Last week we looked at the pagan holidays that were celebrated at the end of December. Because of these pagan roots, many Christians believe we should avoid Christmas as ultimately a pagan holiday. Yet, does the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ itself have anything to do with pagans? Or is it truly a Christian holiday that is simply celebrated at the wrong time of year?
The Hebrew Roots:
Jesus birth was foretold centuries prior in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the fullness of time, God sent His Son to redeem mankind. He sent Jesus as a little baby to become God With Us.
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting . -Micah 5:2
And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth . -Isaiah 49:6
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel . -Isaiah 7:14
…When at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this . -Isaiah 9:1-2,6-7
The Christian Roots:
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. – Luke 1:30-35
About 1950 years ago, the well-educated and faithful physician Luke wrote to one Theophilus, detailing the life of Jesus Christ. Luke explained that he had done research on the subject so that Theophilus could know with certainty that the things he had been told about Jesus were true (Luke 1:4). Luke must have spoken with Mary herself, for he tells of things that only she would know.
‘But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,‘ – Luke 2:19.
Luke tells Theophilus of the birth of Jesus; how he was born in Bethlehem during a time when the entire Roman world was being taxed. Shepherds out in the field were surprised by a host of angels that filled the sky, singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest!’ and as they were told, went down to find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Those shepherds then told everybody they could find about the incredible things they had seen.
The child grew up and went on to have a short, three-year ministry that ended in his death on a Roman Cross. Yet, the man that was born in Bethlehem rose again from the dead, as witnessed by over 500 men (1 Cor 15:6). And he is still changing the hearts and lives of people living today.
The early Christians are not known to have celebrated Christ’s birth, and the actual date of his nativity has been lost in history. The first recorded mention of the December 25 date is in the Calendar of Philocalus (AD 354), which assumed Jesus’ birth date to be Friday, December 25, in AD 1. Pope Julius I officially proclaimed December 25 to be the anniversary of Christ’s birth in AD 440. Giving December 25th Christian significance has been understood to have been an effort to help the pagan world embrace Christianity and trade in their worship of pagan gods for the One True God. Originally called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by AD 432 and to England by the end of the 6th century. By the end of the 8th century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to the Scandinavian countries.
Christmas is celebrated on January 6 in the Orthodox Church, on what is also called Epiphany or Three Kings Day, the day that celebrates the arrival of the wise men who gave the Christ child their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christmas did largely win out over the pagan holidays, but was still celebrated with rowdy festivities and practical jokes – more like Mardi Gras than anything resembling the character of Christ. Puritans in England outlawed Christmas for years, and the holiday was not popular in early America. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870.
The holiday then underwent a conversion. Christmas was ‘reinvented’ into the more moderate holiday we know today. Washington Irving and Charles Dickens both wrote tales that presented Christmas as a holiday of caring for the poor and bringing families together. As the angels sang above the shepherds that first night, Christmas was about ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’
The Season is still a mixture of traditions pulled from a multitude of sources. While many of them have little to do with Jesus, most are morally neutral activities. However, even while Santa Claus ho ho ho’s down Main St. on a fire truck, and Hershey makes a killing on aluminum-wrapped chocolate bells, the reality of Christ’s birth does break through. Nativity scenes in downtown squares and in front of churches bring to mind the great gift of God – the King of kings lying in a manger, attended by shepherds. Christmas carols that cry ‘The Lord is come’ and ‘Come let us adore him’ are sung from door to door, reminding us all of what God has done.
It is a time of year when people can speak more freely of Jesus the Savior, and when even the faithless are willing to go to a Christmas Eve church service. It is truly a precious slot of time God has given us during which to spread the Good News of His Son. Glory to God in the highest!
May your celebration of the birth of Christ honor Him who gave Himself to us as the ultimate sacrifice of love. May everything we do reflect the love and compassion of our Savior, and bring glory to His name.