Sunday, November 30, 2008

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

The title of this blog may seem like an odd question to most, considering that celebrating Christmas seems as normal as anything else in the world. I ask the question because I've been doing some reading of old-school theologians who seemed to think that Christmas was a worldly practice of pagan origins, and not to be partaken of by Christians. Also, I have a friend that is adamantly anti-Christmas, mostly for the same reasons, so I thought I would check it out.

At our early service at Riverview (the service which I have the privilege of being involved in) we pray a "Puritan Prayer" every week. These prayers are usually excerpted from the book "The Valley Of Vision," which is a collection of Puritan prayers and devotionals. I appreciated the prayers myself because they are laden with scripture and theology - they have a tendency to very accurately sum up the condition of man, the nature of God, and the relationship between the two in each of the prayers, no matter the subject or topic.

Also, I've been thinking about this because we just started our Advent services at Riverview this week. And if you didn't know it, the Puritans were unashamedly anti-Christmas, so trying to find Puritan material with a Christmas theme was a difficult task. Knowing that the Puritans were so very solid on most of their theology, I became curious as to why they took such a hard stand against celebrating Christmas. Here's some of what I found (NOTE: I'm not implying I agree with the Puritans here, I'm just giving you their reasoning for their position):

1) The whole idea of Christmas (celebrating the birth of Christ) is not biblical. Believers are not instructed or expected to commemorate the birth of Christ.

2) Christmas began as a Roman Catholic tradition. Even the English word, "Christmas" is derived from the Latin, "Christes Maesse," meaning "Mass of Christ," a Eucharistic service.

3) Many Roman Catholic traditions were founded on pagan holidays. When Romans converted to Christianity, several retained the celebration of their pagan religious roots. These celebrations crept into the church and soon became tradition. The Puritans saw no reason for celebrating something that had pagan roots. Even activities such as gift giving, Christmas lights, and Christmas trees, find their roots in pagan religion.

4) The idea that Jesus was born on December 25th is not biblical. In fact, we can't know the exact date of Christ's birth, so then to celebrate it on any day is unbiblical.

These are just a few reasons why the Puritans and other theologians of old declined to participate in Christmas celebrations.

A little more recently though, in the early 20th century, A.W. Pink spoke out against Christmas celebrations as well. His arguments (from scripture, by the way) are given here.

Even my theological hero, Charles Spurgeon spoke thusly of Christmas:

When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, "Is this a law of the God of Jacob?" and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.

Spurgeon's argument seems to be that celebrations such as Christmas had connections to man-made Roman religious practices, and that to expect a Christian to partake was not biblical. However, I don't think he was as hard lined as this statement leads one to believe. Later he comments:

We venture to assert, that if there be any day in the year, of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which the Savior was born, it is the twenty-fifth of December. Nevertheless, since, the current on men's thoughts is led this way just now, and I see no evil in the current itself, I shall neither justify nor condemn, by endeavoring to lead your thoughts in the same direction. Since it is lawful, and even laudable, to meditate upon the incarnation of the Lord upon any day of the year, it cannot be in the power of other men's superstitions to render such a meditation improper for today.

I take this to mean that, although Christmas is indeed a man-made celebration, it certainly cannot be a bad thing. As Spurgeon rightly notes, meditating on the incarnation of Christ is an admirable practice on any day of the year. If we choose to do it on December 25th, then so be it. Additionally, I detect a tone in Spurgeon's remark that also implies that Christmas must not be the only time of year we meditate on the incarnation. I think Spurgeon's biggest fears for celebrating Christmas are communicated by this:

There are those who, on December 25th, will pretend to exhibit joy in the remembrance of our Savior's birth, but they
will not seek their pleasure in the Savior. Joy in Immanuel would be a poor sort of mirth to them.

Here I think Spurgeon is saying that if and when Christmas becomes nothing more than a secular holiday that has no religious or spiritual significance, and is instead focused on secularism (materialism?), it should not be partaken of by believers. I agree with him. The question for me (and you) then is, has Christmas become what Spurgeon described? And if so, should we as believers participate (at least in the consumerism and gift-giving)?

We are certainly much further removed from the pagan and Roman Catholic traditions of the past than the Puritans were, or even Spurgeon and Pink were. Perhaps we are excused because we celebrate Christmas ignorant of the pagan traditions that surround it? Or is it possible to usurp Christmas's original meaning? In other words, is it possible for us to use something that was meant for evil, for good (that's assuming that our celebration of Christmas is still true and pure)?

These are the conclusions and justifications for celebrating Christmas that I think Dan Fortner comes to, as evidenced here:

Without fail, at this time every year, I receive numerous letters, pamphlets, and tracts denouncing the evils of Christmas as a pagan religious holiday. I fully agree that no believer should ever observe pagan religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. We must never incorporate pagan customs into the worship of our God.

We must not observe any religious holiday. We should attach no spiritual, religious significance to any day. Yet, we do not need to act like super-pious religious idiots over a day that has absolutely no religious significance. I would never teach a child that such a thing as Santa Claus exist, or that Christ was born on Christmas day. But, as Paul said concerning idols, Santa Claus is nothing and Christmas is nothing.

Did you know that every day of the week, every planet in the universe, and many of the CARS we drive are named after pagan gods? Yet, we still call Sunday Sunday, Mars Mars, and a Saturn a Saturn. No one would ever dream of calling us pagans for doing so. We worship our God on Sunday, and would laugh at anyone who suggested that we observe the pagan Roman holiday called “Sun’s Day” in doing so. If your car is a Saturn, use it for the glory of God; and laugh at anyone who thinks that you are worshipping the Roman god of agriculture by driving it.

We must not, and I trust do not, worship Christmas trees and lights, or even attach spiritual significance to Christmas day. However, I do suggest that we seize this opportunity afforded us by Divine providence to tell people who Christ is, why he came into this world, what he did, and how they may obtain his salvation. It is no accident that once every year every human
being in the world is confronted with the fact that the Son of God assumed human flesh and came into the world to save men.

Certainly, no one can think that it is wrong for believers, during this season of the year, to express thanks and praise
to God for his unspeakable gift, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is never wrong, but always right to think of him, speak of him, and sing his praise. Rather than not singing Watts’ grand old hymn, Joy To The World, we ought to sing it year round.

While I loathe the religiosity of this holiday season, the silly plays, the idolatrous pictures and representations of Christ and
the angels of God, and pretense of spirituality by people who have no interest in the glory of God, I am delighted for this season of the year (for any season) that brings families together, encourages kindness and good will, and promotes thoughtfulness of and generosity to others. It is perfectly all right to exchange gifts with and send cards to family and friends. (I cannot imagine a reason for anyone objecting to that!) But I suggest that each of us find a way to acknowledge and do something special for someone from whom we expect nothing, maybe even from someone from whom we expect abuse. “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

This whole discussion may seem trivial and a waste of time to some, but I think it's important to know why we do what we do, and why we think about certain things the way we do. These things will define our worship, so we better have a good understanding of their implications. In the time of Amos the prophet, the people were condemned because they were offering God false worship based upon errant presuppositions about their religion and their worship. Their worship had become hollow, empty, and based on pagan worship practices (Amos 5). I certainly don't want to be a part of any of that! All the more reason to understand our holiday celebrations.

Anyway, just some thoughts that have been kicking around in my head.


Cristianismo Primitivo said...

Here is an interesting verse to ponder on concerning Christmas:
Eccl 7:1
A good name better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.

Joel said...

I agree that in celebrating the birth of Jesus we must also remember his death. After all, he was born to die. Also, I think understanding his birth through his death gives us even more insight into the incarnation as a whole. Thanks for the comment!