Every year in November and December articles and posts circulate, both in the printed press and online, about the supposed pagan origins of Christmas. Lutheran theologian Chad Bird ably refutes these here. However, just now I came across two other objections: (1) Christmas is bogus because December 25 is almost certainly not the actual birth date of Jesus, and (2) Christmas has become so thoroughly commercialized that any spiritual meaning it might have had has become irretrievally lost.
I have a few thoughts on that:
- The first of these objections stems from a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the church or liturgical year, which is not about commemorating actual historical dates. Rather, it tells the story of Jesu’ earthly ministry in two commemorative cycles: The first one commemorates the promise of and waiting for a Redeemer, as well as His Second Coming, in Advent, and comes to a climax in the celebration of the Redeemer’s birth at Christmas and his revelation to the world at Epiphany, and the second one starts on Ash Wednesday with Lent, a period of 40 days of preparation for the central events of salvation history, from Christ’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), to His crucifixion and death (Good Friday), and culminates with in the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. Finally it celebrates the Ascension of the risen Christ, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the triune nature of God on Trinity Sunday. The remainder of the year, variously known as the Sundays after Pentecost or after Easter, or simply as Ordinary Time, is often seen as representing the age of the church from Pentecost until Christ’s Second Coming, and in several church traditions closes with the feast of Christ the King on the Sunday before Advent. So the actual date of Christ’s birth is no more relevant to the date of Christmas than the actual dates of Jesus’ death and resurrection are to the date of Easter (which changes every year, anyway).
- Yes, Christmas has become extremely commercialized and we sometimes wonder if it can be redeemed. But (a) we all, as individuals, as families, as church communities, have a choice of how far we go along with the commercialized aspects & traditions, we can all still focus on the real significance of Christmas: the birth of our redeemer. This is obviously easier if one is part of a church community which actually celebrates the liturgical seasons and feasts. And (b) Christmas seems to be a time when people are more receptive to spiritual things, and people who will not ordinarily set a foot in church will be open to attend special Advent and Christmas concerts, plays, and services.
While the seasons and feasts of the church year are nor biblically mandated, they, just like the biblical feasts of the Older Testament, are designed to remind us of God’s redemptive acts on our behalf, and to celebrate them. And and as with the biblical feasts, explaining their significance to our children and others who do not yet believe is an important part of that.
So while the observance of the liturgical year with its seasons and feasts is not biblically commanded, those of us who do observe them ought not to look down on or disparage those individuals and church communities who don’t observe them; conversely, those of us who do not follow the liturgical year should not look down on or disparage those who do.