that early Christians (NOT pagan influence) prior to the establishment of the Roman church in the era of Constantine speculated on different chronological methods at determining the date of Jesus’ birth, is gaining a more thoughtful appreciation among contemporary scholars. The “Calculation Theory” suffers from not having that many primary sources to work with, but it rejects several of the unproven assumptions made by History of Religions theorists. I find that Nothaft’s more nuanced approach tending to favor the “Calculation Theory” is supported by the greater weight of the evidence.

A Puritan Christmas:

From the records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659:

“…To the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

Charles Dickens would have needed a bunch of shillings in his pocket if he lived in Puritan New England.

Something to Watch out For:

An example of a growing contemporary trend within some segments of the evangelical church to stop celebrating Christmas can be found in the Hebrew Roots Movement. Groups such as Jim Staley’s “Passion for Truth” contend that the church needs to recover its original Hebraic perspective as founded in the Bible, as opposed to man-made traditions developed within the church. What I find troublingly ironic about Jim Staley’s approach is the uncritical acceptance of an understandably anti-Catholic polemic on the one hand that also carries with it a very modernistic and secularist approach to church history on the other. For a less-technical critique of the Hebrew Roots Movement that looks at some of the practical concerns behind this trend in some churches, look here.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

18 responses to “Christmas Wars: Then and Now

  • Scott Ellis

    Clarke, thank you so much for this post. I had never really thought of how others respond internally when I say “Merry Christmas”. I have to confess, I tend to say it more in defiance of the newer more politically correct greetings.

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Scott,

      I admit that there are times that I greet with “Merry Christmas” merely out of force of habit, but with all of our multicultural sensitivities these days, it still leads to some fruitful conversations as to how others view Christmas, and in turn, what they think about the Christian faith.

      Thanks for commenting!!

      Like

  • Marion

    Wonderful information Clarke. I have had friends who would not expose thier children to Santa because of Christian beliefs but I did not know Christians would not find a God-honoring way to celebrate Christ’s birth. Very interesting.

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Marion,

      Perhaps I am misleading a bit here.

      Those Christians who oppose the celebration of Christmas are not so much opposed to recognizing the birth of Christ as much as they think that (1) Christmas really is a pagan tradition with a Christian veneer pasted over the top, and/or (2) the real date of Christmas is not December 25th.

      The question of the proper date is another whole topic… too much to expand upon here.

      They may actually be right about item (2) but I think they are wholly wrong about item (1). The evidence is not in their favor.

      Sorry if I was not entirely clear on that. Thanks for the comment!

      Like

  • walter bright

    Reblogged this on Where are you… Where are you Going? and commented:
    It is that time of year again, December, when Christians in America face an annual existential crisis: Do you wish people a “Merry Christmas”… or not? This and more, in this informative and well written post, my good friend at Veracity expounds. It will be worth your while…

    Like

  • vonhonnauldt

    A. I prefer the greeting, “Have a blessed Christmas”. B. Have you ever noticed that the Lord Jesus is never allowed to “grow up”? When Mandela’s birth is celebrated in years to come, none of the attention will be focused on the circumstances of his birth, but on the accomplishments of his life. Where are these acknowledgements on our Lord’s “birthday”?

    Like

  • art & life notes

    A great post, Clarke. I love the illustration! Did you create that?

    God Himself did in fact institute several holidays, and command their remembrance to Israel (Lev 23.) Jesus later fulfilled the 4 spring feasts in remarkable ways, and the gentile church would be blessed by rediscovering how “the Torah and the prophets bear witness to God’s righteousness apart from the Torah” (Rom 3:21.)
    However, I agree with you that it is not necessarily wrong to observe a holiday simply because God didn’t command it. Our proof is that Jesus observed “Hanukkah”! (the feast of dedication.)

    Also, it looks to me as though God Himself threw quite the private celebratory reception on the night Jesus was born.

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      The illustration has been used by other bloggers who have written on the same theme, but unfortunately, I was not able to track down where it originally came from so that I could properly credit it.

      Excellent point about Jesus celebrating Hanukkah in John 10:22-39, which was established during the era between the Old and New Testaments, which means that that there is no commandment in the Biblical text to celebrate this festival, just this description that Jesus did celebrate it along with His fellow Jews.

      Thanks for stopping by Veracity and commenting.

      Like

  • Clarke Morledge

    Dave Rudy sent me the following link regarding the Pew Foundation’s research on how seasonal greetings are being used by Americans. Very informative:

    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/12/merry-christmas-or-happy-holidays/

    Like

  • dwwork

    Clark, another great post. I think the only way anyone can take Christ out of Christmas is if we let them. I someone wishes me happy holidays I thank them and wish them a merry Christmas.

    Like

  • DD

    I think that we should be able to find out the right date of Jesus birth and celebrate the correct date. instead of some pagan roman festival

    Like

    • John Paine

      It’s interesting to consider the possibilities. Modern scholarship does hold great potential. For example, although precise dating of Christmas isn’t yet possible, it is possible to nail down the exact date of Christ’s crucifixion from multiple sources of evidence. See https://sharedveracity.net/2012/02/22/judge-for-yourself/ for the full explanation. Thanks for commenting!

      Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      DD,

      I am assuming that you follow the popular “baptized pagan holiday” view of Christmas origins as I outlined. We may or may not be able to find the “correct date”, but I would not want to discourage your optimism either. Nevertheless, I think that we should give the recent scholarship that challenges this popular theory regarding the pagan origins of Christmas a fair shake.

      Thanks for stopping by on Veracity!

      Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      DD,

      If it helps, I clarified a little better in the post that the idea that the Saturnalia festival was “baptized” into becoming Christmas could be very much mistaken since the dates do not necessarily or easily line up. The Saturnalia festival was earlier in the calendar and did not coincide with the December 25th date, at least not initially, according to the research done by Dr Anthony McRoy from the Wales Evangelical School of Theology, as he explains here:

      http://www.answering-islam.org/pagan/christmas.html

      The Sol Invictus festival is a different story, but even McRoy finds that the December 25 even for this date is not as secure as many suppose. Furthermore, the connection with a Mithras festival around December 25 has its difficulties as well. I have updated my post from last year to reflect some of the skepticism based on this research:

      https://sharedveracity.net/2012/12/23/have-a-merry-mithras/

      Even if it turns out that the December 25 date can not be completely disassociated with pagan festivals, you still need to consider the dating methods used by the early church _independently_ for determining Christ’s birthdate.

      The bottom line: do not believe everything you hear about the supposed “pagan origins of Christmas”. Do you own research, ground it in Scripture, and do not simply swallow some secular idea invented by critics of evangelical faith in the 19th century.

      Like

  • Bad Blood Moon Rising? | Veracity

    […] Hagee derived his ideas from fellow dispensationalist pastor, Mark Biltz. Biltz is a leading figure in the Hebrew Roots Movement, a rather provocative teaching that urges Gentile Christians to stay more faithful to the Bible by adopting more traditionally Old Testament Jewish practices in terms of a calendar of worship. Highlighted before here on Veracity, Biltz’s Hebrew Roots teaching has proven very controversi…. […]

    Like

  • JGIG

    Thanks for this article! I’ve recommended it to others, and a link appears on the Articles Page at JGIG. I reread it today as I prepared to post it on my JGIG Facebook page. For me, it boils down to this: that Christmas is a vehicle through which the Gospel goes out more freely than at any other time of the year.

    And when it comes right down to it, there would be no Christmas if there had been no Incarnation of the Living God come to Earth to bring Good Will to mankind.

    No one celebrates Mithra, Tammuz, or any other of those ‘gods’ we’re told we’re worshipping at Christmas time. No, the great majority of people don’t even recognize those names – but mention Jesus – and they immediately know that it’s His Birth that we’re celebrating! One has to actually DIG UP and DIG INTO paganism to ‘debunk’ Christmas.

    I prefer to use my time to learn of Christ Jesus, the fullness of the Deity in bodily form, come in the flesh to do the Work of Redemption, Resurrection, Ascension, and Intercession as my Perfect, Permanent High Priest!

    And in my book, that’s TOTALLY worth celebrating! \o/

    Grace and peace,
    -JGIG

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      JGIG,

      With all of the changes in our culture, the celebration of Christmas can be a real opportunity for believers to witness to our neighbors about the truth of the Incarnation.

      Thanks for stopping by Veracity.

      Clarke

      Like

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