Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Is It Permissible for Christians to Celebrate Christmas (And Other Holidays)?

I'm going to be posting some material related to Christmas over the next several weeks, especially as Christmas gets closer. I'm starting today with the issue of whether it's acceptable for Christians to celebrate the holiday, since it's a subject that's not often addressed in much depth. The people who are opposed to celebrating the holiday often spend a lot of time explaining why they oppose it, but since they're such a small minority, there isn't often much of a response to them.

Many Christians don't know which side of the dispute they want to take, or they take up a position against Christmas, because they aren't hearing sufficient responses to the arguments raised against the holiday. I can imagine all sorts of difficulties this issue could cause in terms of church divisions, divisions among relatives, etc., and I sometimes hear of cases where such things do happen. When a pastor or somebody else who is asked about this subject gives an overly simplistic answer, such as saying that Jesus' birth is something worth celebrating or dismissing those who oppose the holiday as unreasonable without explaining why, some people aren't going to be satisfied with such a response. If the opponents of the holiday are putting out literature on the subject or are running radio programs on the issue every Christmas season, for example, we can expect them to persuade some people. I think that Christians who choose to celebrate the holiday ought to be better prepared to answer the objections of those who oppose it.

The three arguments I seem to hear most often against Christmas are that the holiday is associated with paganism, that it's associated with immorality (materialism, drunkenness, etc.), and that we shouldn't celebrate a holiday scripture doesn't tell us to celebrate. The paganism argument probably is the most significant, and it requires the lengthiest response, so I'll address it last. The other two can be discarded more easily.

The ancient Israelites used the religious activities commanded by God as opportunities for immorality. And modern man not only uses Christmas as an opportunity for immorality, but also uses other holidays in a similar manner (Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, etc.). Christmas doesn't inherently require something like materialism or drunkenness. And any consideration of avoiding the holiday in order to not give people an opportunity for such behavior would have to be weighed against other factors, such as the likelihood that people would look for an opportunity to behave in that manner anyway and the significance of the benefits of the holiday. Those benefits are far weightier than opponents suggest.

It's true that scripture doesn't command a celebration of Christmas, but we have no reason to think that only holidays commanded by scripture are acceptable. If we can voluntarily regard one day as higher than another (Romans 14:5), then it logically follows that it's acceptable to have a holiday that isn't commanded by God.

The paganism charge probably is the most significant objection to celebrating Christmas, since there is a distant association with paganism, and those who celebrate the holiday don't often mention some of the counterarguments they could mention. However, many things in life can be said to have some sort of connection with paganism (or some other form of corruption), if we look far enough. Jesus and the apostles paid taxes that supported corrupt governments, for example. Glenn Miller gives an example from the language we use:

"I learned that the English word 'nice' came from an Old Latin word 'nescius''--which meant 'stupid'. I realized that the ancient meaning of that word--as a linguistic symbol--was in NO WAY 'smuggled into' my uses of the modern word 'nice'. [And the same for many other words, phrases, symbols of no consequence today.] I realized that the origin or some ancient meaning/significance to something MIGHT HAVE BEEN a reason to not use it BACK THEN, but it had NO BEARING on whether I should bless someone's heart today by telling them 'nice job' or 'what a nice gesture' or 'what nice children'"

Any association Christmas had with paganism more than a thousand years ago is far more distant than the association paganism had with meat offered to idols, for example, meat that Paul said a Christian could associate with (1 Corinthians 10:25). And if we're going to raise issues of what Christmas has been associated with in the past, why not raise similar questions about every other object in every other area of life? Who invented a particular kitchen utensil that you use? Or a tool you use in your workshop? Who invented the different types of clothing you wear? What if the owner of a restaurant at which you're eating is a Hindu? What if a particular symbol on a piece of furniture in your home was associated with a non-Christian belief system in some way a few thousand years ago? Etc. It does make sense to be concerned about what we associate with, but the association has to be close in order for it to have much significance, and the association between Christmas and paganism isn't particularly close.

What sort of association did Christmas have with paganism in the distant past? Setting up a Christian holiday to rival or replace a pagan holiday isn't equivalent to marrying Christianity to paganism.

Who used December 25 first? Some scholars believe that the date was used by Christians first, and pagans may have borrowed the date from Christianity. Some scholars cite Hippolytus and Julius Africanus, who lived in the second and third centuries and wrote prior to the pagan celebration that's often cited, as the first sources to propose December 25 as Jesus' birthdate. Hendrik Stander, for example, writes that "Julius Africanus, however, argues in his Chronicle (A.D. 221) for a date in the winter, December 25." (in Everett Ferguson, editor, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], p. 251) Even among the post-Nicene sources, the arguments for a December 25 date weren't dependent on pagan use of that date. John Chrysostom, for example, argued for December 25 on Christian grounds. The historian Philip Schaff wrote:

"It was at the same time, moreover, the prevailing opinion of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries, that Christ was actually born on the twenty-fifth of December; and Chrysostom appeals, in behalf of this view, to the date of the registration under Quirinius (Cyrenius), preserved in the Roman archives." (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, 7:77)

Given that Christmas was accepted in different parts of the world at different times and for different reasons, how can we attribute every celebration of the holiday to a desire to marry Christianity to paganism? If ante-Nicene Christians were using the December 25 date prior to the pagan holiday in question, and later Christians gave Christian reasons for the December 25 date, how would the presence of some pagan associations and a desire to rival paganism make the holiday pagan as a whole?

For those interested in reading more on this subject, I recommend William Tighe's article here and Richard Ostling's here. No Christian is obligated to celebrate Christmas, but no Christian is obligated to avoid celebrating it either. There's a lot to enjoy during the holiday season, and Christians shouldn't have a sense of guilt for enjoying it.

"Angels from heaven proclaimed the good tidings of his birth with songs of praise; Jewish shepherds from the neighboring fields, and heathen sages from the far east greeted the newborn king and Saviour with the homage of believing hearts. Heaven and earth gathered in joyful adoration around the Christ-child, and the blessing of this event is renewed from year to year among high and low, rich and poor, old and young, throughout the civilized world." (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, 2:15)