The subject of Christmas in a Christian country is a sensitive one. Even though journalists, commentators, historians, and pundits make the origins of Christmas clear, the vast majority of Christians may respond: “Does it really matter? Who cares?”
Well does it really matter whether a Christian celebrates or observes Christmas or not? Most will even be puzzled by that question, for, “Doesn’t everyone celebrate Christmas?” Well, no, actually. Some individuals and groups of Christians have made the decision not to celebrate or observe Christmas. Why? Could two billion Christians be wrong? May be, maybe not.
The one thing Christians should know is that their Master and Teacher, Jesus the Nazarene, taught that true worship must be rendered in “spirit and truth.” [John 4:22-24] So, what is the “truth” regarding Christmas? Should a modern Christian, in these enlightened years supposedly free of superstition and myth, observe or celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ on December 25?
First, what do we mean by observe or celebrate? Webster’s defines the word “observe” as “to adhere to, follow, keep, abide by a law, custom, rule … [as in] to celebrate or kept a holiday according to custom.” And, “celebrate” as “to commemorate an anniversary or holiday.” The word is a synonym for “observe.” So, it is obvious that to follow a particular custom on a particular day is to observe or celebrate it.
Well, what is Christmas anyway. I leave it to the reader to consult the Internet or a number of encyclopedias and reference works on the subject. The word is essentially Christ-Mass and thus it is obvious we can look to the Catholic Church to discover the beginnings of this “mass.” Most scholars know quite well that such a mass began about the middle of the 4th Century. The Catholic Mass in observance of the birth of Christ on December 25 was instituted for the purpose of replacing the pagan Roman feast of Saturnalia. But, did Christians before this observe or celebrate Christ-mass?
The answer is, No. Search as we may in the writings of the Christians of the first three centuries we see no mention of such an observance. Even in church lists of proper assemblies and observances nothing is said of the birth of Christ, or Christ-mass. But, what about the Bible? Does it enjoin the annual observance of Christ’s birth on members of the Church? No.
One may ask, Why not? Judging from today’s observances - even among sincere and genuine Christians - it would be assumed that some where, some place in the Bible such a celebration would be mentioned. But, it is not. Indeed, only one annual - or periodic observance, depending on your view - is enjoined on the Christian Church. The observance, not of Christ’s birth, or even of his resurrection, but rather of his death is mentioned by Jesus and the apostle Paul. [Luke 22:19, 20; 1 Corinthians 10:14-17; 11:20-34]
So, our Lord himself commanded the continued observance of the memorial of his death in celebration called “the Lord’s Supper.” Paul in the above verses helps us answer the question regarding this observance, “Does it matter?” For in the first case of 1 Corinthians 10:14-17 he cautions against idolatry and “sharing with the demons [of the pagan non-Jewish nations]” [1 Corinthians 10:20]; and, in the latter verses, he warns against God’s condemnation for failure to observe this properly. [1 Corinthians 11:27, 29] Paul’s reason - in answer to the question, “Does it matter?” - is, “You [Corinthian Christians] cannot drink the Cup of the Lord AND the cup of demons. Neither can you partake of the ‘table of YHWH’ AND the table of demons. Or, ‘are we trying to arouse God’s jealous anger’?” [1 Corinthians 10:21, 22] This all seems good reason to weigh carefully who, how, and what we observe or celebrate, for it may find us not “fleeing from idolatry” as he warns in 1 Corinthians 10:14. [Compare also 1 John 5:21.]
Thus, throughout the first three hundred years of Church history we find the Christians celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but we do not find Christ-Mass until the middle of the 4th Century. But, does it matter?
Before considering that question further, would it be admitted by Christian celebrants of Christ-Mass that it is a pagan-based observance or celebration with its origins in the Roman Catholic Church? Any honest Christian must answer, Yes. So, then, where would we begin to look to find out, “Does it matter?”
The obvious answer for a true believer is, “the Bible.” Can we find examples in the Bible where God warned his People - both Israel and the Christian Church - to avoid the idolatrous ways of the pagan nations? Can we find throughout this history specific warnings against becoming polluted spiritually by adopted pagan, idolatrous ways?
It might be good, first, to examine the question of idolatry. What is an idol? Is an idol something adored or revered in a certain customary manner? Is an idol something prayed to, or about which hymns are sung? Webster’s defines an “idol” as “any object of ardent or excessive devotion or admiration.”
Did God Almighty Yehowah in the history of His People ever warn them not to take up the pagan practices of surrounding nations? Indeed, He did. Consider the following verses as part of the Law of Moses given around the beginning of the 15th Century BC to Israel:
“1 And Jehovah speaketh unto Moses, saying, 2 `Speak unto the sons of Israel, and thou hast said unto them, I [am] Jehovah your God; 3 according to the work of the land of Egypt in which ye have dwelt YE DO NOT, and according to the work of the land of Canaan whither I am bringing you in, YE DO NOT, and in their statutes ye walk not. 4 `My judgments ye do, and My statutes ye keep, to walk in them; I [am] Jehovah your God; 5 and ye have kept My statutes and My judgments which man doth and liveth in them; I [am] Jehovah.” [Leviticus 18:1-5 Young’s Literal Translation]
“And ye WALK NOT in the statutes of the nation which I am sending away from before you, for all these they have done, and I am wearied with them.” [Leviticus 20:23 YLT]
“These [are] the statutes and the judgments which ye observe to do in the land which Jehovah, God of thy fathers, hath given to thee to possess it, all the days that ye are living on the ground: 2 ye do utterly destroy all the places where the nations which ye are dispossessing served their gods, on the high mountains, and on the heights, and UNDER EVERY GREEN TREE; 3 and ye have broken down their altars, and shivered their standing pillars, and their shrines ye burn with fire, and graven images of their gods ye cut down, and have destroyed their name out of that place. … -- 30 take heed to thee, lest thou be snared after them, after their being destroyed out of thy presence, and lest thou inquire about their gods, saying, How do these nations serve their gods, AND I DO SO --even I? 31 `Thou dost not do so to Jehovah thy God; for every abomination of Jehovah which He is hating they have done to their gods.” [Deuteronomy 10:1-3, 30 YLT]
Did it really matter? Was Israel to absorb the ways of worship - the celebrations and observances - of these pagan nations and “sanctify them by adoption” into their Congregation? How could any Israelite draw that conclusion after such warnings? However, what happened?
About seven centuries later, the descendants of these people who had been rescued out of Egypt had turned away from God and become apostates. They had begun to do the very thing Yehowah had warned them about. Jeremiah records this in his prophecy against Israel:
“And I have cast you from before My face, As I have cast out all your brethren, The whole seed of Ephraim. 16 And thou dost not pray for this people, Nor lift up for them crying and prayer, Nor intercede with Me, for I hear thee not. 17 Art thou not seeing what they are doing In cities of Judah, and in streets of Jerusalem? 18 The sons are GATHERING WOOD, And the fathers are causing the fire to burn, And the women are kneading dough, To MAKE CAKES TO THE QUEEN OF THE HEAVENS, And to pour out libations to other gods, So as to provoke Me to anger.” [Jeremiah 7:15-18 YLT]
So, some many centuries later, we can still ask, “Did it matter what customs and observances the Israelites adopted from pagan lands?” Surely, it did. God had not changed, but His People had.
Now the jeremiad continues in Jeremiah 10:1-4,
“Hear ye the word, O house of Israel, That Jehovah hath spoken for you. 2 Thus said Jehovah: UNTO THE WAY OF THE NATIONS ACCUSTOM NOT YOURSELVES, And by the signs of the heavens be not affrighted, For the nations are affrighted by them. 3 For the statutes of the peoples are vanity, For A TREE from a forest hath one cut, Work of the hands of an artificer, with an axe, 4 With silver and with gold THEY BEAUTIFY IT, With nails and with hammers they fix it.” [YLT]
One of the “customs of the nations” was to take a tree from the forest and beautify it. Can anyone with a straight face say, “It did not matter”? For what did Yehowah condemn - destroying their city and temple in the 5th Century BC - His own People? Was it not because they had taken up the customs of the pagan nations, including the adoration of a forest tree with ornaments?
One might hear someone say, “Yes, but that was ancient history. That was Israel. Things are different in the Christian Church.” Well, in the Christian Church, “Does it matter” whether the Church absorbs pagan custom, ritual, and observances - adopting their practices in the guise of Christ and Christianity?
We have read above that Paul warn the former pagan Corinthians to “flee from idolatry” and “not partake of the table of demons.” In his second inspired epistle to the cosmopolitan congregation, he warned them again for the need for spiritual separation from “unclean” religious practices and worship. Observe, his words in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 -
“[Corinthians], do not become unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or, what communion between light and darkness? Also, what harmony between Christ and Belial? Or, what portion between a believer and an unbeliever? Also, what agreement between God’s Divine Habitat and idols? We are the Living God’s Divine Habitat! Just as the God said: ‘I shall indwell in them, and I shall walk among them, and I shall be their God, and they shall be my People.’ [Leviticus 26:11] ‘As a result, all of you come out from among them, and all of you determine the boundaries,’ says YHWH, ‘and do not continue to touch the unclean thing [Isaiah 52:11] … then I shall take all of you in [Ezekiel 20:41] … and I shall be a Father to all of you, and all of you will be sons and daughters to me,’ [2 Samuel 7:14] says YHWH Almighty.” [NCMM]
Let us ask Paul whether it mattered that Christians had “partnership,” or “communion,” or “harmony,” or “a portion of,” or any “agreement” between the Church and what breaks God’s law, what belongs to Darkness, what belongs to Satan [Belial], or with striving to find agreement with unbelievers and idolaters? Would be his answer? Would he say, “Does it really matter?” How can that be when he goes on to quote Isaiah, “come out [and] determine the boundaries [and] stop touching the unclean thing.” And then - continuing with Ezekiel and Samuel - that only then would God take these Christians in to his intimate relationship as His children.
Let us be honest with ourselves: if we were to transport Moses - from whom we heard the words of the Law mentioned above - and then Jeremiah - from whom we heard his prophetic words above - and then Paul - from whom we have heard these words - and let them observe the modern “Christian” observance of Christ-Mass - well, what would be their reactions? What would these three outstanding servants of Yehowah think of the adoration of a decorated pine tree in the millions, or even billions? What would they think of the adoration of this tree with decorations of every kind? What would they think of hymns that amount to prayers, like, “O, Christmas Tree”? Or, those to stars, angels, yule logs, crucifixes, votive candles, prayer beads, images?
In addition to this, what would these holy men think of the billions upon billions of dollars, pesos, pesetas, lira, francs, marcs, and a hundred other currencies - all spent on gifts to family and friends? What would they think of all this wealth, almost beyond comprehension, used in this adoration, while Christian and non-Christian poor and needy go without food, clothing, and medicines? Upon their objections as prophets of God, could we tell them, “Does it really matter?”
The evidence seems transparent: the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with its first Pontifex Maximus [Great Bridge-builder], Constantine, made the religious and political decision to transform into any local idolatry and practices with the purpose of converting the heathen to Christianity. This was so successful that within a few centuries the Church ruled Europe. When the so-called Protestant reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin and others separated from the Holy Mother Church, they took most of the attitudes and customs with them.
In the end, no matter the origins or background of Christ-Mass, it is likely that those Christians who are determined to observe it will continue to do so. Nothing will change their minds that they are observing the birth of Christ - though it did not occur on December 25. And despite the fact so many pagan trappings are connected to Christ-Mass, such Christians will continue to celebrate the Catholic holiday. And despite the fact that Christ-Mass is deluged in materialism and commercialism, it will matter not that a large portion of earth’s inhabitants will go to sleep in a state of starvation.
Some Christians will be moved by the facts regarding Christ-Mass and will either discontinue the practice or strive to make sure than Christ is at the center as they view “this day above other days.” [Romans 14:5, 6] Each Christian is free to determine for themselves whether this or that celebration or observance will be something they practice. In the end, each Christian stands as a responsible individual before the judgment-throne of Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:10]
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
Back to Index to Biblical Articles