Last week we looked at the pagan holidays that were celebrated at the end of December. Because of these pagan roots, many Christians believe we should avoid Christmas as an ultimately pagan holiday. Yet, does the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ itself have anything to do with pagans? Or is it truly a Christian holiday that is simply celebrated at the wrong time of year?
Jesus birth was foretold centuries prior in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the fullness of time, God sent His Son to redeem mankind. He sent Jesus as a little baby to become God With Us.
… he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Israel and bring back those of Jacob I have preserved. I’ll also make you as a light to the nations, to be my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
— Isaiah 49:6, ISV
Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign. Watch! The virgin is conceiving a child, and will give birth to a son, and his name will be called Immanuel.
— Isaiah 7:14, ISV
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the growth of his government and peace there will be no end. He will rule over his kingdom, sitting on the throne of David, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of the Heavenly Armies will accomplish this.
— Isaiah 9:6–7, ISV
“Then the angel told her, “Stop being afraid, Mary, because you have found favor with God. Listen! You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.”
— Luke 1:30–32 ISV
About 1,950 years ago, the well-educated and faithful physician Luke wrote to one Theophilus, detailing the life of Jesus Christ. Luke explained that he had done research on the subject so that Theophilus could know with certainty that the things he had been told about Jesus were true (Luke 1:4). Luke must have spoken with Mary herself, for he describes things that only she would know.
‘But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,’
— Luke 2:19.
Luke tells Theophilus of the birth of Jesus; how he was born in Bethlehem during a time when the entire Roman world was being taxed. Shepherds out in the field were surprised by a host of angels that filled the sky, singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest!’ and found the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Those shepherds then told everybody they could find about the incredible things they had seen (Luke 2:8–18).
The child grew up and went on to have a short, three-year ministry that ended in His death on a Roman Cross. Yet, the man born in Bethlehem rose again from the dead, as witnessed by over 500 men (1 Cor 15:6). And He is still changing the hearts and lives of people living today.
The early Christians are not known to have celebrated Christ’s birth, and the actual date of His nativity has been lost to history. The first recorded mention of the December 25 date is in the Calendar of Philocalus (AD 354), which assumed Jesus’ birth date to be Friday, December 25, in AD 1. Pope Julius I officially proclaimed December 25 to be the anniversary of Christ’s birth in AD 440. Giving December 25th Christian significance has been understood to have been an effort to help the pagan world embrace Christianity and trade in their worship of pagan gods for the One True God. Originally called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by A.D. 432 and to England by the end of the 6th century. The celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to the Scandinavian countries before the year 800.
Christ’s birth is honored on January 6 in the Orthodox Church, on Epiphany or Three Kings Day, the day that celebrates the arrival of the wise men who gave the Christ child their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christmas did largely win out over the pagan holidays, but was still celebrated with rowdy festivities and practical jokes - more like Mardi Gras than anything resembling the character of Christ. Puritans in England outlawed Christmas for years, and the holiday was not popular in early America. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870.
The holiday then underwent a conversion. Christmas was ‘reinvented’ into the more moderate holiday we know today. Washington Irving and Charles Dickens both wrote tales that presented Christmas as a holiday of caring for the poor and bringing families together. As the angels sang above the shepherds that first night, Christmas was about ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’.
The Season is still a mixture of traditions pulled from a multitude of sources. While many of them have little to do with Jesus, most are morally neutral activities. However, even while Santa Claus “Ho Ho Ho’s” down Main St. on a fire truck, and Hershey makes a killing on aluminum-wrapped chocolate bells, the reality of Christ’s birth does break through. Nativity scenes bring to mind the great gift of God — the King of kings lying in a manger, attended by shepherds. Christmas carols that cry ‘The Lord is come’ and ‘Come let us adore Him’ are sung from door to door, reminding us all of what God has done.
It is a time of year when people can speak more freely of Jesus the Savior — when even the faithless are willing to attend a Christmas Eve service. It is truly a precious slot of time God has given us during which to spread the Good News of His Son. Glory to God in the highest!
May your celebration of the birth of Christ honor Him who gave Himself to us as the ultimate sacrifice of love. May everything we do reflect the love and compassion of our Savior, and bring glory to His name.
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