By Darren E. Mays and Michael B. Willey
Many religious people say unequivocally that the birthday of Jesus is Dec. 25. Was Christ born on what is now called Christmas Day? Is there scriptural authority for celebrating Christ's birthday? If not, how did Christmas originate? Can Christians celebrate Christmas?
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). This simple statement from the Gospel of Luke is sufficient to defeat the argument that Christ was born on Dec. 25. It was the practice of shepherds 2,000 years ago to take their flocks out into the fields during warm weather and to stay with the flock overnight to guard against predators. In December, however, it is too cold for the sheep to be in the fields and they were kept in pens. The noted commentator, Albert Barnes, wrote:
Since the flocks were taken up in late October or early November, there would have been no shepherds in the field to hear the message of the angel of God (Luke 2:9-14) had Jesus been born on Dec. 25.
Evidence of the harsh nature of the weather in the Middle East in December can be found in recent history. On Dec. 17, 1992, the Israeli government banished 417 Palestinians to southern Lebanon (Time, Jan. 11, 1993, pp. 10-22). These refugees lived in tents and had very little clothing. Great concern was expressed by the United Nations and other agencies about the safety and health of these men living in conditions which offered such little protection from the cold and rain. The news reports at the time were filled with pictures of men huddling around campfires and tents covered with snow. There would have been similar weather conditions in Bethlehem in December in the year of our Savior's birth. Clearly, Jesus was not born in December.
Is the date of the birth of Christ important? To quote Barnes again:
While the date of the birth of Jesus is of no significance, the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin is significant, for the birth of Jesus in this manner fulfilled the prophecy contained in Isaiah 7:14, "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
The manner of the birth of Jesus confirms that he is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matt. 16:16). The Bible, however, does not command Christians to commemorate the birth of the Savior. Indeed, the birth of Christ is recorded in only two of the four Gospel accounts. Rather, Christians are to commemorate the death of Christ (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Religious holy days and festivals were a part of the law of Moses which was nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). The celebration of the birth of Christ originates not in a commandment of God but in pagan festivals.
Early Christians were familiar with various pagan celebrations that occurred near the time of the year now known as Christmas. The festival of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, for example, took place Dec. 17-24. However, "there is no evidence that the early church celebrated the birth of Christ. In fact, early traditions differ about the time of year in which Jesus was born. Some suggest April; others early January. Observance of December 25 became common by the A.D. 330s, when this date was chosen to replace a Roman celebration commemorating the sun's climb following the winter solstice" (The Revell Bible Dictionary, Fleming H. Revell Co., New Jersey, 1990, p.209).
Other sources also attribute the selection of Dec. 25 as the birthday of Christ to the pagan worship of the sun. In his book, The Mysteries of Mithra (Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY, 1956), historian Franz Cumont stated that there was a widespread custom requiring that "the new birth of the Sun ... which began to wax great again on the termination of the winter solstice, should be celebrated by sacred festivals" on Dec. 25 (p.167).
Cumont stated that "it appears certain that the commemoration of the Nativity was set for the 25 of December, because it was at the winter solstice that the rebirth of the invincible god ... was celebrated" (p. 197).
The Encyclopedia of Religion states that "in 274 the emperor Aurelian began a vigorous campaign of propaganda celebrating the sun god as the exclusive protector of Rome's imperial might" and that this cult of Sol Invictus (the "invincible sun") "became a major and, at times, dominant force in Roman religion." The article also states that "the traditional date of Christmas ... is hardly unrelated to the fact that 25 December was celebrated as the birthday of Sol Invictus" (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987, Vol. 13, p. 408).
How easy it would have been for the leaders of the church, already in apostasy, to establish a festival celebrating the birth of the Son of God on the day when the birth of the sun god had normally been celebrated. This Christ's Mass, established without scriptural authority, became the Christmas that we know today.
Having demonstrated that Dec. 25 could not have been the birth date of Christ, and further, that the choice of that date was due to pagan customs, we now turn our attention to another important question. Can Christians celebrate Christmas? The answer is a conditional yes.
We as Christians must first understand that Christmas has a religious and non-religious significance in today's world. If Christians choose to enjoy the non- religious holiday which is little different from Memorial Day or Labor Day or any other secular holiday with traditional and cultural significance, they may do so. The Christian also has the option of abstaining. We must be careful not to practice or lead others to believe that we are celebrating a religious holiday which has not been sanctioned by the authority of Christ.
Christians may enjoy Christmas as a time to be off from work or school, a time to give and receive gifts, a time to relax and reflect on the past year and the upcoming new year, a time of traditional folklore, such as Santa Claus and the decoration of a Christmas tree, and a time for singing non-religious traditional songs.
Christians should avoid the "unfruitful works of darkness" (Eph. 5:11) that accompany the celebration of Christmas as a religious holy day, such as commemorating Dec. 25 as Christ's birthday, displaying nativity scenes, attending special Christmas services, and singing and listening to Christmas carols which are spiritual in content and nature.
Christians are commanded to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). However, if we choose to create our own methods of worship or special days of worship, we place ourselves in the position of having the authority to determine what God desires as worship. This false worship is vain and worthless (Matt. 15:9; Mark 7:7). Further, if we make additions to or subtractions from that which is given us in the New Testament, we will incur the punishment of God (Rev. 22:18-19). Christmas is a joyous secular holiday, but is not, and should not be celebrated as, a religious holy day.
(Editor's note: We commend this article for your study. The Firm Foundation has pointed out that observing special days of any kind as corporate church activities tends to exalt those days and therefore diminish from every first day of the week worship. Our denominational neighbors have proved this by setting aside high holy days like Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving to the neglect of regular times for worship. It is common among the sects for large crowds to attend on these special days and far fewer to attend the every first day of the week Gatherings.)