Today is Christmas Day, the day we celebrate the birth of Christ. Every year we get Christmas questions. The most asked, by far, is about Santa. We addressed him on the podcast twice already, back in 2016 and in 2018, in episodes 978 and 1288. Check those out. Episode 978 ends with one of the great paragraphs in the APJ archive too.
But here is the second-most-asked-about Christmas question, represented by at least 35 emails in the inbox that I can see. Why did the church begin celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25? This date appears to be connected to a holiday with Germanic roots in the pagan celebration of yule or yuletide. In those emails, commonly mentioned texts include those that forbid God’s people from accommodating or adopting the traditions and holidays and feasts of the nations. Especially mentioned are 1 Kings 12:33, Deuteronomy 12:29–32, and Jesus’s own words in Mark 7:9. The same is true of Jeremiah 10:1–4, a text used to warn against Christmas trees even.
So maybe this is a horrible question to address on Christmas Day. I don’t know. But from the emails, here’s a representative one from a listener named Michelle. “Hello, Pastor John! Why do Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth on December 25th? Before I was born again, I was a pagan and celebrated yule. As I understand it, Constantine placed Jesus’s birth date on December 25th to sort of cover up a pagan holiday, to get them to switch to Christianity more easily. But after being born again, the thought of celebrating Christmas makes me uneasy. Should it?”
Let me say a word about each of those passages, just a brief word to point people in a possible consideration direction, and then say a word about December 25 and why that date, and then maybe give a principle to guide us.
Keep Yourselves from Idols
In 1 Kings 12:28, the idolatrous King Jeroboam made two golden calves and called the people to worship them. And then verse 33 says that he devised a time for that celebration out of “his own heart.” I think that’s what people are probably fingering there. So, the essential problem was blatant idolatry, two golden calves. And the counterpart today would be this: “Let’s just pick a random day — say December 25 — to celebrate justification on the basis of works apart from the blood righteousness of Christ.” That would be the counterpart. It didn’t matter what day. The essence of the issue was idolatry.
“The New Testament, unlike the Old Testament, is a handbook for all the nations of the world.”
Deuteronomy 12:31 warns the people as they enter into the Promised Land, “You shall not worship the Lord your God [the way they do.] They even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.” And then God adds, “Do what I have commanded you, and do not add to it or take from it” (see Deuteronomy 12:32). There are dozens and dozens of meticulous stipulations in the Old Testament about how to approach God, how the priests are to function, the sacrifices they were to be doing, the sacred spaces to be used.
Now, whether we today are governed with such meticulous specifics that we shouldn’t take from or add to in the New Testament, I’ll address that in just a minute. I think the answer is no.
In Mark 7:9, they were rejecting the commandment to honor your father and mother by diverting financial care from their parents to an ostensibly worshipful dedication of their money to the synagogue, instead of their parents’ needs. The issue there was not that traditions exist — that’s not the problem — but that they contradict the commandment of God, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12).
Jeremiah 10:2–5 says, “Learn not the way of the nations. . . . A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried.” The point is that it’s absolute nonsense to make an idol out of a created thing, like a tree, which you shape with your own axe, you decorate with your own hands, you carry on your own cart, and then you fall down and worship it. The prophets thought this was absurd. This is indeed an implicit warning to believers of all ages never to turn away from the living God to a created thing, on Christmas Day or any day, and treat it as an object of greater affection to you than you have in the living God.
So, I don’t think any of those texts is an indictment of Christians choosing a day on which we make much of the incarnation of Christ.
Discerning the Date
But the question then becomes, Well, why December 25? Is there some mixed-up stuff going on there? Now, as I survey and resurvey the historical opinions of scholars about why we celebrate Christmas on December 25, it seems to me that there is no consensus. So, the suggestions that were made in the question — maybe, maybe not. There are competing explanations. Let me mention two.
One is that December 25 was a pagan holiday for celebrating the birth of the sun, and that Christians adapted and countered that pagan idea with the celebration of the true Light of the World. That’s one explanation, and that would be back in the Roman days, not just later in the Germanic time.
Another explanation is that, for various reasons, the church fathers believed that Jesus was conceived on March 25, around the date of his death, and that Christmas, therefore, as it so happened, because of the way God makes babies, nine months later is December 25.
So, which of those explanations came first? Here’s what the Oxford Companion to Christian Thought says: the hypothesis that December 25 was chosen for celebrating the birth of Jesus on the basis of the belief that his conception occurred on March 25 “potentially establishes December 25 as a Christian festival before Aurelian’s Decree, which, when promulgated, might have provided for the Christian feast both opportunity and challenge” (114).
In other words, they’re not sure which came first: the pagan or the Christian identification of this particular date as the celebration of the incarnation. So, I don’t feel, frankly, any freedom to be dogmatic about why Christians use December 25 as the day for a special focus on the incarnation.
Celebrate Christ as Supreme
So, that leaves me and us, perhaps, with what principles should guide us. There is a massive difference between the way the Old Testament regulates formal worship, with dozens and dozens of stipulations, and the way the New Testament treats worship. You find almost no stipulations in the New Testament for what is mandated and what is forbidden in formal worship. There are some, but not many.
“We should make every effort to live and to celebrate in such a way that we show that Christ is supremely valuable.”
And I’ve argued, even on this podcast before, that the reason for this is that the New Testament, unlike the Old Testament, is a handbook for all the nations of the world — not a liturgical book for Israel or any one culture. Thousands of cultures all over the world are going to worship with their roots in the New Testament, and details of the forms are going to be different everywhere, because the New Testament doesn’t specify the way the Old Testament did for how to go about our worship services or times or seasons. The principle that I would draw attention to is this:
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice [to an idol],” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience. (1 Corinthians 10:25–28)
Now, the principle is this: In Christ, Christians are free to eat meat that has been offered to idols, provided there’s no idolatry involved, and provided we are not sending any clear messages to the pagan, to the world, that we worship what they worship. That’s a serious principle.
So, I think with regard to all the ways in which our life overlaps with culture, not just Christmas Day, but all the time — there are just hundreds of ways that our lives, our lifestyles, overlap with our culture — we should make every effort to live and to celebrate in such a way that we show that Christ is supremely valuable in our lives, not the world or the things of the world. That’s quite a challenge at Christmastime.
Three Ways to Display Christ at Christmas
Let me close with a reference to the way Noël and I began our marriage and tried to think this through, not at all saying we got it perfect or that anybody should do it the way we do it — just the principle of thinking in a certain way.
We came to celebrate our first Christmas, and as a married couple wanting to honor traditions that we got from our parents and wanting to do it the way our family would do it, we wanted it to be distinctly Christian as much as possible. How would we bear witness to our children and to our community about Christ at Christmas? I want to mention three things. There were more than three things, but here are three.
1. Center traditions on Christ.
We never had a traditional Christmas tree. That was kind of weird for us. We both grew up with Christmas trees. I think all of our kids have Christmas trees. We visit people with Christmas trees. We’ve never had a Christmas tree of a traditional kind in our home at Christmastime.
We instead said, “Let’s make a big manger scene the center on a table with a tablecloth, and under the table, we’ll put the gifts, just to recenter everything toward Christ symbolically in the manger scene.”
2. Give in the name of Jesus.
The second thing we did is we didn’t have Christmas stockings. In fact, we never even mentioned Santa Claus. If the kids asked about Santa Claus, we said, “That’s not a real story. That’s just an interesting story that people tell. There’s nothing real about it. It has nothing to do with Christmas in its reality.”
Instead, we created this thing called shepherds’ pouches, and the kids would, over the December month, do little jobs for Noël. She would pay them extra for chores that they wouldn’t ordinarily get paid for, like doing the dishes or helping with the laundry. And they were to put that money little by little in the pouches, knowing that the pouches would be laid before the manger like gifts were brought to Jesus.
In the morning, those pouches would have little favors in them for the kids, and the money would be given to some cause that we agreed on together as a family, for the good of the needy and in the name of Jesus.
3. Let your house say, ‘Christmas is here.’
The third thing we did was that I tried to make the house beautiful in the neighborhood. We don’t live in the most attractive neighborhood. And we’re one of the front-end houses — the first house you see as you come across the bridge across I-94 and 35W into the Ventura Village neighborhood, which used to be called the Phillips neighborhood. What’s the first thing you see?
I didn’t want it to be garish, and yet I did want it to say, “Christmas is here.” So, I use stars; there are stars everywhere. This is the star house with a Christian banner on the front. Anyone who wants to get close and see what all the stars mean, they can see “Jesus is the reason for the season” hanging on the front door.
Those are three ways that we tried to just make our kids as happy as they could be in the celebration of one of the greatest events in the history of the universe — the incarnation of the Son of God — and yet do it with as much distinctly Christian effort as we could.