Is Christmas Christian?
Many nations throughout the world have established national holidays for various purposes to honor certain people or commemorate certain events. Some memorialize great victories in battle or pay respects to great national leaders or founding anniversaries of each nation. Holidays may vary from country to country but few countries have national holidays established to honor God. In the United States, there is one such holiday named Thanksgiving Day, which has been established as a day set apart to give thanks to God for his many blessings of abundance and protection over the country. In its foundational purpose, it is set apart as different from all the other national holidays of the year.
The day after Thanksgiving Day is also a special day. You might ask, "what is so special about the day after Thanksgiving?" It’s not a national holiday. It’s not marked on any American calendar as anything special. In fact, it’s marked on any normal western calendar as no different than any other day of the year; but, in the secular American society, it is a very special day of the year.
The day after Thanksgiving marks the first day of the Christmas shopping season. Stores are jammed with shoppers from early in the morning, even before sunrise, until late at night, long after sunset. For three to four weeks, depending upon how the days fall in a given year, most people will be in a frenzy, preoccupied with thoughts of materialism in the quest to give and get presents on Christmas day.
Have you ever thought about the mindset of people who go out of their way to rearrange their lives to accommodate the winter holiday on December 25th? It is extremely difficult to avoid being touched by the preparations for Christmas. If you listen to the radio, there is Christmas music. If you watch television, there are Christmas stories, Christmas movies, and advertisements for Christmas gifts. In fact, you can hardly have a discussion with anyone in society without hearing the parting farewell of "merry Christmas." It seems as though Christmas celebrations are just about everywhere you turn. In the western world, Christmas is one of the biggest traditions of the year.
Whether they call themselves "Christian" or not, most people who celebrate Christmas and exchange presents on that day think the day represents the birth of Jesus Christ and the giving of gifts to the Christ child by the three wise men. They think the holiday is authorized in the Bible and taken directly from the scriptures. Most of us were probably reared with that belief and conviction but most people might be quite surprised to find out the real truth of the matter.
The Whole Story
As we worship God the Father on the Sabbath today as God commands us, we need to ask ourselves what December 25th really pictures. Is it truly the anniversary of the birth of Christ as the world supposes or does it picture something else? Let’s go to God’s word to hear the truth of God about the birth of the savior he provided for us. In order to understand the full story, though, we have to go back more than a year before Jesus’ birth. The account begins in the first chapter of the book of Luke.
Stop there first. We see that Zacharias was of the priestly line of the sons of Aaron. As a priest, he served in the temple during the year. There were so many priests, however, that there were too many to serve in the temple all the time. Because of that, several hundred years before during the time of King David, the priestly service time was split into twenty-four groups or divisions.
We find their duties enumerated a little later in verse 24.
Let’s see how they were divided by David in chapter 24.
Now, we can see that the actual choosing of the divisions was made through an appeal to God by casting lots as we see in verse 7.
If we read on, we would find that there were a total of twenty-four divisions. During the year, the priests comprising each division served in the temple for a period of two weeks: one week in the first half of the year and one week in the second half of the year. In addition, all priests served for one week at each of the three holy day times as we read in Deuteronomy 16 and verse 16.
Keeping all of this in mind about the division of priestly service, we should go back to the main story in Luke. Speaking of Zacharias and Elizabeth, we read:
We learned above that the service of the priests was divided into twenty-four courses or weeks of duty. As we know, Abib or Nisan was the first month of the year in what equates to our March/April. Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread go from the fourteenth to the twenty-first of Abib, with the Feast of Weeks occurring on "the morrow after the seventh Sabbath following the Wave Sheaf offering during the days of Unleavened Bread. All the priests were to serve for a week at each of those holy day periods
If you were to make a chart and count off the weeks, you would find that there were three divisions of the sons of Aaron who served as priests during the three weeks of the first month; then there were four more who served during the second month; then the eighth division of Abijah served during the first week of the third month or Sivan. Depending upon how the day of the Wave Sheaf offering falls during the week of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits would probably fall after the week of the eighth course of Abijah. So, Zechariah probably served in the temple for two weeks back-to-back.. He would have returned to his home in early to mid June and Elisabeth would have become pregnant shortly thereafter.
Now if Elizabeth’s pregnancy began shortly after Zacharias finished his priestly duties in, roughly, mid- June, we see that for five months Elizabeth hid herself. That would bring us up to about mid-November. The account continues in the next verse to tell us that in Elizabeth’s sixth month, or probably early December, Gabriel again visited the earth with news.
Continue in verse 37.
So, we see that Mary stayed with Elizabeth an additional three months when Elizabeth would have been in her ninth month or, probably, sometime in early March when Mary would have been about three months pregnant. Mary then went home, to Nazareth in Galilee, before Elizabeth gave birth in, probably, mid-to-late March, which would have been about the time of Passover.
It is an interesting sidelight to note that at the Passover Seder (or meal), a special place is set for Elijah and the door is also left open to welcome him. Remember what Christ stated in Matthew 11:
The Birth of Christ
So, as we followed the clear chronology specified in the scriptures, it was very easy to see that John the Baptist was, most likely, born about the time of Passover in late March. We also read that Mary had stayed with Elizabeth for three months from the time of Gabriel's announcement of Mary's conception of Jesus. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was born about six months after John the Baptist (for more insight, please see our booklet, The Dates of our Messiah’s Birth and Death).
Now, let’s go back to Luke.
Continue in the second chapter of Luke.
The book of Ezra gives us a report on what the weather was like in Israel in the month of December. The eight days of the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication, which we know today as Hanukkah, generally occurs in early to mid December. It is begins on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month, Chislev. The following ancient weather report was given just five days before at, roughly, the same time of year.
A little later, in verse 13 we read:
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible records that, "broadly speaking, weather phenomena and climatic conditions as pictured in the Bible correspond with conditions as observed today (R.B.Y. Scott, Vol. 3, 1962, p. 625)." Describing the weather in Bethlehem, Sara Ruhin, chief of the Israeli weather service, noted in a 1990 press release that the area has three months of frost: December with 29 degrees Fahrenheit [which is minus 1.6 degrees Celsius]; January with 30 degrees Fahrenheit [which is minus 1.1 Celsius]; and February with 32 degrees Fahrenheit [which is 0 degrees Celsius].
Therefore, we have established that the month of December is during the rainy season with average nighttime temperatures slightly below freezing. Remember that the emperor in Rome had called for a census to be taken of "all the inhabited earth" (which means throughout his whole empire) as we read in verse one. Remember also that the Roman empire reached all the way from the English Isles in the west to Persia in the East and from northern Africa in the south to almost Germany in the north. It was an empire that went from sea level of the Mediterranean to the snow-capped mountains of northern Italy and France. Surely if it was cold and rainy or possibly snowy in December in Bethlehem, there would be many parts of the empire where it would have been colder and snowier with travel even more impassable. Does it make sense that the emperor would call for an empire-wide census at a time of year when travel was so difficult? Anyway, Christ’s birth was at a time of year when the shepherds were still in the fields keeping watch over their sheep at night.
Look at the account of the shepherds in the field in Luke 2:9.
Notice that: when the shepherds came to where Mary and Joseph were, the baby was still in the manger. So, it’s obvious that the shepherds made their way into the town of Bethlehem and found where Mary and Joseph were staying all within the same night.
Let’s go back to that reference in the Old Testament, in Leviticus and see what it says in its entirety.
So, we can see from comparing the command given by God in Leviticus with the narration in Luke of what kind of offering was actually given by Joseph and Mary, that they chose the less expensive option. This should also give us some idea of their economic state at that stage of their lives.
Now let’s go to the parallel account in Matthew. We’ll find that Matthew adds some details that help fill in the story.
Continue in the second chapter of Matthew.
Look at that: we just read that the magi "came into the house." What house? The newborn infant was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. The manger wasn’t in a house on the night the shepherds came to find Mary and Joseph. Unlike the nativity scenes showing the shepherds and the magi together as is pictured in so many places in the world today, it doesn’t take any great insight to see that they were actually two separate incidents occurring at two separate times. On the day that Christ was born, the implication is that Joseph had tried to find accommodations at the inn but had to settle for the stable because the inn was full of people. By the time the wise men came along, which was days or weeks after the birth of Christ, Joseph had found more permanent accommodations and he and Mary and the child were living in a house.
Notice also that the magi brought presents to the newborn child. Many today claim that this is the Biblical justification for giving presents on Christmas but let’s look at the account closer to see what actually happened. Verse two quotes them as saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?" So, they were searching to find the King. Yes, it has long been the custom, when visiting a King or head of state, to take presents of honor and great value to give as gifts to the King. The gifts have been seen to be a "door opener" to be granted an audience with or to gain favor before the King. The magi brought expensive gifts of "gold and frankincense and myrrh" in order to show honor to and to be granted favor by the newborn King and his parents. They did not exchange gifts with the child or his parents. They did not say, "Here are your gifts, now where are our gifts?" They did not exchange gifts among themselves. They brought "treasures" of very expensive gifts and they presented their expensive treasures before the one whom they knew had been born as "King of the Jews."
Now, continue the account in Matthew 2:12.
Here we have another clue which shows that the magi arrived in Bethlehem at some time after Christ was born. Why else would Herod have given the order to kill all the male children "from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi." Why would Herod have chosen a period as much as two years if they had arrived on the night of his birth?
Are we, then, the only ones who can see that all the pieces to the puzzle don’t fit? Let’s hear what other authorities have to say on the subject.
In Adam Clarke’s Commentary, we can read "as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light upon this disputed point (Adam Clarke’s Commentary, note on Luke 2:8)."
In their commentary, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown state: "From about passover-time in April until autumn, the flocks pastured constantly in the open fields, the shepherds lodging there all that time. From this it seems plain that the period of the year usually assigned to our Lord’s birth is too late (Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, pg. 991-992)."
Speaking of the shepherds in the field, Matthew Henry’s Commentary states: "They were employed now, not in acts of devotion, but in the business of their calling; they were keeping watch over their flock, to secure them from thieves and beasts of prey, it being probably in the summer time, when they kept their cattle out all night, as we do now, and did not house them (note on Luke 2:8)."
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states: "There is no certainty as to the month or day of the birth. The Christmas date, December 25th, is first met with in the West in the 4th century [that’s AD, more than 300 years after the event]… and was then possibly borrowed from a pagan festival. December, in the winter season, seems unlikely, as unsuitable for the pasturing of flocks… A more probable date is a couple of months earlier (International Standard Bible Encyclopedea, article Jesus Christ, Part 1, Date of the Birth of Christ)."
According to the Catholic Encycolpedia, "The census would have been impossible in winter: a whole population could not then be put in motion. (Catholic Encyclopedia, article Christmas)."
In Mystery Babylon The Great, Darrell Conder writes, "Most every historian, Christian as well as agnostic, states as fact that the birth of Christ was not celebrated for the first three centuries after His birth. Perhaps the early Church of God knew that Christ Himself didn’t want the day of His birth to be more important than His message – the Gospel of the Kingdom of God – which it has now become! So when was Christ born? Certainly NOT on the 25th of December… The evidence to prove this comes from many sources: first from the Bible itself. We can read there, for example, that when Jesus was born the shepherds were watching their flocks in the field. This shows definitely that it was not winter, December 25th - it would have been too cold, based on historical accounts of the region in the days of Christ. We need not, however, argue the point from the "Bible, because some of the most damning evidence against the December 25th date is supplied by the VERY CHURCH that instituted the Christmas custom to begin with! The Encyclopedia Americana and many others, states that the Roman Catholic Church ordered the birth of Christ to be observed on December 25th, the old Roman feast of the birth of the pagan deity SOL, (Sol Invictus) also called Mithra, the sun-god (Mystery Babylon The Great, Darrell W. Conder, pg. 89)."
Who was the pagan sun-god Mithra and what did his followers believe? Mithraism was a male-only religion that excluded women. It taught that Mithra was the mediator between God and man. From the Catholic Encyclopedia we learn that "this function first arose from the fact that as the light-god he is supposed to float midway between the upper heaven and the earth. Likewise a sun-god, his planet was supposed to hold the central place amongst the seven planets… Mithraists were strongly inclined towards asceticism; [the self-denial of] abstention from food and absolute continence seemed to them noble and praiseworthy, though not obligatory. They battled on Mithra’s side against all impurity, against all evil within and without. They believed in the immortality of the soul, sinners after death were dragged off to hell; the just passed through the seven spheres of the planets, through seven gates… leaving at each planet a part of their lower humanity until, as pure spirits, they stood before God… Sunday was kept holy in honour of Mithra, and the sixteenth of each month was sacred to him as mediator. The 25 [th of] December was observed as his birthday, the natalis invicti, the rebirth of the winter-sun, unconquered by the rigours of the season (Catholic Encyclopedia, article Mithraism)."
There were ranks in Mithraism, actually seven degrees of initiation into the mithraic mysteries. The first stage was a crow, the second an occult, the third a soldier, the fourth a lion, the fifth a Persian, the sixth a solar messenger, and the seventh or top rank was that of a father or pater. Mithraism originated from the Persians. When Babylon was conquered by Persia, the Babylonian mysteries became entwined with Mithraism. When Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great, mithraism was drawn toward the west as it was a religion readily adopted by soldiers because of its manly rites. When Greece was conquered by Rome, Mithra was brought into the capital by returning soldiers where it was readily received because of its association with the Roman god Saturn, the god of agriculture, who had similar traditions embodied in the winter festival of Saturnalia.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary states: " Mithraism originated in Persia. Mithra was a foe of evil, a savior of righteousness, and a guarantor of life in the seven heavens to come. He was presented as a mighty hero, and as such made a strong appeal to soldiers, who frequented his shrines… This cult was a formidable rival to Christianity (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Miller & Miller, article Mystery, pg. 471)."
In the book 4000 years of Christmas, Earl W. Count states that even though the Saturnalia was an "abomination in homage to a disreputable god… the Christians… were dedicated to the slow uphill task of converting these roistering pagan Romans. The habit of the Saturnalia was too strong to be left behind… When a river meets a boulder which will not be moved, the river flows around it. If the Saturnalia would not be forbidden, let it be tamed. The Church Fathers now sought to point the festival toward the Christian Sun of Righteousness (4000 years of Christmas, E.W. Count, pg. 12)."
The trend is best summed up in Gieseler’s Ecclesiastical History: "In exact proportion as paganism has disappeared from without the church, in the very same proportion it appears within it (Ecclesiastical History, Gieseler, Vol. II, pg. 45)."
The pattern continued as the Roman church encountered new potential "converts" on the frontiers of the empire such as the teutonic tribes in the area of Germany. Darrell Conder writes, "Some few people will know that the old Germanic god Woden is honored in the day of the week called Wednesday, a corrupted form of WODENSDAY. But very few people realize that history clearly shows that Woden was renamed St. Nick or Santa Claus, and is the real god of modern Christmas. In 4000 Years of Christmas we read, ‘Of most interest to us, however is the fact that Woden has become Santa Claus or, as he is better called, St. Nicholas’… The beliefs and customs of Woden’s followers would not be forgotten when they entered the new ‘Christian’ religion. They were not forgotten and NEITHER WAS WODEN! The god Woden was said to have had a sacred tree, which when approached at yule tide (December 25th), would bestow a special GIFT. Also, as with the Babylonian Religion [with] the obelisk, [the] tree, mistletoe and holly, were part of his worship. There was also the great feast in VALHALA, where Woden was ‘LORD of the Feast.’ All types of revelry, similar to Saturnalia, was practiced there. Woden, presiding over the revelries, was often pictured as sitting on a throne… with a wreath of holly around his head, just like the Santa Claus of the recent past. The Germanic peoples had found in the Roman Saturnalia, now called Christmas, and the Catholic ‘savior,’ enough of their beliefs to make their entrance into that church quite easy. It was then that Woden entered the Roman Saturnalia giving it his customs and worships, and making it uniquely his own (Mystery Babylon The Great, Darrell W. Conder, pg. 99)."
This winter festival was not merely to be found in Germany. Many of its traditions spread throughout Europe and were intertwined with old local customs, now under a new name.
"During the midwinter feast in Norway, evergreen branches, mistletoe and holly were used long before the Christmas tree became a tradition. Not until the first half of the 1800’s [AD] did this German tradition come to Norway. Today the Christmas tree has a central place in the celebration of Christmas in Norway… In ancient times, Christmas was a mid-winter sacrificial feast a festival of lights marking the transition from the dark winter to spring and summer. Christmas was a time for celebrating the harvest, fertility, birth and death. In the 900’s [AD] King Haakon I decided that the heathen custom of drinking Jul (Yule) was to be moved to December 25th, in honour of the birth of Jesus Christ. Gradually, the pagan feast was Christianised. The name Jul was retained, but the holiday was dedicated to Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger. Christmas is thus a mixture of ancient heathen and Christian traditions (Norway Ministry of Foreign Affairs, article: Christmas in Norway)."
In his article, Christmas in America Becomes Battleground, author Joe Kovacs shows that the secular holiday celebrations we see today in America are not the way December 25th has always been observed. He writes, "The fact that atheists view Christmas with disdain is not astonishing, since they've attempted to remove the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God we trust" from U.S. currency, as well as Ten Commandments displays from numerous publicly owned places. What may be surprising, though, is that some devout Christians, many dating all the way back to the days of Jesus, never celebrated the birth of Christ, nor sought to. America's early colonists banned observance of Christmas, and still today, there are many Christians abstaining from what millions more of their brethren joyfully celebrate as God's coming in human form. The Catholic Encyclopedia states, '"the word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038, and Cristes-messe, in 1131." It explains, "Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church," pointing out "first evidence of the feast is from Egypt" around A.D. 200 with attempts by theologians to assign not only the year of Christ's birth, but also the precise date. Historians agree that through the subsequent centuries, traditions from ancient pagan (non-Christian) religions became intertwined with those of Christianity, and depending upon one's point of view, either paganism became Christianized, or Christianity became paganized. In 1644, the English Parliament outlawed the holiday, compelling shops to be open that day, and condemning plum puddings and mince pies as "heathen." In his Pulitzer Prize finalist, "The Battle for Christmas," historian Stephen Nissenbaum at the University of Massachusetts documents the American development of the holiday now ensconced in popular culture. "In New England, for the first two centuries of white settlement," writes Nissenbaum, "most people did not celebrate Christmas. In fact, the holiday was systematically suppressed by Puritans during the colonial period and largely ignored by their descendants. It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681 (the fine was five shillings). Only in the middle of the nineteenth century did Christmas gain legal recognition as an official public holiday in New England." Nissenbaum agrees with other historians that the first recorded observance since the New Testament recounted Christ's birth took place hundreds of years after Jesus' resurrection. "It was only in the fourth century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on Dec. 25. And this date was not chosen for religious reasons but simply because it happened to mark the approximate arrival of the winter solstice, an event that was celebrated long before the advent of Christianity. The Puritans were correct when they pointed out - and they pointed it out often - that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer." Christmas in America saw huge growth during the 19th century, starting with Washington Irving's 1820 book "The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall." A week before Christmas in 1834, Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol," and in 1860, American illustrator Thomas Nast created Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus, based on European stories of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children.
Mr. Kovacs continues: Today, followers of ancient paganism strive to remind the public about the heathen origins of traditions that many may never have questioned. They've published books, given speeches, and created websites proffering a heathen history of modern customs. CircleSanctuary.org is among the Internet addresses run by nature-worshipping pagans. Wiccan high priestess Selena Fox discusses the state of being pagan and celebrating the lengthening of days during the Northern Hemisphere's darkest time of year. [She states] "Yule, the winter solstice, is a festival of peace and a celebration of waxing solar light. I honor the new sun child by burning a[n] oaken yule log in a sacred fire. I honor the great goddess in her many great mother aspects, and the father god as Santa in his old sky god, father time, and holly king forms. I decorate my home with lights and with holly, ivy, mistletoe, evergreens and other herbs sacred to this season. I ring in the new solar year with bells (Worldnetdaily.com, Christmas in America Become Battleground by Joe Kovacs, December 14, 2002)."
We need to ask, however, is it pleasing to God to have old festivals celebrating worship of pagan gods renamed in honor of the one true God, our Father, and of his son, Jesus Christ? Jeremiah 10:2 shows us just what God thinks when we adopt the ways of the Gentiles in preference to his ways.
The whole nation of Israel was taken captive by the instrument of God, the Assyrians.
Remember God’s second commandment:
Elijah asked the rebellious people of the northern House of Israel a very pertinent question for their time and one which we should seriously consider for our day as well.
Even Christ spoke of behavior that nullified the law of God.
Tradition is what God speaks of as driving the ways of this world around us.
The apostle John speaks of our duty to God.
What is that will of God? We can see a clear definition in the book of James.
Remember the first commandment in the law of God.
So, the question for anyone who keeps Christmas is: "By your actions, Whom do you really worship on December 25th?"
Sermon given by Philip Edwards
December 16, 2006
Church of God Most High
P.O. Box 89741
Tucson, AZ 85752-9741 USA
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