I’m so-o-o-o confused! I mean, on the one hand, I’m getting emails warning against merchants who insist on saying “winter holiday” rather than “Christmas.” And then there are the educators who want the kids to celebrate the winter solstice rather than the birth of Jesus. I get lots of emails from Christians upset about that. And I’m sure we’ve all seen the bumper stickers: “He’s the reason for the season!”
So it must be an awful sin to take Jesus out of Christmas.
But on the other hand, I read articles from Christians arguing that it’s wrong to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. You can give presents and such, but … don’t … you … dare … put up a manger scene or otherwise associate December 25 with the birth of Jesus. Either ignore it or else treat it as a secular holiday!
So it must be awful to leave Jesus in Christmas.
It’s as though we want Wal-Mart to celebrate Jesus’ birth while we have purely secular celebrations of consumerism at home. Go figure.
Let me suggest a better way.
Was Jesus born on December 25? Should we celebrate Jesus’ birth?
We don’t know when Jesus was born. It’s unlikely that it was December 25. So what? Why do we have to celebrate his birth on the exact date of his birthday?
I know parents who’ve adopted children without birth certificates. They celebrate the child’s birthday on a day they choose, knowing that it’s not necessarily right. It’s really quite okay to celebrate a birthday on the wrong day.
In some of the schools here, kids with birthdays in the summer get a birthday party on the semi-annual anniversary of the day they were born, because otherwise they’d never get a birthday party at school. Cool. It’s more important that the child feel valued and celebrated than that we get the day right, isn’t it?
And we celebrate the birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln on Presidents Day, not their exact birthdays. It’s no disrespect.
Which leads us to: is it okay to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Well, the angels did.
What about the origin of Christmas as Saturnalia? What about being missional in our culture?
In reality, it’s hard to find any evidence that Christmas was imposed by the Catholic Church as a substitute for Saturnalia (mid-December but before December 25) or even Sol Invictus (celebrated December 25 in celebration of the sun). As the Wikepedia explains,
“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.” However, this statement directly conflicts with what we know of the early Christians, namely, that they were ridiculed, tortured, and cast apart from operative society precisely because they would not participate in the pagan feasts and celebrations. The early Christians set themselves directly in opposition to the paganism which ruled the day. “Since Christians worshipped an invisible God, pagans often declared them to be atheists.”
In fact, Christians were celebrating the birth of Jesus as early as 200 AD, although on varying dates. The decision to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 appears to have developed along these lines —
[T]here’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.
The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.
Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.
Last year, Inside the Vatican magazine also supported Dec. 25, citing a report from St. John Chrysostom (patriarch of Constantinople who died in A.D. 407) that Christians had marked Dec. 25 from the early days of the church.
There’s no evidence that some Catholic pope, in an effort to end Saturnalia, replaced it with Christmas.
Moreover, Saturnalia wasn’t a particularly wicked feast, as Roman holidays went. Rather, again quoting the Wikipedia,
The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves; however, although it was officially condoned only during this period, one should not assume that it was rare or much remarked upon during the rest of the year. It was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. The toga was not worn, but rather the synthesis, i.e. colorful, informal “dinner clothes”; and the pileus (freedman’s hat) was worn by everyone. Slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with (a pretense of) disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet: before, with, or served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was mostly superficial; the banquet, for example, would often be prepared by the slaves, and they would prepare their masters’ dinner as well. It was license within careful boundaries; it reversed the social order without subverting it.
There are, of course, some similarities with Christmas as we celebrate it today, but it was really quite a different kind of festival. Nonetheless, it’s easy enough to imagine the Roman people continuing to give presents and choosing to use this time for the rich to serve the poor, effectively redeeming the best parts of the old festival.
But none of this matters very much. The pagan origins of a practice hardly make it per se wrong. According to The Phrase Finder,
The tradition of birthday parties started in Europe a long time ago. It was feared that evil spirits were particularly attracted to people on their birthdays. To protect them from harm, friends and family would to come be with the birthday person and bring good thoughts and wishes. Giving gifts brought even more good cheer to ward off the evil spirits. This is how birthday parties began.
At first it was only kings who were recognized as important enough to have a birthday celebration (maybe this is how the tradition of birthday crowns began?). As time went by, children became included in birthday celebrations.
For that matter, it’s easy to show parallels between the way the modern Churches of Christ worship and the practices in the pagan Roman temples. Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity: The Origins of Our Modern Church Practices makes a remarkably strong case. Our order of worship would be very familiar to a Roman pagan temple worshiper. That doesn’t make it wrong.
Rather, the whole argument about pagan origins of the date, the Christmas tree, giving presents, etc., etc., is a distraction from the proper considerations. We need to start all over.
Does celebrating December 25 as the birth of Jesus further or hinder God’s mission to redeem the world?
Well, it’s far more important that those outside the church think well of Jesus than that they recognize that December 25 just might be the wrong date (or that we aren’t sure how many wise men there were). Indeed, we are upset when major stores and the schools strike “Christmas” from their vocabularies because we see such foolishness as an effort to remove Jesus from public life.
We should therefore realize that when we do the same thing by refusing to mention Christmas at church or to hang a wreath on the church door we are guilty of the very same thing — except much, much worse. After all, we are called to proclaim Jesus to a lost and hurting world.
Ponder why it is that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a popular story every year? There must be 50 versions of it on film. Why? Well, because the lesson is that we should stop being so focused on accumulating wealth and instead use the money God gives us to help the poor and the lame. Sounds pretty Christian to me.
Just so, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is a classic Dr. Seuss story because the grinch finds redemption and community by developing a larger (more generous) heart. There just might be a sermon in there somewhere.
These are lessons so profound that even Hollywood enjoys telling them. You see, even Hollywood has a better grasp of God’s mission on earth than we sometimes do. We can be incredibly wicked in our sense of superiority at times.
If we were missionaries …
If we were missionaries to the United States, we would find in Christmas countless lessons on how God wants us to live. Indeed, Christianity is very much about having the “Christmas spirit” all year long, right?
And so, if we were missionaries to this country, we’d celebrate the fact that even the most worldly recognize the good in Christmas, the good in giving, and the good in joining a community that’s centered on giving to others.
If we were missionaries, Christmas would be a great way to explain the lessons of generosity to the poor, peace, and goodwill toward men. People are ready to hear these lessons at this time of year, because despite all the commercialization, we Americans still value the heart of Christmas.
If we were missionaries, we’d use this to help people see that Christianity is about year-round Christmas — and that we celebrate Christmas because of the birth of a man who came to bring out the very best in us all — by giving himself to us so that we’d do the same for others.
If we were missionaries …
But we’re not. Some of us have decided we’d rather be the Christmas rulekeepers, counting wise men, checking the calendar, and joining the enemies of Christianity by taking Christ out of Christmas.
But we should be missionaries.