Is Christmas Christian?

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken December 26, 1999

Today is December 26, the day after Christmas. By now most of us are recuperating from the frenzied holiday rounds of parties, shopping, driving, visiting, entertaining and of course the giving and receiving of gifts. Many of us are repentant of our avarice on the one hand, and probably all of us are sick of the commercialism and exploitation. Perhaps now is not the time to ask the question I am going to offer, “Should we do it?”

By asking that question I do not mean, “Should we be greedy or materialistic? Should we buy into the exploitation and worldly mythology?” I do not expect many Christians to have trouble with that question, even if avoiding those things is not quite so easy. But the question I want to ask is this: “Should we even have Christmas? Should we observe it at all? Should Christians, as an expression of fidelity to the God of the Bible participate in the cultural-religious phenomenon that we call Christmas? Is it a damaging and dangerous product of a godless culture that Christian parents and friends should steer clear of as being unfaithful to the Lord and unhealthy to us and our children?

There are more than a few Christians who agree with this assessment, who just say “no” to Christmas altogether and who follow their words with action. No wreaths, no Christmas tree, no stockings, certainly no Santa Claus and no reindeer. One such Christian, Dr. Alan Clifford, writing in Britain's Evangelicals Now publication, says this:

Christmas was the result of a growing tendency of the Roman Church to meet paganism half-way… . If Christmas is without a true Christian basis, it should be scrapped.

Christmas as a “Worship Innovation” By no means is this an isolated view. Perhaps the Christians most famous for abhorring Christmas were the Puritans. We often quote Puritan writers here and generally look to Puritan Spirituality as a model of biblical Christianity. Indeed, it was their emphasis on obeying the Bible that we so admire that also led them to treat December 25th as any other day. The principle that governed the Puritans in this matter, as in many others, is the “regulative principle.” What this principle basically states is that God determines what is appropriate for worship, and He communicates this through His Word. Any human innovation, however well-meaning, is bound to be corrupted by our folly and sin and encroaches upon God's holy prerogative. The Puritans were quite serious about this principle and often suffered persecution on its behalf. We honor their stands against the rites of the Roman Catholic church and the empty formalism of the Elizabethan Anglicans. It was because of the regulative principle that the Puritans refused to worship Christmas as they had opposed many other extra-biblical “innovations”.

Pagan Roots for Christmas?

Another strong reaction against Christmas comes from the charge that the holiday has pagan roots. The argument runs like this. December 25 was the date of the Roman Saturnalia festival, a wild orgiastic pagan rite focused on worship of the sun, and it was also correlated with various tribal pagan festivals associated with the winter solstice. As was argued above, Christmas represented just one of many Roman Catholic attempts to win over the ignorant and godless masses by putting a Christian label on an existing, idolatrous structure. Christmas, under this view, is just one of many Catholic innovations, like those that ushered in adoration of the saints and the veneration of Mary, both of which we vehemently reject.

In a recent spin through the internet, I came across a web site for witches, listed among web sites honoring Christmas, which gleely recounted the pagan roots of just about every bit of Christmas symbology. The yule log represented the wheel of time, the lights of Christmas recall the sacred fire and the birth of the Sun-King, while the evergreen was a symbol of fertility that recalls the student of the Old Testament to the Asherah pole so condemned by the prophets.

A Christian Apology for Christmas

With all of those arguments lined up, it is tempting to agree. Why not just get rid of Christmas, and with it all the materialism and greed that comes with such an unholy alliance? In response, and in defense of a Christian Christmas, I offer the following response. First of all, I do not argue for Christmas on the basis of the calendar. Scholars have long argued that it was very unlikely that shepherds would have had their flocks out during the coldest time of the year. So too, it is argued, it was most unlikely that the administratively efficient Romans would have ordered a census during the a month when travel was next to impossible. No, I do not argue for Christmas on the basis of December 25, the selection of which does seem to have been based on pre-existing pagan celebrations rather than historical accuracy.

Furthermore, I acknowledge that the great majority of Christmas symbols seem to have originated in pagan idolatry. Nonetheless, I think the holly branches, which the druids may claim for their own, also does a pretty fair job of reminding us of the crown of thorns that rested on Jesus’ brow, as well as the drops of blood that purchased my salvation. When it comes to the Christmas tree, I do not care what Germanic pagans believed. When in a darkened room I turn on the lights of my Christmas tree I hear only one voice. And it cries out with these lovely words of grace: “The people living in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isa. 9:2). And I hear the words of the Apostle John, saying of my Lord, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men… . The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:3, 9).

Paganism, of course, is no religion of its own. It merely crafts lies about the created order which itself testifies to God. The Old Testament often confronts idol-worshipping lies and even seizes pagan symbols for the Lord who made and owns them. The image, for instance, of the Lord riding on the clouds in power is a blatant conquest of an image widely used in the mythical literature of the idolatrous god Baal. In that respect, I smile to think of St. Boniface, one of the great missionaries to the pagans of Europe around the time when Christmas was invented, using the evergreen tree to show that what they worshiped as an object of idolatry better points to the living God and the eternal life He offers in Jesus Christ.

But even that is not my best reason for loving Christmas. My best reason comes from a gathering that took place in a park near my home in the East Falls section of Philadelphia just a couple of weeks ago. There, hundreds of my fellow citizens, the majority of whom I am sure are nominal Christians at best, joined their voices for a night of caroling. Of the 18 songs we sang, 13 were Christian hymns celebrating the birth of a Savior in glorious biblical language. I tried to keep track of the biblical doctrines that were flowing from their lips but I finally lost track: sin, atonement, the Incarnation, God's holiness, the power of the Word, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God, eternal life and resurrection of the dead. As Paul said about other matters we might say about this singing in the open air of Philadelphia: “Against such things there is no law.”

I respect that regulative principle of the Puritans, and even agree with it as a binding precept of our own denomination. But Scripture does permit, even mandate, the preaching of the Gospel, the singing of songs of praise, the reading of Scripture, and the praising of God in the open air. I am grateful to Christmas that many thus praise God and even worship Him fitly on this day, with hopes that they would honor Him with more and ultimately all of their lives.

I acknowledge that much about Christmas does injustice to the regulative principle, and we certainly want to be careful in this regard. But it wonderfully does justice to the redemptive principle, for which the Son of God came from heaven to earth, that He might claim and deliver a world that was lost in darkness.

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