What is the meaning of Christmas? How did it originate? Is it in the Bible? Is December 25 the date that Jesus Christ was born? How would that be determined? “Holiday” is derived from “holyday.” Is Christmas a Christian “holyday?” Should Christ’s church officially observe it, perhaps as part of a larger “liturgical” calendar, with special presentations and programs? Who is Santa Claus, and how did he get involved?
The answers to these questions can be quite varied, depending on whom you ask! This year especially, with Christmas Day falling on a Sunday, it will be quite evident that not every person or every religious group has the same point of view. So, what can we say for certain?
This post is not intended to address every possible opinion but rather to present factual information that may be new to some of our readers. Of course, there is freedom in Christ for any Christian at any time is free to celebrate and commemorate any biblical event. Individual activities and traditions will vary from family to family.
We can and should seize the opportunity, when people are thinking about Jesus and his coming, to talk about Jesus and His coming. We can use that as a springboard to talk about why He came. He is not now a newborn infant, lying in a manger; He is the risen Savior who has paid for our sins and overcome death. He is Lord of all, deserving and demanding our praise and obedience. It just makes good sense to start with what’s on people’s minds, being sure that we then move them toward the full teaching of the Word of God. We can start with the manger, but we must not stop there!
However, recognizing and pursuing such opportunities does not require the church to make December 25 a “holy day” more than others. Here’s a parallel example to consider. Some religious people put ashes on their heads and observe “Ash Wednesday” as the beginning of “Lent.” To them it is an official church “holy” day to commemorate Jesus’ 40-day temptations. It is altogether right and important that we use any opportunity we have to talk about Jesus overcoming Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. We can do that, and we should, without the church designating and observing “Ash Wednesday” as a “holy day” ourselves. I think that most of my readers understand this.
So it is with Christmas. We need not silence ourselves regarding the birth of Christ as we talk with those whom we seek to lead to Him. We can certainly preach, pray, and sing about His birth at any time of the year. But is there a biblical basis for the church – as the church – to consecrate Christmas as a “holy” day, more holy than other days?
Many Christians, who recognize the absolute priority of biblical teaching, biblical authority, and biblical precedent, ask, “Does the New Testament reveal the date of Jesus’ birth? Does the NT instruct the church to have an annual celebration of Jesus’ birth, maybe a pageant or production, in connection with December 25?”
The answer to each of these questions is, “No.”
So, since the designation of Christmas (December 25) as the birthday of Christ began with man and not God, how did that happen? And why have so many religious groups either declared it to be Jesus’ birthday or at least chosen it as “the day” to celebrate His birth?
Let’s ask the Roman Catholic Church.
The developing Roman Catholic Church had a major hand in the origin of this belief and practice. But how? Through what process of steps? The Catholic Encyclopedia is considered “the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history.”
Note the excerpts which follow, that may be found here: Christmas – Encyclopedia Volume – Catholic Encyclopedia – Catholic Online. (Read the whole article if you wish. It has quite a lot of information to digest.)
The word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038.
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church.
The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I, xxi in P.G., VIII, 888) says that certain Egyptian theologians “over curiously” assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ’s birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus.
… there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth.
… on 29 Choiak (25 December) and 1 January, 433, Paul of Emesa preached before Cyril of Alexandria, and his sermons (see Mansi, IV, 293; appendix to Act. Conc. Eph.) show that the December celebration was then firmly established there, and calendars prove its permanence. The December feast therefore reached Egypt between 427 and 433.
So, neither December 25 nor any other date was celebrated in Christ’s first-century church as that one church was established and is described in the New Testament. And the actual choice of December 25 was made by religious leaders, who had departed from the New Testament pattern in numerous other ways already. These leaders even disagreed with each other, over an extended period of time. They and their successors helped in the development of what became the Roman Catholic Church.
It’s so interesting that evangelical denominations and community-church groups choose to celebrate only Christmas and Easter from among these “holy” days. Should they not logically all stand or fall together?
It would seem that non-Catholics, who reject other Catholic “holy days” (including the Annunciation, the Assumption of Mary, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Lent) as unscriptural, would do the same with this Catholic “holy day.” For example, you will not see people in evangelical denominational and community-church type groups wearing ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. If you asked them why, they likely would say, “It’s from the Catholic Church and not from the Bible!”
They would be right.
Yet it seems today that Christians who reject December 25 as a “holy day” are in the minority. Has it always been that way? Not at all! The truth is that throughout history, reformers and restorers who have sought to get back to biblical teaching, rejected the celebration of a “holy day” on December 25 as the birthday of Christ.
I recently came across an informative and surprising book on this subject. You may want to read it. It is Christmas: A Candid History, by Bruce Forbes. He writes:
During the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Menno Simons led movements that broke from the Roman Catholic Church. They campaigned to eliminate Catholic features that they believed departed too far from the biblical model, the practices, and the beliefs of the earliest Christians.
Many of the dissenters in the Church of England came to be known as Puritans. Their idea of a “pure” church included opposition to Christmas. They had neighbors who felt the same way, for the leadership of the Church of Scotland (called Presbyterian when it got to the American colonies) also disapproved of Christmas.
One primary reason that Puritans opposed Christmas was that they believed that many Catholic practices were innovations that interfered with the spirituality and simplicity of early Christianity. They wanted to discard “popish” (from the Pope) intrusions such as bishops, clerical vestments, elaborate ceremonies, and the observance of holy days. Christmas was one of the features to be eliminated, because the Puritans believed it had no biblical warrant, was not practiced in the early church, and was rooted in pagan superstitions.
The Puritan-dominated Parliament in England outlawed seasonal plays in 1642, declared Christmas a day of penance instead of a feast day in 1644, and on December 24, 1652, proclaimed that “no observance shall be had of the five and twentieth of December, commonly called Christmas day, nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof.” The Puritan Parliament made a point of meeting on Christmas Day from 1644 to 1656, and various Puritan laws mandated that shops and other businesses remain open on Christmas Day.
Most English-speaking groups who dissented from the Church of England deemphasized Christmas. They included Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, alongside the Puritans (eventually called Congregationalists in the American colonies). For example, it might surprise modern-day Methodists to realize that, in the collected sermons by their English founder, John Wesley, there are no Christmas sermons. Why? Wesley led a revitalization movement that eventually broke from the Church of England.
Charles Spurgeon, perhaps the best-known Baptist preacher in history before Billy Graham, preached to thousands in the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Below are some statements he made, found here: The Spurgeon Library | Spurgeon’s Guidance on Celebrating Christmas.
There is no reason upon earth beyond that of ecclesiastical custom why the 25th of December should be regarded as the birthday of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ any more than any other day from the first of January to the last day of the year; and yet some persons regard Christmas with far deeper reverence than the Lord’s-day.
We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly, we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Saviour; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority. Superstition has fixed most positively the day of our Saviour’s birth, although there is no possibility of discovering when it occurred.
In an 1876 sermon, after Spurgeon acknowledged the problematic origins of Christmas, he also noted (as I did above) that many are thinking of the birth of Christ during this time and that he might therefore voluntarily preach about it. However, he made it clear that he would never subscribe to man-made authority or superstition.
Still, as the thoughts of a great many Christian people will run at this time towards the birth of Christ, and as this cannot be wrong, I judged it meet to avail ourselves of the prevailing current, and float down the stream of thought. Our minds will run that way, because so many around us are following customs suggestive of it, therefore let us get what good we can out of the occasion. There can be no reason why we should not, and it may be helpful that we should, now consider the birth of our Lord Jesus. We will do that voluntarily which we would refuse to do as a matter of obligation: we will do that simply for convenience’s sake which we should not think of doing because enjoined by authority or demanded by superstition.
In the quotations above, I am not saying that we should do something, or avoid something, because Calvin, Simons, Wesley, or Spurgeon have any authority over Christian doctrine. Neither am I advocating all the actions that the Puritans or others took!
This is a post designed to present historical facts. I simply note these quotations to emphasize that Christians who reject Christmas as a special “holy day” are not alone. Such convictions have been shared by others who chose to reject non-biblical innovations and traditions.
Those traditions in some cases (not all) have led to more and more extravagant pageantry, pomp, and performance. Large numbers of people are drawn to expensive, expansive, and entertaining productions and programs. In some of these cases, the bigger the better. Once again, not all “Christmas programs” are like that. Many are quite the opposite.
And yet, pointing out a current example of these enormous “shows,” this headline appeared 12/5/22: “Prestonwood Baptist Flying Drummers Video Elicits Mixed Responses.” The article is quite informative. Prestonwood Baptist Flying Drummers Video Elicits Mixed Responses – MinistryWatch
What about “Santa Claus” or “Saint Nick?”
According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Santa Claus is “a plump, white-bearded, red-suited, and jolly old man in modern folklore who delivers presents to children at Christmastime.”
Okay, but from where did he come (besides the North Pole)? Merriam-Webster goes on the say that “Santa Claus” is a modification of the Dutch Sinterklaas, which is an alteration of Sint Nikolaas or Saint Nicholas. So “Santa” is from “saint,” and “Claus” is from the last part of “Nicholas.” The first known use of the name “Santa Claus” was in 1773.
Apparently, a man named Nicholas was “sainted” by the developing Catholic Church in the AD 500s. Forbes, the author noted above, writes the following:
The Catholic Encyclopedia begins its entry about Nicholas succinctly, summing up our minimal historical knowledge:
Though he is one of the most popular saints in the Greek as well as the Latin Church, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him except that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Some of the main points in his legend are as follows: He was born at Patara, a city in Lycia in Asia Minor; in his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine; shortly after his return he became Bishop of Myra; cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian, he was released after the accession of Constantine, and was present at the Council of Nicaea. In 1087 Italian merchants stole his body at Myra, bringing it to Bari in Italy.
Notice that except for the general time period (the fourth century) and his location (bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey), the encyclopedia article describes all of the rest as legend.
Having said that, I cannot see a fourth-century “bishop” as “a plump, white-bearded, red-suited, and jolly old man!” I do not know, perhaps no one knows, how that transition took place. That’s the way it is with traditions. Over time they become so accepted that knowledge of their origins fades away. The more widely accepted they are, the less concerned people are about such things.
I close with this Scripture. May we all take it to heart!
Rom 14:5 One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. 7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; 8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. 10 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12 So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.