definition of Christmas
A Christian feast commemorating the
birth of Jesus.
An annual church festival (December 25) and in some States a legal holiday, in
memory of the birth of Christ, often celebrated by a particular church service,
and also by special gifts, greetings, and hospitality.
The celebration of Christmas has caused some controversy in recent years, for a
variety of reasons. Many have been concerned that Christ is too often left out of
Christmas; replaced by trimmings and presents and fudge. Others have battled
over whether we should allow manger scenes on public property or allow the
school choir to sing Christmas carols that actually contain a message about
Jesus Christ. On the other hand, a growing number of Christians have been
arguing that we should not celebrate Christmas at all because there is no
command to do so in the Bible, and the celebration is based in pagan roots.
What stand should we take? How should we approach this all-encompassing holiday
in the light of history and in the light of the Bible?
The Pagan Background:
religions through the millennia have worshipped the sun as the source of light
and warmth and life. As darkness deepened in the winter and the shortest day of
the year approached, many pagans of yesteryear feared that the light might die
altogether. Once the winter solstice hit, however, and the hours of sunlight
began to increase once again, there would be great celebrations over the return
of the sun and the accompanying hope for a future spring. In the northern
hemisphere, these celebrations would occur toward the end of December.
Tammuz, the son of Nimrod and his queen, Semiramis, was
identified with the Babylonian Sun God and worshipped following the winter
solstice, on about December 22-23. Tammuz was thought to have died during the
winter solstice, and was memorialized by burning a log in the fireplace. (The
Chaldean word for infant is yule. This is the origin of the yule log.) His
rebirth was celebrated by replacing the log with a trimmed tree the next
The Roman god
Saturn's celebration fell on December 17 and lasted for seven days. Romans
would gaily decorate their homes in evergreen boughs and candles, and would
give gifts to one another. It was a time of visiting with family and friends,
and of often rowdy merry-making.
December 25 was also considered to be the birth date of the
Iranian mystery god Mithra, the god of light and contracts. A once-minor god of
the Persian pantheon, Roman soldiers adopted Mithra as the manly man's hero, a
divinity of fidelity, manliness, and bravery. Women were excluded from the
caves where men worshipped Mithra through secret rituals. While quite different
in person and mission, there are a few similarities between the legends of
Mithra and the story of Christ. Mithra was said to have been born in a cave,
with shepherds attending, (although there were no men on earth at the time
(?)). Other legends have him being born from a rock by a river under a tree.
According to Persian mythology, Mithra was born of a virgin given the title
'Mother of God'. Mithra was a moral god, upholding the sanctity of the contract
even when the contract was made with one who was sure to break it. Initiates
into Mithraism would be "baptized" with the trickle of the
sacrificial bull's blood that would flow into a pit. This blood was said to
cleanse the initiates from any impurities. Tertullian (160-220 A.D.), the early
Church writer noticed that the pagan religion utilized baptism as well as bread
and wine consecrated by priests. He considered Mithraism to have been inspired
by the devil, who wanted to mock Christians and lead others to hell.
Mithra came to be identified with the sun-god Helios and
became known as 'The Great God Helios-Mithras'. Several Roman emperors formally
announced their alliance with the sun, including Commodus who was initiated in
public. Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of Pagan solstice
celebrations of such god-men/saviors as Appolo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios,
Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival
called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun", celebrated on December
The Hebrew Roots:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among
the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to
be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my
servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of
Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be
my salvation unto the end of the earth.
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a
virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
...When at the first he lightly afflicted the land of
Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her
by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. The people
that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of
the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is
born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The
everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and
peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to
order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth
even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
The Christian Roots:
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast
found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring
forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be
called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne
of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and
of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall
this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The
Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee:
therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the
Son of God.
- Luke 1:30-35
About 1950 years ago, a well educated and faithful physician
wrote to one Theophilus, detailing the life of Jesus Christ. Luke explained
that he had done research on the subject so that Theophilus could know with
certainty that the things he had been told about Jesus were true (Luke 1:4).
Luke must have spoken with Mary herself, for he tells of things that only she
would know. "But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her
heart," (Luke 2:19). He tells Theophilus of the birth of Jesus; how he was
born in Bethlehem during a time when all the Roman world was being taxed.
Shepherds out in the field were surprised by a host of angels that filled the
sky, singing, "Glory to God in the highest!" and as they were told,
went to go find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Then, those shepherds told everybody they could find about the incredible
things they had seen. The child grew up and went on to have a short, three-year
ministry that ended in his death on a Roman Cross. Yet, the man that was born
in Bethlehem rose again from the dead, as witnessed by over 500 men. And he is
still changing the hearts and lives of people living today. The early
Christians are not known to have celebrated Christ's birth, and the actual date
of his nativity has been lost in history. The first recorded mention of the
December 25 date is in the Calendar of Philocalus (354 A.D.) which assumed Jesus'
birth date to be Friday, December 25, 1 A.D. - even though it was quite
unlikely that shepherds would be out in the fields in December. Pope Julius I
officially proclaimed December 25 to be the anniversary of Christ's birth in
440 A.D. Giving the December 25 Christian significance has been understood to
have been an effort to help the pagan world embrace Christianity and trade in
their worship of pagan gods for the One True God. Originally called the Feast
of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of
the 6th century. By the end of the 8th century, the celebration of Christmas
had spread all the way to the Scandinavian countries. Christmas is celebrated
on January 6 in the Orthodox Church, on what is also called Epiphany or Three
Kings Day, the day that celebrates when the wise men found the Christ child and
gave their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
largely win out over the pagan holidays, but was still celebrated with rowdy
festivities and practical jokes - more like Mardi Gras than anything resembling
the character of Christ. Puritans in England outlawed Christmas for years, and
the holiday was not popular in early America. In fact, Christmas wasn't
declared a federal holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870. Then, the
holiday underwent a conversion. Americans "reinvented" Christmas into
the more moderate holiday we know today. Writers Washington Irving and Charles
Dickens both wrote tales that presented Christmas as a holiday of caring for
the poor and bringing families together. As the angels sang above the shepherds
that original Christmas night, "peace on earth, good will toward
men". Americans borrowed traditions from here and there to celebrate the
birth of Christ - the giving of presents and good cheer and getting together to
Season is still a mixture of traditions pulled from a multitude of sources.
Perhaps there are vestiges of the ancient winter solstice celebrations, but the
festivities today in no way point toward Mithra or Saturn. While Santa Claus ho
ho ho's down main street on a fire-truck, and Hershey makes a killing on
aluminum-wrapped chocolate bells, the reality of Christ's birth still breaks
through! Nativity scenes in downtown squares bring to mind the great gift of
God, the King of kings laid in a manger, attended by shepherds. Children who
see them have the chance to ask, "What is that?" Christmas carols
that cry "The Lord is come" and "Come let us adore him" are
sung from door to door, reminding us all of what God has done. It is a time of
year when people can speak more freely of Jesus the Savior, and when even the
faithless are willing to go to a Christmas Eve church service. It is truly a
precious slot of time God has given us during which to spread the Good News of
His Son. Glory to God in the highest!
May your celebration of the birth of Christ honor him who
gave himself to us as the ultimate sacrifice of love. May everything we do
reflect the love and compassion of our Savior, and bring glory to his name.