It seems like a ridiculous question to ask, but few get the answer right! Yet the truth can make a powerful difference in your life.
It seems like a crazy question. Nonsensical. Ridiculous. But it is a question for which the vast majority of the professing Christian world has the wrong answer.
Should Christians keep Christmas?
As the month of December arrives on the calendar, so do the decorated trees and homes, the wrapped gifts, the beloved carols, the special church services and masses, and all the other trappings of Christmas. On the commonly accepted “Christian Calendar,” few occasions are more cherished and more highly anticipated than the Christmas season. Children are given advent calendars, families go shopping for friends and neighbors, and children begin fantasizing about what goodies Santa Claus might bring them.
It is a time enjoyed by many the world over, and tales abound of even international strife being brought to a temporary halt on Christmas day in honor of the commonly held belief of both sides of the conflict that the day is meant to recognize the birth of the Prince of Peace—after which, of course, each side’s attempt to kill the other recommences.
It truly may seem odd to ask the question “Is Christmas Christian?” After all, if one were to simply look at the word “Christmas,” he would see the name of “Christ” right there at the beginning!
Yet Christians must always be willing to compare their beliefs, practices and traditions to God’s revealed will and word—embracing that which is validated by God’s express desire and casting aside that which conflicts with it. As the Apostle Paul admonished the early Church, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). And “all things” would certainly include the keeping of Christmas.
But as we ask the question of whether or not Christians should keep Christmas, it’s just as important to understand what questions we are not asking. For instance, we are not asking whether or not Christmas is fun. While the intensity of shopping for gifts and presents is incredibly stressful for many, Christmas is still generally considered one of the most enjoyable times of the year.
We’re also not asking whether or not Christmas traditions, songs, customs and carols are beautiful and inspirational. Frankly, some of the most beautiful music of Western Civilization has been inspired by the sentiment of the Christmas season. And while some customs associated with Christmas are nauseatingly materialistic, many people give of themselves selflessly during the Christmas season, and many personal and family traditions enjoyed during those days create happy memories.
But charity and selflessness certainly need not be limited to one brief season out of the year, and Christians don’t need Christmas to feel inspired, sing beautiful music, or create lasting family memories.
Our question is much simpler: Should Christians keep Christmas? That is, should individuals who claim allegiance to the religion, belief, practices and teachings of Jesus Christ observe Christmas? Would Jesus encourage individuals to keep the holiday? Or would He discourage them from it? Would He command its observance or condemn it? Would He, Himself, keep it or ignore it?
Any consideration of whether or not Christians should keep Christmas should begin with understanding the origins of the day and its many traditions.
Christmas traditions differ from place to place, to be sure. But many are familiar with the experience of decorating a Christmas tree, or perhaps burning a Yule log. Hanging holly and strategically placing some mistletoe is common in many cultures. Gathering together as a family or with friends and exchanging gifts is certainly commonly associated with the “Christmas spirit.”
All of these customs come directly from pre-Christian, pagan religions and winter worship practices.
Believe it or not, this isn’t generally a debated question, at all. It’s a fact of history. Even many mainstream Christians don’t dispute the pagan origins of Christmas practices and traditions, and even popular, conservative Christians such as Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and theologian Dr. R. C. Sproul readily admit that. The pagan origins and influences behind what we now call “Christmas” are available to any open mind willing to research the matter, and the facts are not in serious dispute.
For instance, consider this brief summary of the origins of Christmas from the widely respected “Christian” resource Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity: “The Christian church took over many pagan ideas and images. From sun-worship, for example, came the celebration of Christ’s birth on the twenty-fifth of December, the birthday of the Sun. Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival of 17–21 of December, provided the merriment, gift-giving and candles typical of later Christmas holidays… Some pagan customs which were later Christianized, for example the use of candles, incense and garlands, were at first avoided by the church because they symbolized paganism.”
In his famous work A Classical Dictionary, scholar John Lemprière summarized some of the ancient, pre-Christian practices of the pagan holiday Saturnalia—the pagan winter festival upon which many Christmas traditions are derived: “The celebration was remarkable for the liberty which universally prevailed. The slaves were permitted to ridicule their masters… It was usual for friends to make presents one to another, all animosity ceased, no criminals were executed, schools were shut, war was never declared, but all was mirth, riot, and debauchery.”
Does any of that sound familiar?
Sure, many of the practices and customs of Christmas that come from pagan origins have had their original meanings changed so that they sound more Christian. For example, some preachers compare pagan wreaths of holly to the crown of thorns Christ wore at His crucifixion, or the red of the holly berries to His blood. But those interpretations were added to these ancient, pre-Christian elements much later, and none of them change the fact of the origins of these customs, trappings and traditions. And if we are going to honestly answer the question at hand—Should Christians keep Christmas?—we need to do so in full view of the facts.
And, when it comes to the origin of the practices, those facts are clear: the dates, the practices, the customs—almost the entire package we know of as “Christmas”—was imported into Christianity from pagan customs rooted in sun worship in the winter and the Roman Saturnalia. Again, virtually no historians seriously dispute this.
Actually, these days it is not uncommon to see major magazines and other publications openly discussing the pagan origins of Christmas traditions—decorating evergreen trees, hanging mistletoe and giving gifts—without a hint of controversy. Though these things seem increasingly well known, few people seem to care.
Perhaps these facts don’t have any impact on the question of whether a Christian should or should not observe the holiday. Really, how do we know what Christians should or shouldn’t do? What makes something appropriate for Christians or not appropriate for Christians? Is it all a matter of opinion and preference, or is there an objective standard that informs a Christian’s faith and practice in such things?
That might seem like a hard question, but it isn’t. The name “Christian” comes from the name of the very founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. People who call themselves Christians are claiming to be followers of the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. So, if something is going to be declared appropriate, or even required, of Christians, it must agree with the teachings, statements, example and commands of the very founder of the religion whose name that faith bears: Jesus Christ!
Really, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Something belongs in the faith and practice of Christians if it matches the teachings and practice of Jesus Christ. Something does not belong in their faith and practice if it does not. It isn’t complicated!
And it isn’t just common sense. It’s what Jesus Himself explicitly taught. The New Testament records His assertion that to be His follower—to be a Christian—it is not enough to merely “believe” what He said while ignoring it in your life and practice.
Consider, for example, His condemnation in Luke 6:46 of those who declare Jesus their “Lord” without actually living as He commands: “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” Similarly, He declares, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:22–23).
Jesus clearly does not accept those who call Him “Lord” but who do not follow and act on His teachings and who ignore God’s laws and commands. Even if someone claiming to be “Christian” is a miracle worker, Jesus said that if such a one ignores practicing His teachings and God’s law, then He will cast that one aside and declare that He never knew him!
In fact, this element of truly acting on Jesus’ words and obeying His Father’s commands was so essential to the faith He was promoting, that Jesus taught “if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). And one of the original Twelve Apostles, selected and personally trained by Jesus Himself, wrote, “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3–4).
That’s strong! Jesus says through His apostle that if we don’t follow His commandments and teachings we don’t even know who Jesus Christ is—and if we say we do, then God’s word calls us a liar!
The implications are clear. If we want to know whether or not Christians should keep Christmas, we simply have to ascertain how Jesus’ own teachings and practice apply to Christmas. That is, we have to look at Christmas and figure out the answer to the popular question “What Would Jesus Do?”
Thankfully, we don’t have to guess at the answer. The Bible is remarkably clear on this question in many passages.
For example, speaking of pagan peoples and pagan traditions and customs, God commanded ancient Israel very clearly, “[Do] not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (Deuteronomy 12:30).
This is crucial! Notice that God didn’t simply say, “Don’t worship idols” or “Don’t worship their gods.” He says, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way”! The Bible makes it plain that we should not even worship the true God in pagan ways. So, while some often try to say that it is acceptable to use pagan traditions, symbols and days as long as one is worshipping the true God with those things, the Bible says otherwise.
Similarly, in Jeremiah 10:2, God instructs, “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles”—meaning those pagan nations outside of ancient Israel. He couldn’t be any plainer: He does not want His people worshiping Him using pagan ways. In fact, the passage in Jeremiah 10 goes much further and describes one specific example of a pagan practice God is condemning, and it should sound familiar! God continues, “For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple” (v. 3–4).
How many people do this with an evergreen tree every Christmas—bringing it into their home, standing it up, and decorating it with silver and gold? Almighty God says He doesn’t care if you call it an idol or not. Instead, He simply says, “Do not learn such things from the pagans, and do not worship Me in that way!”
Of course, these passages are from the Old Testament, aren’t they? The question at hand is about whether or not Christians should keep Christmas, and perhaps Jesus Christ changed things. Perhaps He said that it is perfectly acceptable to put God’s commands aside for the sake of traditions that we personally want to observe. Perhaps He says that we are allowed to ignore God’s commands and to worship Him however we want and with whatever traditions we want, regardless of what the rest of the Bible says.
But we’ve already answered that, haven’t we? Jesus loved the laws of God and honored them, commanding all who follow Him to do likewise. In fact, He specifically addressed the question about whether or not His followers should be willing to set aside God’s commands for the sake of traditions they want to keep.
Jesus Christ harshly condemned the religious leaders of His day who did the same thing—ignoring God’s laws for the sake of their own worship traditions: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men… All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6–9).
God’s word and the teachings of Jesus Christ are crystal clear! For a Christian to observe Christmas—the tree, the gifts, even the date itself—he or she would be required to lay aside the commandment of God to hold onto that tradition. God commands us not to use pagan-originated customs and traditions to worship Him, and Christmas—beyond all doubt—is infused with such customs and traditions. To keep Christmas, a Christian must first reject God’s commands. And Jesus Christ—the Son of God and the very founder of Christianity—passionately condemns doing that in no uncertain terms.
If we claim to be a Christian but ignore the teachings of Christ in order to keep Christmas anyway, Jesus’ words come back to us across 2,000 years to challenge us: “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?”
It’s actually amazingly clear. If Jesus were on earth, today, knowing that His Heavenly Father commands Him not to use pagan customs to worship Him, would Jesus Christ keep Christmas? Anyone willing to be honest with the Bible would have to say, “No, He would not.” And no one claiming to follow Him—claiming to be a Christian—would either.
Jesus Christ did not put His name on Christmas. Men did. But Jesus Christ, and His faithful followers, hold themselves responsible to a higher authority than the traditions of men. That’s what it means to be a Christian.
We began with what might have seemed a strange question: Should Christians keep Christmas? And the answer may seem just as strange—but it is also irrefutable: No, they should not.
It may be fun and a “good time.” We may enjoy it. It may be a long-standing family tradition. We may very sincerely be trying to keep it to God with good intention. But Christmas is not a Christian celebration according to the words and teachings of the founder of Christianity, Himself—Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus’ teachings condemn its celebration, and the celebration of all such holidays with roots in pagan customs and worship practices, and He forbids His followers from keeping them. Christians should not keep Christmas.
If Christians want to practice their faith with pure hearts and without hypocrisy—seeking to please Jesus in their service and practice, and not themselves or others—then these things matter. Christians must be committed to more than good intentions. As Jesus told the woman by the well, “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:22–24).