Should Christians Celebrate the Birth of Christ?
by Joseph P. Duggan
One of the most basic points of distinction between the faith and practice of Protestants and that of Roman Catholics is that the Protestant's faith flows from Scripture alone, while that of the Roman Catholics often incorporates elements of human invention, even those which have their roots in pagan religion. Catholics do not refuse to adapt unscriptural customs and ideas into their religion by accommodating them to a Christian form. For example, images and statues of Christian figures have been substituted for pagan idols and the holy days of the pagans have been changed into days commemorating various saints.
The intention of this does not appear to be insidious at all: it was to win the pagan to Christianity. The result, however, was not so innocent: an unholy mixture of divinely revealed religion with that of human invention.
Protestants generally have been greatly offended by such a mixture and the Reformation to a large extent was a protest against this. At that time Christians were called back to the Scriptures as the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy God. A person who bases his religious faith and practice on the Scriptures alone must necessarily reject all inventions of men in the religious realm, whether they be of pagan origin or are alleged to be the invention of the pious.
Christians should constantly examine their religious practices to see if they be Scriptural. We are all too prone to do things merely because of tradition, without critically examining our customs. This must be guarded against lest we find ourselves adopting a heathen attitude towards religion. The heathen endeavors to worship deity according to a manner of his own invention. He acts as if he were able of himself to approach the Almighty. The Christian, on the other hand, confesses that he is of himself weak, ignorant, foolish and sinful and that therefore God, who alone is holy and wise, must reveal Himself to us and the proper manner of our worshipping Him if we are to do so at all. God has graciously done this for us in the Bible and we do well do despise our own opinions and ideas and turn only to His revelation.
One tradition which deserves our attention is the celebration of the birth of Christ. In order to determine whether this is proper, let us consider how the practice arose and then make some observations from the Scriptures. However, before we proceed, it would be good to note that many Christians will be shocked that his celebration should even be brought into question, for it has long been part of the piety of many. The truly pious, however, will always be willing to test their beliefs and practices by Scripture, and therefore we ask the reader to to consider this subject.
It is significant that nowhere in the New Testament is there an injunction to observe such a day and no evidence of its observance by the Apostolic church. Indeed, no encouragement of any kind is given. Only a reading of the New Testament will bear this out. While the Holy Spirit imparted to us many details of the birth of Jesus, He did not see fit to inform us of the day when this momentous event occurred.
How then did the church come to adopt the 25th of December? Before we answer this question let us note that it was not until the third century that the celebration began to appear in Christian circles. Even at this time there was no uniformity, but various dates were set for the holy day, including those in the months of January, March, April, and of course December.
It was not until the fourth century that, under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, December 25th gradually gained supremacy. One must remember the state of the church during the third and fourth centuries. The church as beginning to prosper and become rich, and with this went hand-in-hand a gradual spiritual decline and corruption. The old paganism, furthermore, was still firmly entrenched in the hearts of the people, even of those professing the Christian faith.
One of the most prominent and popular of the pagan ceremonies was the Saturnalia running from the 17th the 24th of December, followed by Brumalia on the next day. It was a time of great celebrations, merry-making, and the giving of gifts. All this was to celebrate the victory of Sol Invictus, or the unconquerable Sun-god, over darkness at the winter solstice, when the sun is at its lowest point and the days begin to lengthen. It was one thing for the church, now popular and dominant in Rome, to persuade the people to give an outward profession of her religion, but to persuade them to surrender age-old practices was another matter. The most expedient thing to do was to let the people keep their old pagan festivals while recasting them in an outwardly Christian form.
The church had no difficulty in doing so. The pagans were accustomed to emphasize the sun's youth in that it had just surmounted its shortest day. The Sun-god was likened to a small child. What could be better than to substitute the Christ child! Sol Invictus was also regarded in his role as the unconquerable. Christ, too, was all-powerful. A hymn once sung in the streets to the pagan god was now replaced by a similar one to Christ. The old pagan celebration was a great time for gift giving. Now gifts were given in the name of Christ.
Yet, the change was only external. Riotous merry-making and drunkenness continued. It was the old paganism in a slightly altered dress. The church by such means had conquered paganism outwardly, but in so doing the seemingly vanquished gained a foothold in the church of Christ. Can anyone seriously maintain that gift-giving, the evergreen tree and mistletoe have any real meaning to the Christian? If no relationship is to be found in the Bible, can they have any connection with the birth of Christ. On the other hand there can be no doubt as to their importance in pagan thought. Principle had been compromised for the the sake of expediency.
Of course, at this point many will reply that the particular day is of no importance and that Christians no longer attach any significance to the old pagan notions. Indeed, these have all been forgotten and the day has truly been transformed in into a Christian one. The important thing, we are told, is that we honor Christ by commemorating His birth and by turning our hearts again unto God's grace to this sinful world.
It is, of course, a good thing to honor Christ and to meditate upon this very important aspect of God's grace. However, we must ask ourselves if it is proper to do so in a manner of our own devising or in a manner which has been adapted from heathenism. The conclusion to which the Scripture demands we arrive is that our worshipful activity must be determined by Scripture alone. The Westminster Confession of Faith gives excellent expression of this principle:
“But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He many not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scriptures.”
Doubtless some will remind us that whereas pagan elements inhere in the origin of the festival it is now only celebrated by Christians in a Christian way; the pagan elements have been eliminated and in content the celebration of the day is purely Christian. Yet, we must ask the Christian to consider that many of the condemnations of Scripture upon ancient Israel were for practices which were borrowed from her heathen neighbors but intended to promote the worship of the Lord God. The harshest terms were used against practices taken over from paganism and given a pious meaning. Not only did they violate the solemn injunction: “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32), but they polluted the worship of God when, in the face of divine prohibition, they brought into it elements which had their origin in pagan ideas and practices.
This the Israelites did when they made the golden calf. Did they not proclaim “a feast unto the LORD” in the use of the calf? There is no evidence of any intention to depart from the true God, but they wished to have something visible as an aid in the worship of God. They said, “these be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4) Thus they borrowed from the gentiles to help them in the worship of the God of their fathers.
When the Israelites worshipped under green trees they were introducing into their religious life what they observed among the nations. These “served their gods upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree.” (Deuteronomy 12:2) This was forbidden: “Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 12:4) In other words the true God was not to be worshipped by the intrusion of ways derived from the nations. And it is true that when many of the Israelites worshipped under the trees and upon hills they did not worship Baal but rather endeavored to adapt pagan ideas to a good end, namely the worship of the living God. Even such apparently innocent things as planting trees near the altar of God which the pagans did near their altars was forbidden (Deuteronomy 16:12). It is called an “evil in the sight of the LORD.” (I Kings 14:22)
It is the adaption of heathen ways to the worship of the true God that is sharply denounced by God through Jeremiah the prophet when He says, “Learn not the way of the heathen ... for the customs of the people are vain.” (Jeremiah 10:2,3)
When Christians celebrate the birth of Christ annually on a certain day regarded as holy and sacred they are doing what Israel was condemned for doing, namely adapting the practices of the non-Christian world to the Christian faith. They may deny that in honoring Christ by setting aside the 25th of December to memorialize His birth they are detracting from His honor, but rather are magnifying Him by setting aside a day not expressly commanded and by divesting it of its heathen connotations. They may even boast that they do more for God in this way than by continuing withing the limits prescribed by God Himself in His Word. But this is certainly a quibble to shield a religious practice not divinely given under God's sacred name.
Do we wish to honor Christ? To pay homage unto Him? Could there be any better way than to do this by serving Him each day of the year; by obeying His commandments; by being strangers and pilgrims in this world as a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, and a peculiar people showing forth His praises in a world darkened by Satan?
In His providence God has not seen fit to inform us of the day of Christ's birth. Shall we then presume to select a day which was sacred to the heathen? And in so doing shall we regard it as a light thing that our actions conform to the elements of the pagan celebration of this day?
God has not commended us to observe a day to commemorate the incarnation. Shall we presume to do so; to worship Him according to our own inventions rather than solely according to His commandments?
The Spirit deemed not to instruct us to exalt the day of the Saviour's birth above other days. If Paul was concerned to warn the Galatians against observing the special days of the Old Testament dispensation which God appointed for that period (Galatians 4:10), how much more has the Apostle labored in vain as far was we are concerned if we – shunning those days – seize upon the special holy days of the pagan.
Let no one reply that the celebration of Christ's birth engenders piety and devotion. True piety is only that which flows from the Word into our hearts. A piety which stems from our own invention, preserved by tradition, is nothing but a strong delusion.
It is time that Protestants, who condemn the Roman Church for compromising with paganism, set their own house in order.