Christmas in America is an event filled with contrasts and paradoxes. It is by far the most popular and most joyous season of the year; yet it is also a time when many people become so depressed they seriously contemplate suicide. Although it was initiated by the Church as a spiritual celebration of God’s salvation through the coming of His Son, Christmas has become a secular observance that is now the biggest commercial event of the year. As shoppers crowd the malls or frantically search online, providing merchants with as much as half their yearly income, the commemoration of the birth of the Prince of Peace leaves many people harried and frazzled almost beyond endurance.
The Question About Christmas
Even aside from the growing secularization and commercialization of the holiday, many Christians have always been ambivalent about Christmas, due chiefly to the pagan origins of many of the customs that surround it.
The birth of Christ was never celebrated at all during the first two centuries of Christianity. The commemoration of His resurrection at Easter was considered much more important. December 25th was originally celebrated, by proclamation of the emperor Aurelian in 274 AD, as the birthday of the Roman sun god. When the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity, he associated Christ, the light of the world, with the sun, and in about 336 AD the church in the Roman empire took over December 25th as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (By the way, Constantine also named the first day of the week, when Christ arose from the grave, Sunday).
To this day, the most treasured customs of Christmas are almost all of pagan, not Christian, origin. For example, merry making and the exchange of gifts was associated with the Roman Saturnalia, a festival in homage to the god Saturn which was held December 17-24. The decorating of houses with greenery and lights was part of the Roman new year celebration (January 1), as was the giving of presents to children. Even the exchange of Christmas cards can be traced back to ancient Egyptian and Roman customs.
Repelled by the commercial frenzy that characterizes the “holiday season,” and uneasy about the non-Christian origins of traditional observances, many believers today wonder about how, or even whether, they ought to celebrate Christmas.
The First Christmas Celebration
Although the Church did not formally observe Christmas until the fourth century AD, the first Christmas celebration was held long before that:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them … For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord … And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
God Himself arranged the first Christmas celebration! And He did it in style – an angelic chorus to issue invitations; a special star arising in the east to guide wise men to Bethlehem; gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and the joyful adoration of men and women who had waited all their lives for the appearing of Israel’s Messiah. So there is nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas. God set the pattern at the very beginning. By His example, He showed us not only that we should celebrate the birth of His Son, but He also demonstrated how it should be done.
How Christmas Should Be Celebrated
We can be sure of truly honoring Christ on Christmas if we approach our celebration in the same way God did His. Let’s look in detail at just what happened during that first Christmas.
When we read the biblical accounts of Christ’s birth (Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 2:1-40), one fact stands out. Everything focused directly on Jesus. The angels came to proclaim His birth as good news for the whole world. The shepherds, and later the wise men, traveled to Bethlehem to worship Him. Simeon and Anna felt that their lives had been fulfilled when God gave them the privilege of seeing His Anointed One before they died. Throughout all the accounts of the Nativity, the only object of everyone involved was to honor God by honoring Jesus. Obviously, then, the goal of every Christmas activity should be to somehow bring honor to Christ.
The first Christmas was a joy-filled time of high celebration. The angelic chorus rejoiced and the shepherds gathered together in Jesus’ presence to worship Him. One way we can follow their example is by making the effort to deliberately and explicitly center our thoughts, and our conversation, around the “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” that Christmas is all about, rather than on frantic last-minute shopping for obligatory gifts.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with giving gifts – the example of the wise men demonstrates that. But we must be careful in our giving to remember who’s birth we are celebrating. In all our exchanging of gifts with one another, we should be sure that we find ways to give gifts to Jesus Himself. What gift of love or service to others can we give Him as we commemorate His birthday? How can we take advantage of the world’s fascination with the Christmas “holiday season,” a time of year when many people think more about God and His love than they do at any other time, in order to introduce individuals to the One who is the reason for the season?
The early Church knew how to celebrate Christmas. In 381 AD Gregory of Nazianus reminded worshippers of the Christmas they had just observed. They had, he said, followed the star, worshipped with the Magi, been bathed in light with the shepherds, glorified God with the angels, taken Christ in their arms with Simeon, and confessed Him with Anna. Everything they did was directed at honoring Christ. If we emulate their spirit, we can be sure that God will be pleased with the way we celebrate Christmas.