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.
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. Most scholars today agree that this assumption, based on the idea that a prophet always died on the date of their birth (or in the case of Jesus, on the date of his conception), is without any solid foundation. Instead, most scholars would tend to say that Jesus was born sometime in the autumn, roughly in October, but even that is somewhat a matter of continuing debate.
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, superseding any religious precedent set by the pagan world. 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.
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.