@Carson, thanks so much for posting this question for further discussion. Despite celebrating Christmas always for the right reasons, when I was confronted with questions about the legitimacy of biblical support for Christmas celebration, I found myself a little stumped and searched through the bible to know what it had to say about this topic.
Some Christians I encountered stopped celebrating Christmas because they viewed it as a continuation of pagan traditions with a bit of Christianity mixed in. The article from History Today that @kathleen shared is helpful to me. Few points that are noteworthy to me are -
Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice.
Based on this statement, it is then very likely that Saturnalia was moved to December 25th because of Christmas rather than the other way around!! So yes, Christmas is not the pagan celebration of Saturnalia.
Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was brought up in the Sol Invicta cult, in what was by then already a predominantly monotheist empire: ‘It is therefore possible,’ says Dr Gwynn, ‘that Christmas was intended to replace this festival rather than Saturnalia.’
The Christians I met who oppose Christmas believed Christmas was set to December 25th because of Sol Invictus and they believed participation in Christmas honors the Sun God. I personally think our intention matters more than anything when it comes to celebration rather than the day that is chosen to celebrate.
Devout Christians will be reassured to learn that the date of Christmas may derive from concepts in Judaism that link the time of the deaths of prophets being linked to their conception or birth. From this, early ecclesiastical number-crunchers extrapolated that the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy following the Annunciation on March 25th would produce a December 25th date for the birth of Christ.
This statement is indeed reassuring!! Good to know there are other reasons other than Sol Invictus for why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. Constantine reigned from AD 324 - 337 but the earliest known reference for commemorating the birth of Christ on December 25th is in the Roman Philocalian calendar of AD 354, which is much later! This to me suggests that the dating of Christmas had more to do with the liturgical calendar than the prevailing culture. I recently came across interesting evidence supporting this this point of view.
Based on an interview of William Federer, a Christian Historian with Melissa Dougherty and Doreen Virtue, I learned that the church fathers calculated the date of Christ’s birth as December 25th based on the dating of the priestly service of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, as recorded in Luke 1 (something also confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls). Zechariah was required to officiate twice a year, in the third and eighth month. This latter period was at the end of September and it is the reason why the Byzantine calendar celebrated ‘John’s conception’ on September 23. Six months after the date of John’s conception, March 25th was selected as the date of Annunciation. This is because Jesus was most likely conceived about six months after John’s conception as the angel Gabriel visited Mary in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s (John’s mother) pregnancy. So, nine months from March 25th would place us on December 25th for the birth of Christ. While we cannot confidently assert December 25th as Jesus’s birth date, it’s good to know there is a Christian basis for the celebration.
Below are some more objections and scriptures that I encountered for the objection of Christmas -
- Religious activities associated with Christmas are man’s own idea and so constitute vain worship - Matt 15:9.
- Continuing to celebrate Christmas despite knowing some of its pagan origins is an act of rebellion against the true God while exalting false gods - 1 Cor 10:21
- The Bible forbids the observance of special days, months or years - Gal 4:10
- Those who practice such traditions are weak Christians though they are accepted by God - Rom 14:1-5
What I noticed was that in all of the instances, the Bible was quoted out of context.
Matt 15:9 - The Pharisees here were nullifying the Word of God with their traditions and their hearts were far from God. But a true Christian would not place Christmas traditions at the same level as the Word of God nor would their hearts be far from the Lord. The Bible clearly neither supports nor forbids the observance of Christmas. If Christmas was celebrated as an obligation or as a means of grace, then I can see how it would be unbiblical.
1 Cor 10:21 - The context of this verse was about Christians eating food sacrificed to idols with Gentiles. Unless Christmas traditions practised are a means of connecting to a pagan God, it would be a stretch to apply this verse to Christmas. As far as I know, though pagans may have decorated trees for pagan festivals, it seems like a cultural practice rather than a religious ritual. As such, Christians have a lot of cultural practices in common with pagans such as food, clothing, language etc.
Gal 4:10 - The context of this verse was Paul’s concern for Galatians who were depending on works of righteousness rather than the freedom gained in Christ. Applying this verse to Christmas would be a misapplication as Christmas celebration is not seen as a work of righteousness by those who observe it.
Rom 14: 1-5 - In the context of this verse, Paul’s exhortation is to respect fellow believers who may consider certain foods or days more sacred though a strong Christian sees all days and food as alike. Most Christians who celebrate Christmas know that December 25th is not the exact date of Jesus’s birth and so wouldn’t view it as a day more sacred than other days. If we are called to rejoice in the Lord daily, why not collectively rejoice at least once on a set day in the year. There is nothing sinful or vain about collectively rejoicing in the true event of the birth of Jesus and the good news He brings on a specific day of the year.
Since coming to the knowledge of saving faith in Christ, I have always observed Christmas for the primary purpose of honoring Christ. It has given the opportunity to contemplate on the fulfilled prophecies about the birth of Christ, a time to serve those in need, a time to make new friendships, a time to invite the lonely to a gathering and most of all a time to share the message of Christ. So, I think at least for our family, we would lose the opportunity for many meaningful experiences if we gave up on Christmas just because it’s not in the Bible.
My post turned out to be a little too long as I shared from the objections I encountered in my own experience. Thank you to anyone who gets to the end of it! I hope it’s helpful to others who have had to struggle through the decision of celebrating Christmas as I have had to a few years ago. I too believe celebrating Christmas is a matter of liberty and not one that Christians should divide over.