I am so thankful for the birth of Jesus Christ; the manifestation of God in the flesh, the promise of God’s coming messiah fulfilled, salvation presented to a waiting world in swaddling cloths. We cannot over emphasize the importance of the Incarnation or over celebrate the First Coming of our Savior…and that is not opinion, it is fact. It is something that should be honored and esteemed daily for God’s people and especially highlighted during the Advent season.
While, for most of Christ’s followers, the celebration of Jesus Christ’s first coming is a period of rejoicing, it never fails that every year there are those who attempt to diminish the excitement of the holy season with cries of idolatry and paganism. Year after year, it is always the same arguments, so this year I thought it may be beneficial to address those concerns before they pop their heads out of the sand where they have been hiding since last Christmas season.
I have categorized these yearly objections into three categories:
- December 25th is a pagan holiday
- Christmas trees are idolatrous
- Giving gifts feeds materialism
Argument number one that is often heard every year is that we aren’t actually celebrating Jesus’ birthday on the correct day. Furthermore, conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that December 25th is actually an ancient pagan holiday that celebrates the sun. Therefore, they come to the unsettling conclusion that if someone actually honors the 25th as a holy day those people are being misled and are exalting the kingdom of darkness without their even knowing about it. Sounds scary, huh?
While we in the West honor the birth of Christ on December 25th (the Armenian Orthodox church in the East celebrates on January 6th), it can be well argued that the exact date of Christ’s birth is not known. Church history is silent for the first 300 years concerning the date of His birth. The tradition of December 25th seems to have come about during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, around 336 A.D. While historians argue whether or not Constantine was a true believer because at times his faith wavered considerably between politics, paganism, and Christianity, it is well documented that under his leadership Christianity was legalized (up to that point it was illegal to be a follower of Christ and was often punishable by imprisonment, possession of property, or even death). Along with legalization, the growth of Christianity went unhindered by the government and even encouraged. As a result, the church was free to establish this date as the birthday of the King of kings.
There are possibly many reasons why this date was chosen; some rationally mathematical, some traditionally orthodox. My opinion is that it wasn’t by accident that they chose a day when unbelievers were holding a non-Christian festival. History records that December 25th was a day for the Romans to celebrate the sun which coincided with the winter solstice.
While this date was chosen by man and may or may not be accurate, I believe God led the early church to pick the date they did. The Lord specializes at retrieving His creation from dark places. He is very good at taking pagan things and redeeming them so they become something that glorifies and honors Him. For instance, the cross upon which Christ was crucified was pagan. But it was that same wicked, evil cross where our redemption was expressed and became a reality for the glory of God for all eternity.
God is in the business of redeeming pagan things for His glory, including you and me. So what’s the big deal about a date?
Another argument that is often heard around this time of year, is that Christmas trees are synonymous with idolatry; themselves being idols that people worship. The scripture that is often quoted to add credence to this claim is found in Jeremiah.
“For the customs of the peoples are delusion; because it is wood cut from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. They decorate it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers so that it will not totter.” Jeremiah 10:3–4 (NASB95)
To some this passage at first glance may look like they are referencing Christmas trees, but in reality, the custom of cutting down a tree and decorating it in honor of our Savior who was cursed on a tree didn’t start until the 1600s by Christians in Germany. This was about a thousand years after Jeremiah preached this verse to apostate Israel.
Also the historical context in which it is intended is being directed towards the ancient practice of crafting wooden idols that had become so prevalent during this time period in the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah references this practice several times providing us with more details. If a person or family was wealthy, their idols were often cast out of metal but if you were poor then it would have to be hewn out of wood that wouldn’t rot and decorated with pieces of gold or silver. Archeology confirms this.
Furthermore, this practice of idol making by God’s chosen people was not intended only for a specific day of the year but was a perpetual condition of their uncircumcised heart. For believers who have been rescued from their deceitful hearts, the act of setting up a tree and decorating it is symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice for them. This honors the Lord and keeps the seriousness of the cross fresh in our minds.
While materialism is a dangerous distraction, temptation, and sin for many in America, some argue that the giving of gifts at Christmas time is encouraging our lust for things. Once again, I think they are missing the point.
First of all, at Jesus’ birth, gifts were brought to the newborn baby Jesus. While the gifts mentioned in scripture have significant, prophetic value, it is also important to note that the gifts represented sacrifice, honor, and celebration. In observation of this day, when we give one another gifts on this day, it similarly represents those same values.
I believe it is also significant to note that we are giving gifts to others not to ourselves. It is ridiculous to think that in giving someone else a gift, my desire for material things will increase. In fact, the opposite is true. When we learn to be givers, greed loses. While I believe it is possible to overdo gift exchange, or to do it for the wrong motives (give to get), there is something godly in the way our focus is removed from ourselves and placed on another person when we search for a present that will honor and bless them. For Jesus said:
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35 (NASB95)
Furthermore, gift giving serves as a reminder of the precious gift of Jesus Christ, who has been given to this fallen world.
Celebrate the Reason for the Season
While exalting paganism, promoting idolatry, and encouraging materialism are all legitimate concerns and serious battles to be fought and won by the Holy Spirit, when our hearts are right before the Lord we need not worry. We can celebrate without fear because for those of us who are being saved, Christmas is a truly important reminder of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Furthermore, this day is a reminder that this same Jesus who departed in the clouds will soon return in the same way.
Having said that, it is truly sad that for many who don’t know Christ, Christmas has become the object of worship. Instead of celebrating the Savior for which the holiday is truly about, for them, it can be just another day or another holiday among many holidays. This makes it all the more important that Christians honor this day for the right reasons and shine as bright examples to the world around us during this season. Maybe the biggest danger in all of this would be to allow the fear of the conspiracy theorists to win out and find ourselves missing the opportunity to be rejoicing witnesses of the hope that the Incarnation of our Savior brings.
“For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Revelation 19:10