A brief history of Christmas

While my church continues to search for a pastor, those of us in leadership are having to do all sorts of things a pastor normally does. It falls to me to bring the message during our Christmas Eve service tomorrow evening, which boggles my mind. I’ve been working on that message during my normal blogging time for more than a week now. I may try to cut down that message into a blog post for Christmas Day; wish me luck that I’ll find time. Meanwhile, the blog must go on, so I’m rerunning this Christmas post from December 23, 2015.

The Bible tells the story of Jesus’s birth twice: once in Matthew, once in Luke. But in neither telling, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, are we told to celebrate the event.

It is our choice to do this. God does not command it.

What's the Reason for the Season?

The closest the New Testament comes to telling us to celebrate anything is in Luke 22, when Jesus takes the last supper. After sharing the bread and wine with his disciples, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The Greek from which this is translated carries a connotation of repetition: keep doing this. Most churches interpret this to mean that we should do it, too.

I belong to a church that does it weekly. Some churches do it monthly or quarterly. I know of one that observes it annually. It has many names: the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Evening Meal, and communion.

Meanwhile, it might surprise you to know that several Christian groups don’t celebrate Christmas. The United Church of God doesn’t. Neither do Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists. And neither do some Churches of Christ, which is where I became a Christian. There are probably others. These churches believe that God doesn’t authorize this celebration, and that we should celebrate and worship him only as he authorizes through his scripture.

I used to agree with them. But over time I’ve come to see that their view on authority is too restrictive. Imagine your five-year-old child drawing you a picture, perhaps one of your family, and giving it to you with a smile — and you rejecting it, because you didn’t authorize it. How unloving. I believe God welcomes and smiles upon our good devotions to him, even when he has not explicitly called for them.

However, those churches correctly contend that December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth because nonbelievers already celebrated various pagan winter festivals at about that time. It’s not like anybody knew Jesus’s exact birth date, and they felt sure it would be easier to convert nonbelievers if the church had a celebration then, too.

Some modern churches that don’t celebrate Christmas say they won’t honor a celebration based on something that isn’t true, or something with roots in pagan celebrations. I respect their choice, but believe that those origins are so obscure and remote today that they no longer matter. We have infused this season of celebration with new, valuable meaning.

But that meaning has been strong only relatively recently. Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas at all for the first few hundred years of the church. When they did start celebrating Christmas, it wasn’t yet the central celebration is has become today. At certain times in history, religious leaders even forbade celebrating Christmas to avoid excessive revelry.

In truth, the traditions Christians follow in celebrating Christmas are only a couple centuries old, and have become widespread only in the last hundred years or so, especially since the great prosperity that followed World War II.

And so it galls me when I hear Christians speak of there being a war on Christmas, or insist upon greetings of Merry Christmas, or otherwise decry a perceived weakening of Christmas as a central national religious holiday. Christmas is a devotion and celebration of our own creation. We should celebrate it if we want — but we should not force it on anyone who doesn’t want it.

Show people love instead, the kind God gives you despite your sin.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!


17 responses to “A brief history of Christmas”

  1. J P Avatar

    Best wishes for your Christmas Eve message. And I hope your search for a new pastor bears fruit soon.

    I understand that the celebration of Christmas was pretty well established by the time of Augustine in the early 400s and had become a big deal in the middle ages. As in many things, some branches that grew out of the Reformation jettisoned the celebration, though not Lutheran or Anglican.

    If the date really was co-opted from the pagans (there is debate on this) they have certainly wrestled it back with the massive consumer bacchanal the holiday has become.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I really wrote a thinly veiled screed against the “War on Christmas” crowd here — with the last line being the gut punch. There’s no war on Christmas. Everybody should relax.

  2. retrocrank Avatar

    This is a nice (I assume) sermon. I have wondered however why Easter did not become the major holiday, it is after all the occasion that, more than anything else, denotes a divine Christ and his role among humans. The other even I’ve always thought was extraordinary and (as far as I know) was the first earthly recognition that Jesus was not an ordinary mortal is the story of Luke 2:45-47.
    Wishes for a loving holiday and peace in the New Year, Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      A brief sermon, but a sermon nonetheless. I agree; it seems like the Resurrection should be the more major celebration!

  3. Roger Meade Avatar
    Roger Meade

    I missed this in 2015, or don’t remember seeing it, which is about the same thing. Very thought provoking subject.

    I don’t quite agree that the reasons behind the pagan celebrations at this time of year are obscure or long forgotten. My wife and I both look forward to the turn of the Sun and the lengthening of daylight that starts on December 21 or 22. Perhaps that comes from living in the far north.

    Anyway- thanks for stirring up my brain waves.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m not sure I see welcoming the end of autumn and the return of lengthening daylight as a pagan celebration. I welcome this turning as well, as I tend to be a little blue at this time of year and less blue when there’s more daylight.

  4. jon campo Avatar
    jon campo

    Jim, Break a leg, I’m sure you’ll do fine!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you my friend!

  5. DougD Avatar

    You don’t need luck, my prayer for you is that God will show you the words.

    Ever consider the ministry Jim? My brother is a pastor but he has a completely different skill set than me..

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you Doug! I like preaching and teaching and wish I could do more of it. I’m not sure I have full-on pastor in me, however. As an elder in my church I’m expected to do some level of shepherding/pastoring and it is the part of the job I like least and am most likely to avoid. I have the “gift of administration” as we say, meaning I know how to make things operate well. Teaching and administration are what I bring to my church.

  6. John Holt Avatar

    Well said, Jim. Have a happy Christmas, and enjoy your homily Christmas eve.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you! I look forward to it.

  7. seatacphoto1951 Avatar

    I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and it was a bit tough as a child every Christmas morning seeing all my friends… now I treasure every Christmas.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I can only imagine how challenging that must have been as a child. Three jobs ago someone who worked for me was a Jehovah’s Witness and when it came time for all the usual at-work celebrations of Christmas, she just took the day off to avoid having to deal with it all. Oh gosh, and then there was the time we got this new HR system that notified everyone every time someone had a birthday. That poor woman’s birthday fell shortly after and she handled all the birthday wishes with considerable grace. But I marched up to HR to tell them to cut this practice out because some people didn’t observe their birthday for religious reasons. HR had never heard of such a thing, but turned off those notifications nevertheless.

  8. Jon Avatar

    Jim, I forgot to wish you and yours a Happy Christmas. Believe it or not, when my People arrived on these shores after the war between the states Christmas was NOT a holiday, and businesses were open as usual and you were expected to work that day. The Catholics in this area organized a strike and that was how it became a holiday, at least around here. That was not so long ago in the big picture.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you kindly Jon! I didn’t know that part of the history of Christmas. Happy Christmas to you and yours as well!

      1. Jon Avatar

        I mis spoke, should have read “boycott” not strike.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: