Some people welcome Christmas, and go “all out” for it. Trees are set up and decorated with lights, ornaments, and tinsel. Lights and decorations are placed on the exterior of houses, and in lawns. Christmas music is played. Presents are purchased and wrapped in decorative paper and with bows. Americans spend an average of $967 for items such as decorations, gifts and festive foodstuffs during the holiday season, not including travel expenses (2017 article: Here’s How Much Americans Spend on Christmas by Jodi Thornton – O’Connell, gobankingrates.com.cdn.ampproject.org). In 2013 the Christmas shopping season accounted for 19.2% of the year’s retail sales total (U.S. Christmas Season – Statistics & Facts, Statista.com). About 90% of Americans say that they celebrate Christmas (5 Facts About Christmas in America by Michael Lipka and David Masci, pewresearch-org.cdn.ammproject.org).
Some people do not. Some of these avoid all signs of participation. They do not decorate. They do not exchange presents. Some of these are motivated by religious conviction. Some are motivated by atheism.
What is the origin of Christmas? (1) Many believe that the origin of Christmas is from paganism. The New Book of Knowledge says, “It is believed that the efforts of early Christians in Rome to change pagan customs into Christian rites led, in the 4th Century A.D., to the adoption of December 25 as the date… in honor of the birth of Christ. This date was probably chosen because, according to the calendar then in use, December 25 was the winter solstice, the time when days begin to grow longer in the Northern Hemisphere. The Sun-worshipping pagans had celebrated this day as the promise of spring” (1985, Vol. 3, pp. 290-ff). “Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight… In Rome… Saturnalia – a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time…” (History of Christmas, history – com.cdc.ampproject.org).
Many Christmas traditions seem to have been borrowed. “Decorating evergreen trees had always been a part of the German winter solstice tradition” (Christmas Traditions Worldwide, history.com). “The Druids gave the world the tradition of hanging in the mistletoe in the house. There ancient Celtic priests believed the plant to be a sign of hope and peace. When two enemies met under a sprig of mistletoe they would drop their weapons and embrace in friendship. It is thought that the modern custom of the young men and women kissing under the mistletoe comes from this old ritual” (The New Book of Knowledge).
(2) Prior to the fourth century, there seems to have been many opinions, and no consensus, on the birthday of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D.) list various dates set-forth, including (by our calendar): March 21; April 15, 20, 21; and May 20 (How December 25 became Christmas by Andrew McGowan, bibicalarchaeology.org).
(3) At some point, some decided to celebrate Jesus’ birthday on December 25. It went from the Sun’s day to the Son’s day. The History Channel says, “In fact, for the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence, Jesus Christ’s birth wasn’t celebrated at all… The first official mention of December 25 as a holiday honoring Jesus’ birthday appears in an early Roman calendar from 336 A.D. … When church officials settled on December 25… they likely wanted the date to coincide with existing pagan festivals honoring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light)” (Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25th by Sarah Pruitt, history.com).
(4) Christmas was banned in Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1659-1681. It was thought to be an occasion for excessive behavior (The Surprising First Fighters in the War on Christmas by Jennifer Latsen, time.com; How the Puritans Banned Christmas by Heather Tourgee, newengland.com).
(5) Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870 (Christmas Day in the United States, timeanddate.com). It was also in the 1800’s that Christmas began to be very commercial (YouTube, Who Started Giving Christmas Presents by Ryan Reeves).
How should the Christian view Christmas? (1) As a pagan holiday? I know of no one who is trying to worship the Sun, Saturn, Mithra, or a decorated tree on this day. Intent matters. Jeremiah 10:1-10 concerns idolatry.
(2) As a religious holiday? (a) It is not a day set aside by God. We should not leave the impression that it is. There is a day, each week, that the disciples are to come together (Acts 20:7 cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; Hebrews 10:24-25). Alas, there are those who assemble only on “Special days” such as Christmas and Easter. (b) The Bible does not teach explicitly or implicitly Jesus’ birthday. It does not give a date. Neither, should we. Nativity scenes and singing songs about the birth of Jesus only at this time of year – will leave the impression that we teach this to be Jesus’ birthday. We do not know the day of His birth. We are thankful that He was born.
(3) Family time and a seasonal holiday? (a) This seems to be how more and more people are viewing it. While 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, only 46% celebrate Christmas as primarily a religious holiday (5 Facts About Christmas in America by Michael Lipka and David Masci pewresearch-org.cdn.ammproject.org). “Since the early 20th Century, Christmas has also been a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike (Christmas, Britannica.com). “Thousands of non-religious, atheistic and Jewish Americans observe the holiday season with all of the cultural trimmings (lights, trees, gifts, etc.)” Dave Miller, Article: Christmas and the Christian). (b) I believe that this is permissible. Consider the following items. Is there anything wrong with spending time off with family and friends? Certainly not. Is there anything wrong with giving gifts to others? No. Therefore, I find nothing wrong with what many do at Christmas. In my house we referred to it as “family day.” We tried to leave no impression on others that this was a special holy day, or the birth of Jesus.
Is it wrong to think about Jesus on this day? Absolutely not. We should think about Him each day.
Is it wrong to personally meditate on the meaning of His birth, even on this day, and be grateful for it? I do not see how it could be.
(4) As something to avoid? Perhaps so, for some. One should not violate his own conscience (Romans 14:23). However, be cautious not to bind this on others. Not everyone treats this as a religious holy day.