A gracEmail subscriber writes: “The church that I attend doesn’t recognize Christ’s birth at Christmas. Our minister talks about mothers on Mother’s Day, veterans on Veteran’s Day and being thankful on Thanksgiving, but never do we hear a word about Jesus’ birth during the Christmas season. We have a ‘holiday’ party after one of our church services and sing Jingle Bells but never Silent Night or Away in a Manger. Doesn’t it seem selfish to leave Jesus out of our holidays?”
* * *
By ignoring Christmas as a religious occasion, your church is following a tradition as ancient as the Reformer John Calvin and the later English Puritans, who opposed the holiday as “Popish” (Roman Catholic) in origin and as characterized by frivolity and worldly excesses. The Pilgrims brought similar ideas to colonial America and actually outlawed Christmas for a time in several colonies. To some extent history was on their side, since Christmas first became a recognized Christian holy day more than three centuries after Christ, and then on December 25 because that day had long been celebrated by pagan Romans in honor of the Sun god, Sol Invictus.
All the same, it seems to many of us a strange and strained logic to say that we can remember Jesus’ birth on any day of the year except the one day that practically the entire western world is paying it special attention. The significance of pagan customs associated with Christmas have been forgotten long since. As for its supposedly Catholic connections, the holiday both predated the development of the Roman Catholic Church and was joyfully celebrated by the Reformer Martin Luther and by many Protestants thereafter. As for charges of frivolity and worldly excesses, those are concerns most lamented today not by religious detractors of Christmas but by its most devout observers.
But what, if anything, does the New Testament say on the subject. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both contain nativity stories surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. The New Testament nowhere institutes Christmas as a religious holiday and certainly never requires anyone to observe it. The apostle Paul expressed concern for one church that observed holy days (Gal. 4:10-11), but he told another church that such days could be safely observed or ignored (Rom. 14:5-6). What matters is neither observance nor non-observance but the motive behind either choice and how one views the issue in relation to salvation. The Galatians seemingly expected to win spiritual points with God by keeping special days — and for that reason Paul expressed alarm. The Romans trusted Christ alone for salvation but kept or ignored special days in hopes of pleasing him — and Paul endorsed both decisions.
Although I grew up in churches that avoided all spiritual aspects of Christmas, I came long ago to treasure this beautiful annual remembrance of the Savior’s birth. While the church in which I serve as an elder happily celebrates both Christmas and the season of Advent leading to it, I would never judge other Christians who, trusting in the Savior Jesus Christ alone, choose not to celebrate his birth. But neither (in all honesty), having experienced the joy of a Christ-centered Christmas, would I ever again want to join a church that lived as though Christmas did not exist.