As a child, Christmas was always the most exciting time of the year. The other holidays were fun in their own ways, but there was something truly special about this season. My main focus may have been on all the presents Santa would bring me on Christmas morning, but that was surrounded by the magic of the weeks leading up to it. You could just feel something in the air. It was in the music playing on the radio, and the lights adorning the houses, and in the movies we watched over and over again. It was in the trees we decorated as a family and the colorful light that painted the walls and ceilings around them. And of course, that constant reminder we try to hammer into our children, that the true meaning of Christmas is in the manger scenes glowing outside of the churches.
The very concept of anyone not celebrating Christmas was foreign to me until I was about 8, when for the first time I learned that a classmate, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, did not. “But Christmas is Jesus’ birthday!” I exclaimed with incredulity. Clearly having been trained by his parents what to say in response to that, the boy retorted “Where in the Bible does it say that?” I was speechless.
His question haunted me for years, but Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the only ones. In America, about 96% of self-proclaimed Christians celebrate Christmas, and while that is an overwhelming majority, it still leaves us with 4% that refuse to take part in the holiday, citing its pagan origins and the lack of scripture to back it up.*
So can we justify the yearly celebration of Christ’s birth with the Bible?
It is true to some degree that Christmas’ roots are in pagan festivals. There is no record in the New Testament of anyone in the Early Church making a yearly celebration of Jesus’ birth. It is very unlikely that He was born on December 25, as this time of the year Israel is cold and rainy and no shepherds would have been out tending to any flocks.
In paganism, December 25 originally commemorated the sun god Mithras, but it was only part of a larger festival that lasted during the entire season called winter solstice. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire and followers of Jesus settled throughout Northern Europe (somewhere between 155-230 A.D.), the Catholic theologian Tertullian noted that many of them were beginning to take part in the pagan feasts but replacing the rituals with Christian customs. The celebration was eventually blessed by the Catholic Church, evolving into the Mass of Christ, or Christ Mass, a time to reflect on the story of Jesus’ birth according to the scriptures.**
Some heathen customs did remain, but not all of them, and it’s actually difficult to determine how exactly every tradition came about. The burning of the yule logs, for example, was pagan, but the adorning of a tree with balls was Roman, and the Santa Claus legend is firmly rooted in the Catholic celebration of Saint Nicholas every December 6.***
The original pagan celebration has been thoroughly taken over by Christianity until it bears little resemblance to what it once was. But can we actually justify celebrating Christmas with scripture?
First, let’s look at the Biblical story itself.
The Christ child had just been born in Bethlehem, the City of David, as prophesied in Micah 5:2: 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. This was the King of the Jews, the long-awaited Messiah that they had been praying and waiting for for thousands of years, and yet He was born in a lowly feeding trough in the smallest of rugged mountainous towns. In Luke 2:7, Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
All of Heaven rejoiced at the sight of God being born as a baby, but Earth was eerily silent.
Luke 2:8: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Shepherds were tending to their flock outside of the city. Since Bethlehem is the city of David, we can deduce that they were likely shepherding in the same countryside that David had many centuries before. Something is holy about that ground where God chose a young boy to be the great king over his people, where the angel appeared to urge the shepherds to go see the Christ child.
Verse 9: And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. Seeing the angel appear anywhere would be startling enough, but the shepherds were not in a state of prayer; they were simply doing a thankless job. Society in Judah relied on them to raise the lambs that would be used in the temple sacrifice, but they themselves were not allowed into the temple because they were dirty, hard-working people, considered “unholy.”****
And yet these were the men chosen to see the birth of the Messiah. Verses 10-11: And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
In Luke 14, Jesus tells the disciples a parable of a wealthy man who makes a great feast and bids many others to come and partake of it. 16-17: A certain man made a great supper, and bade many: And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready. But the servants go forth, and all of the invited guests make excuses why they can’t come. Enraged, the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper (verses 23-24).
God’s house will be full. The wealthy man had invited privileged guests, but they refused to go, so he filled his banquet with poor and crippled beggars. The Jews were supposed to be His chosen people, but they rejected Jesus and God instead invited the Gentiles to come to the supper of salvation.
This is why these “unclean” shepherds were chosen with the honor of seeing the Messiah when He was born. All of Israel and Judea should have been there. They claimed to be awaiting their Savior who would deliver them. They prayed for centuries that He would come. Micah had spelled out the place, and the prophet Daniel even gave a timeline (Daniel 9:25). Everyone should have crowded the city, from the High Priest to the king to the lowly beggars. They should have stood by the stable to do a holy ceremony as the Lord was ushered into this world.
In all of its excitement, the host of Heaven could not contain itself. The angels had to find someone to receive the good news. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 7:13-14). The Holy Spirit had moved around the kingdom, looking for someone whose faith was great enough to be privileged to go see the Christ child. It examined the priests. It examined the temple leaders. It searched the hearts of men all over the kingdom, but only these lowly, unclean shepherds were deemed worthy.
Had the angels appeared to the high priests and cried “The Son of God has been born! Go and see! Go and celebrate His birth!” they would have indignantly growl “Where in the Old Testament prophecies does it say to go see the Messiah when He’s born? Where did the prophets say to celebrate His birth?” By this point in Jewish history, the religious leaders were so mired in legalism and obeying the law, they had forgotten about the joy and life that serving God is supposed to bring. And so the Spirit passed them by. And it scoured the entire land, passing over, until it only found these shepherds whose hearts were pure and holy.
That same Spirit scours the earth today, looking for those among God’s people whose hearts are bursting with joy at the chance to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. “Go and see Jesus!” the angel still cries. “Go and sing of His birth!” they urge. But when the Spirit reaches those bound with legalism, only caring about the dos and don’ts of the law, it has to pass them by. Just like the high priests, they would piously snarl “Where in the Bible does it say to celebrate the birth of Jesus?” And so the Spirit leaves them cold and alone in the night. The message of Christmas is for all of God’s people to go see the Christ child in the stable, and gaze upon the wonderment of the salvation He has brought.
When we sing Christmas carols, we are obeying Psalm 100:1: Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Our hearts are merry as we preach the message of Christianity to the unsaved, obeying 1 Chronicles 16:23: Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation. Think of what Christmas has done for Christianity over the years, of all the souls who have come to Jesus because of that one time they came to a Christmas service. During this time, even sinners sing praises to Jesus. And the devil hates that.
As we take this time every year to reflect on the Christmas message, let us remember those shepherds. The nation had proclaimed for years that they were ready, in fact, desperate, for the coming Messiah. But when He finally arrived, only a few could be found whose hearts were prepared. Likewise, we have preached on the coming of the Lord for years. We sing songs about it and seem to cry desperately out for His return. But when the Rapture day comes, how many of us will truly be ready to meet Him?
*PewResearch: Christmas Also Celebrated By Many Non-Christians
**UCG: Why Some Christians Don’t Celebrate Christmas
***Wikipedia: Saint Nicholas Day
****JesusWalk: Shepherds in Bethlehem