Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas? December 23, 2022

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

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Believe it or not, the question of whether Christians should celebrate Christmas is a very old one. Before the middle of the fourth century, December 25 (or a day there about) was celebrated in the Roman Empire as “Saturnalia,” a celebration of the re-appearance of the sun at the winter solstice. The Romans used the Julian Calendar, so the exact date, December 25, may have coincided then with the solstice. (It’s not important, so please don’t comment on that.)

Sometime in the fourth century, after Constantine, many Christians began celebrating December 25 as the date of the birth of Christ. Nobody knows exactly why, but it is suspected it was an effort to provide Christians with an alternative to Saturnalia which was a “pagan” holiday with the sun often worshiped as a deity.

Gradually, later popes, such as Gregory I or “Gregory the Great” baptized December 25 as a Christian holiday commemorating and celebrating the birth of Christ while Saturnalia was discouraged if not banned.

(I am aware that whole books have been written about this subject and I am summarizing here while acknowledging that not all scholars agree on the details. The point is that Christmas began as an alternative to Saturnalia and it is generally agreed that Jesus was not born in December.)

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century brought about a strong reaction to anything deemed “Catholic,” especially among groups like the Puritans in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland. Some of both dropped celebration of Christmas because it was considered a pagan holiday. Although Isaac Watts was an Anglican, he had dissenting sympathies. We do not know for sure whether he celebrated Christmas, but his song “Joy to the World” was not written as a Christmas carol but as a song about the future return of Christ and the coming of his kingdom.

When the Puritans settled New England in the seventeenth century, some of them banned the celebration of Christmas. Early Baptists in England and America did not celebrate Christmas. Today, most Primitive Baptists still do not celebrate Christmas.

Over the centuries, the vast majority of Christians have come to celebrate Christmas—both as a “winter holiday” and as a celebration of the birth of Christ. Interestingly, in Europe, which is largely secular, there does not seem to be any stigma attached to keeping at least some of the historical elements of “Christian Christmas” while in America “Christian Christmas” has largely been wiped away from public spaces.

My observation is that in the US we have two “Christmases” that happen to coincide. One is purely secular, except that some people elevate Santa Claus to a near-deity status (e.g., the song I heard in a coffee shop that included the words “Santa brings us peace and love”), and revolves mainly around shopping, decorating, planning and having family gatherings, and giving and receiving gifts. Many children in America are growing up not even knowing that Christmas has anything to do with Jesus Christ.

The second Christmas is a religious holiday, the celebration of the birth of the Messiah, Son of God, Jesus Christ. Whereas this used to be mixed and mingled in “the public square” with the first Christmas (and vice versa), now it is largely privatized. Almost the only public places one can hear traditional Christmas carols is in stores owned by Christians (e.g., Hobby Lobby).

This is how I have come to think of Christmas in America, as two holidays that coincide on the calendar. One is a “winter holiday” that includes Santa Claus, divorced from Saint Nicholas, and the other is true Christmas, a religious holiday. Easter is now the same: two holidays that happen to coincide on the calendar. Thanksgiving is the same.

If you doubt me, I think you are not paying attention. Notice how many, almost all, “Christmas movies” show no Christian symbols such as nativity scenes (crèches) or include any Christmas carols or mention (by any characters) of the birth of Jesus. Of course, there are movies made by Christians for Christians who do include those. But they are almost hard to find.

I grew up in a “fundamentalist” Christian home and church. We celebrated Christmas mainly as a religious holiday with much emphasis on the birth of Christ—including that I and other children had to “say our parts” in the church’s “Christmas play.” I spent hours memorizing my “part” before the play and usually forgot it during the play. But in our church and home Santa Claus was banned. I was never taught to believe in Santa Claus and I was even led to believe that people who did believe in him or pretend to believe in him were deluded and that it was morally wrong to teach children to believe in him.

On the other hand, we, our church and family, had Christmas decorations, listened to both religious and secular Christmas music (but not secular in church), and gave and received “Christmas presents.” Yes, we always had a Christmas tree in our house but not in our church.

My question here is how far Christians, and I mean “real” as opposed to “nominal” Christians, go in celebrating the secularized “winter holiday” that happens to coincide with Christmas on the calendar but is stripped of all recognition of Christ.

I have two qualms about the secular “winter holiday” called Christmas that has nothing to do with Christ. First, I think it is a mistake to teach children to believe in Santa Claus because, when they discover he does not exists, they will inevitably be disillusioned and wonder what else they have been deceived about. I don’t believe in deceiving children as to what is real. Second, I think at least the American secular winter holiday called Christmas has become far, far too commercialized with people going into debt to buy too many and/or expensive gifts for people, especially but not only children. I am dismayed by the commercial “hype” leading up to Christmas. Expectations are built up by advertising that leads many people to spend too much time and energy and money on presents.

I am not a Scrooge or Grinch, but I do have qualms about what Christmas has become—for both secular and religious people. I think it is overblown. Yes, let us celebrate the birth of our Savior and enjoy family gatherings and Christmas Eve services and the giving and receiving of relatively modest gifts that do not cause us to go into debt. Let’s have our decorations and music (of both kinds) and decorate a Christmas tree. If we wish to. But, personally, I have no use for Santa Claus and recoil from his “appearance” in church especially. Were I a pastor unafraid of losing my job, I would ban Santa Claus from the church building and grounds. There you have it. I said it. I may live to be sorry.

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