"Are you serious? Were you Jehovah's Witness or something?"
That tends to be the reaction I get from most people when they find out my family didn't celebrate Christmas when I was growing up. For some of you who just learned this fact about me, you are probably having the same reaction right now. Well, let me make myself even more strange, we didn't celebrate Easter either, although that is a topic for a later post.
No we were not Jehovah's Witness, nor were we radical atheists hell bent on destroying religion. My parents were and are solid Christians who love the Lord and have no hidden agenda for destroying the fabric of American society. Why then, you may ask, did we not celebrate Christmas? One simple reason, it has nothing to do with Jesus.
Now I understand that this last statement will be even more shocking for many of you , than my admission that I never celebrated Christmas as a child. After all, everywhere you look we see evidence of Jesus birth. Manger scenes are erected in nearly every house, church marquees remind us that Jesus is the reason for the season, we sing songs asking if Mary knew her baby boy would be our savior or about the three kings who traveled to meet Jesus at his birth, even the conservative pundits are telling us that there is a war on Christmas and that the evil atheists are trying to remove Christ from Christ-Mass. How can I possibly tell you that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus?
The reality is that December 25th has had a long history of being used by religious groups to celebrate the birth of their gods. Many of these celebrations revolved specifically around sun gods. This is easy to see given that December 25th is the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) and the day when the sun begins to make it's return back to the north. While these pagan festivals can be traced as far back as ancient Babylon, it was really the Roman Empire that united many of these festivals into a common theme. Across the Roman empire traditions from many religions were joined together, the yule log (celebrating the sun's eternal light) and the evergreen tree (a reminder that the sun would return and bring the crops back to life) for example, and celebrated commonly as Dies Natalis Sol Invicti "the birthday of the unconquered sun". It wasn't until hundreds of years after Christ's burial and resurrection that December 25th became associated with his birth. In all probability Jesus was born in early September, although no one really knows for sure.
Most early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus, more than likely for two reasons. First Jesus never asked them to. The only thing that Jesus asked was for us to remember his crucifixion and resurrection. Second the Jewish culture regarded celebrating birthdays as a pagan tradition that was to be avoided. All of this changed however with the Roman Emperor Constantine. As I'm sure you are well aware Constantine was the first Emperor to legalize Christianity. In doing so he brought about many of our Christian traditions, once again a story for a later time. Amongst these traditions is the celebration of Christmas. You see Constantine, as well as being the Roman Emperor, was also the head of Roman religion. And the easiest way to get pagan Romans to convert to Christianity was to take the pagan celebrations and traditions, and slap a Christian label on them. So December 25th which celebrated the birth of the sun god now was changed to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. We now exchange gifts because God sent us the greatest gift, His son. The evergreen tree now symbolizes eternal life that is found in Jesus, rather than the return of the sun. The yule log symbolizes Jesus, the light of the world, rather that the sun's eternal light.
As you can see Christmas, at least in it's origins, has nothing to do with Jesus. That is why, growing up my family never celebrated it.
Why then do I choose to celebrate Christmas?
First, because my conscience is clear to do so. Some Christians, and I do have some friends and family who fall into this category, cannot get past the Pagan origins of the holiday and are unable to celebrate. In a very real sense this becomes like the "food sacrificed to idols" that Paul mentions in 1 Cor 8. There were some believers who could eat this food with a clear conscious and some that could not. For those who could not, it was a sin for them to do so. I view the celebration of Christmas in this same light. I fully understand the pagan origins of the holiday but they hold no bearing in my decision. I have a clear conscious before men and God.
Second, I believe that Christmas can be/has been redeemed. Paul in Acts 17 walked into a pagan, idolatrous city, Athens, and used their idolatry to point them to Jesus. Regardless of the pagan origins and traditions associated with Christmas, many of these have been used in the same way. People all over the world for the last 1,700 years have been pointed to Jesus through Christmas. I don't see that as a bad thing.
Third, it causes me to reflect on what is truly important in life. I have the opportunity to spend time with friends and family in a way that is different than the rest of the year. While I value my time with loved ones all year long there is something special about gathering together in a time of celebration. I enjoy blessing my friends and family with gifts. I enjoy sharing a good meal together. I enjoy the memories that come from these times. In the busyness of life it is very easy to take these things for granted and Christmas is, for me, one time when I can slow down long enough to savor them.
Fourth, I love the celebration. I love the Christmas lights that line the streets. I love putting up my Christmas tree and talking about the different ornaments and the memories they hold as we pull them out of their boxes and hang them up. I love my mom's winter village that she puts up every year. I love making cinnamon rolls for friends and family, and of course myself. I love trading goodies with my neighbors, a tradition that my wife started when we got married and we all look forward to. I love giving, and yes receiving, presents. I love the Christmas carols we sing at church. And yes I even love the kids Christmas play every year. I truly believe that God want's us to enjoy the life he has given us. For me this is one of the ways I do that.
Fifth, and by far the most important, Jesus. While I know that the origins of Christmas have nothing to do with Jesus, my celebration of it has everything to do with Jesus. He is my reason for everything. And while it's true, as my parents have said, we should be celebrating him all year long rather than just on one day, it's nice to have a time of "forced" reflection. To take some time and truly ponder all that he has done in my life over the last year. To reflect on the miracle of his birth and the importance that it holds for all of human history. We take time to celebrate the births of our family and friends, and to thank God for the gift that they are in our lives. To me it only makes sense to do the same for the most important birth in all of humanity.
I could go on an on, but I won't.
These are my reasons, yours may be different. You may even be one that chooses not to celebrate and have your own list for why you chose not to. That's ok.
Just remember as A.W. Tozer said "It's not what a man does that makes it sacred or secular; it's why he does it." For some, Christmas is nothing more than a secular holiday. For me, it's extremely sacred, and one I will continue to celebrate with friends and family.
God bless you all. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year