We should avoid the extreme of saying that all celebrations of holidays other than the Lord’s Day are sinful.
We should also avoid the extreme of saying that the celebration of certain holidays, other than the Lord’s Day, are required by God.
We looked primarily at the example of Christmas, and we showed that celebrating the birth of Christ is no different from celebrating other important birthdays. Surely there’s good cause for celebration in the fact that Jesus Christ was born as a man in order to keep the covenant of God for us and to bring us eternal life!
I want to go on today to spend a little time examining various common Christmas customs and symbols in light of the Scriptures. Much has been made of the fact that many of these things are also elements of pagan celebrations on various pagan holidays. Does that mean that we, as Christians, are forbidden to use these symbols or customs?
I want to strongly emphasize the point again that we had ‘em first! Almost every one of these Christmas symbols originated in Scripture and was later stolen by the pagans, not the other way around!
What about giving gifts, for example? Some people argue that it’s wrong to “commercialize Christmas” by giving gifts.
Well, is it also wrong to commercialize birthdays by giving gifts to your children or others? Giving gifts to others is not necessarily commercialization. The giving of gifts to one another, whether on birthdays or anniversaries, or Christmas, or Valentine’s Day, or graduation, or any other time, is simply man copying God’s example.
God showers us with His good gifts regularly, not the least of which is the gift of His own Son which He gave when Christ was born as a man. Even Jesus Christ, Himself, said, in Matthew 25:40, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
That means, therefore, that whenever we give gifts to others out of love, we give to Christ. What’s wrong, and what should be avoided, is thinking only about ourselves at Christmas (or any other time, for that matter). We shouldn’t focus on what we want, and what we desire. That demonstrates a lack of contentment in what God has already given us. And if you give gifts at Christmas in a grudging fashion, not out of love but because you feel obligated to do so, then rest assured that you’re not giving to Christ. You’re taking this voluntary custom of giving gifts to others in response to God’s gracious gift of His Son to us, and you’re turning it into an obligatory burden.
What about Christmas trees? Should Christians bring these pagan symbols into their homes? After all, a thousand years ago, people in Europe used to conduct the idolatrous rites of Saturnalia under evergreen trees!
Well, if that’s the reason why you’re bringing a tree into your home – to conduct idolatrous rites under it – then I would agree. Don’t bring one into your home!
But let’s not forget: In all of Satan’s symbols, he’s merely being a copycat of God. There are lots of symbols that Satanists use, including the cross, stars, the rainbow, blood, you name it. All of these are simply imitations or anti-types of Biblical symbolism!
But in every case, the Bible uses those symbols first. So Christians should not have to give up good, Biblical symbols just because some pagans happen to hijack them for pagan purposes.
In the Bible, trees are rich in symbolism, especially evergreen trees. Green trees decorated the garden of God, in Eden. They even decorated the temple of God. You may remember that the lampstand in the temple was a stylized almond tree with lights on it!
Trees in the Bible often symbolize restoration to the beauty of the Garden of Eden. Those ornaments we hang on the tree merely symbolize that fruit which those trees of Eden continually bore for mankind.
Satan began associating trees with idolatry way back in the OT already. He tempted Adam and Even under a tree.
And in I Kings 14:23 we read, in the KJV, “For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree.” That phrase, “under every green tree,” occurs in numerous other passages as well.
So wicked men stole the symbol of the green tree and used it for their idolatrous purposes.
Green trees are symbolic of healthy and flourishing life. Evergreen palm trees are symbolic of Christ’s never ending rule because they stay fresh and green all the time. That’s why palm branches were spread in Jesus’ path on Palm Sunday.
The color green is appropriate for the celebration of Christ’s birth because His kingdom is an ever green and flourishing kingdom. So Christmas trees are simply the Northern version of an evergreen tree. So is holly.
In Hosea 14:8, the LORD even compares Himself to an evergreen tree. He says, “I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me.”
And Isaiah 60 even indicates that God decorates His House with Christmas trees!
Now you may think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Look it up in Isaiah 60 [It’s on page 1124-5 in the church Bibles.]. The whole context is talking about Christmas, the coming of the Messiah. Vv. 1-7 say, “Arise, shine, for your light [There’s another symbol of Christ and Christmas: lights!] has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. [This was fulfilled, in a preliminary sense, in the Magi from the East, those Gentile kings who came to visit Christ. Later it was fulfilled by the nations coming to Christ’s church through the spread of the light of the Gospel. Isaiah continues…] Lift up your eyes and look about you: all assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. [Notice the imagery, again, of a return to the prosperity of Eden here.] And all from Sheba [Sheba was in the East] will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. [So this was partially fulfilled when gold and frankincense, along with myrrh, another type of incense, were brought by the Magi from the East to Jesus in Bethlehem!] All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth will serve you; they will be accepted as offerings on my altar, and I will adorn my glorious temple.”
Hmmm… How do you suppose the LORD will adorn His glorious temple in honor of the coming of this Messiah?
The answer is found just 6 verses later in Isaiah 60:13. “The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the pine, the fir and the cypress together, to adorn the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify the place of my feet.”
There you have it: God promises to send Jesus, the Christmas light of the world. And God says Gentile kings will bring to Him and to His church, gifts. And God says He will decorate His house with pine, fir, and cypress, all evergreen trees!
That’s where we first hear about the symbolism of Christmas trees, not in some pagan celebration in Europe!
The idea of adorning our homes with evergreen trees in celebration of Christ’s birth comes straight out of the Bible! And that, long before there ever was a pagan Mithra or Saturnalia celebration! These are our symbols! They don’t belong to the pagans!
Many of the other customs and symbols of Christmas also have a Biblical basis and a Biblical meaning.
Take snow, for example. Even though there wasn’t much snow around at Christ’s birth, Christ’s coming was to cleanse us from sin and to make us white as snow. The silver “rain,” or “tinsel,” we sometimes see on Christmas trees represents rain, which symbolizes the washing or cleansing of Christ’s forgiveness.
Isaiah 1:18 says, “18 ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’”
The Christmas lights on the tree and around the house have Biblical symbolism as well. The “tree” lampstand in the tabernacle had seven lights on it, representing the sevenfold Spirit of Christ. Jesus is the light of the world, and so on...
Jesus came into the world to bring light to those living in the darkness of sin. That’s why Christmas is filled with lights.
Light is referred to over a hundred times in Scripture, from Genesis 1:3b, “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light,” to Revelation 22:5, “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
You could even say that the entire Bible moves from darkness to light as it progresses from creation out of darkness and nothing to the new creation of light and glory. The plan of salvation revealed in the Bible also moves from darkness to light, from the fall into the darkness of sin and death to the resurrection into never-ending light and life.
Light is used in the Scripture as a synonym for God and Christ. It’s also used as a synonym for life. We see both of these ideas joined together in John 8:12: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
As those created and renewed in the image of God, we, too, are called “lights” who shine forth God’s glory in this world. Matthew 5:14-16 says, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
In Luke 6:18, Christians are even called “people of the light,” “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”
We could go into all of the symbolism surrounding the star as well, but that’s a topic for another entire sermon. Briefly, however, the star was a special light and it represented rule and authority.
Other shiny decorations also point to the restoration of the beauty of Eden in which there were all sorts of gems and precious stones. Christ’s coming eventually restores the shining glory of Eden to mankind as He comes to redeem all of fallen creation. The Garden of Eden was littered with gold and gems and shiny stones.
All of the abundance of good food and eating and drinking are also symbolic of rejoicing and of the return to the abundance of Eden through the work of Jesus Christ. Such feasting is a way to celebrate the joy that the coming of Christ brings to the world!
Many times Christians get offended by the use of the abbreviation, “Xmas,” for “Christmas.” They say it’s just a sneaky pagan way to take “Christ” out of Christmas.
But using the “X,” to represent Christ is also fully in accord with Scripture. First of all, the “X” is the first letter of the word, “Christ,” in the Greek Bible. “Christos” begins, in the Greek, with the letter “chi,” which looks like the letter “X” in English. This letter, “chi,” or “X,” has been found in the early Christian caves and catacombs in numerous places as an abbreviation and symbol for “Christ.”
Christ came to bring in His evergreen and everlasting kingdom, but in order to do that, He first had to die on the cross and to shed His blood. It’s no coincidence, then, that the contrasting red and green are so popular at Christmas time. They go together in the symbolism of Scripture as well. Christ’s red blood had to be shed in order to bring in Christ’s evergreen kingdom!
Many object that the name, “Christmas,” comes from two words, “Christ,” and “mass.” Does that mean we mayn’t celebrate Christmas? Because it’s associated with the Roman Catholic “mass”?
Well, we celebrate the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, don’t we? The word, “Sunday,” comes from the worship of the sun god. Yet, as Christians, we don’t worship the sun god on Sunday. We simply use a term that’s common to our society, and we worship the true God on that day.
Bringing the meaning of all of this symbolism to the attention of our children and to others at Christmas time can be an effective teaching tool to instill in them the joy of the coming of Jesus Christ as the Messiah.
OK, what about Santa Claus?
The modern day Santa Claus has certainly been misused as a Christmas symbol, of course. Many have even given Santa Claus godlike properties. He’s supposedly all-seeing, all knowing, and omnipresent on Christmas. He supposedly knows when you’ve been naughty, and knows when you’ve been good. And he supposedly gives gifts to those who are good.
But James 1:15 tells us where all gifts truly come from, “17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
So Christmas gifts come, ultimately, from God, not from Santa Claus! In a sense, God is the real Santa Claus!
But I want to remind you of the fact that there really is a human Santa Claus as well, and he’s a Christian! And I also want to point out the fact that the real Santa Claus would be very offended if he knew how people today were treating him as a god!
You see, the real life Santa Claus is not a myth. He’s a real person, sometimes called, “St. Nick.” Some may not know this, but there really is a person in history with that name. His full name was Nicholas of Myra. He was a very wealthy young man who loved the Lord and was so concerned about the poor that he gave away a lot of his money. Because he was a Christian, and because he was such a godly and generous man, they called him – “Saint Nicholas.” Because he was generous and gave gifts to the poor at Christmas time, he became associated with Christmas in peoples’ minds. So the real Santa Claus was simply a godly example of Christian giving and generosity.
Many years later, Dutch settlers in America pronounced his name in Dutch, calling him, “Santa Nikalaus.”
Later, that was shortened to simply, “Santa Klaus,” or “Santa Claus.” So Santa Claus is real! He’s a real person, a Christian, who’s now living in heaven. He’s also a fine example of Christian giving that we’d all do well to imitate!
The mythical Santa Claus was just a fun fairy tale, made up much later, in 1922, by some professor. He made up this story about a jolly, red-capped man with twinkling eyes and a nose like a cherry. The Santa in the professor’s story could be in many places at once. The Santa in the professor’s story knew whether little boys or girls had been naughty or nice. And the Santa in the professor’s story gave away lots and lots of gifts and presents at Christmas time.
I think it’s OK to tell children fun fairy tales. Just be sure that they know Who the real giver of all good gifts is, and that they’re thankful to Him.
Let me say one more thing about the objection that December 25 was originally established as a pagan Roman holiday.
I just read, this week, an interesting article by Dr. Peter Hammond of Frontline Fellowship in Cape Town, South Africa, discussing that date of December 25. Since we don’t have time to go through that whole article, I’ll attach it to this sermon when I send it out in e-mail. But let me give you just a few quotes from the article. Hammond writes,
Christians have celebrated the Incarnation and Nativity of the Lord Jesus on December 25, since the earliest centuries. Long before the conversion of Constantine in AD 312 and the end of the persecution by the Roman Empire, 25 December was already established as a venerable and tenured tradition for celebrating Christmas Day.
The assertion, that Christmas is a creation of the Roman Catholic church and that it has something to do with the mass, is false. The tradition of Christmas, the Christ Festival, long pre-dates the establishment of what became Roman Catholicism. It is true that one Roman Emperor, Aurelian, did attempt to inaugurate 25 December as a pagan festival “the birth of the unconquered Sun.” This was in AD 274. Aurelian was attempting to breathe new life into a declining paganism devastated by the advances of Christianity. However, the Roman pagan festival was instituted after the Christians had already been celebrating the birth of Christ on that day for many decades. Their pagan festival was an attempt to create an alternative tradition, which already was associated with the birth of Christ, and of significance to the Roman Christians. This is not a case of Christians imitating the pagans. The pagans were attempting to imitate the Christians, by celebrating the Sun on the day when Christians celebrated the Son of God.
So although there are many dangerous and unbiblical notions being spread around concerning many of the symbols of Christmas, most of these symbols can be recovered and redeemed by Christians, and they can be used in a good way with our children as well, if we so desire.
The bottom line is this: Special days and their celebrations are “things indifferent.” They’re things regarding which Christians shouldn’t be judging one another.
Paul says, in Romans 14:5-8, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat [referring to meat that may have been sacrificed to idols], eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
So just like food sacrificed to idols, good, Biblical symbols can still be used by Christians even though pagans may misuse them. And although the celebrations of Christmas and other holidays aren’t commanded in Scripture, neither are they forbidden.
Actually, many of our Reformed forefathers celebrated Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost as special holidays. That’s why John Calvin’s catechism had 55 sections, by the way, not just 52 for the 52 weeks of the year. There was one section to cover each of the 52 Lord’s Days. But the other three sections were for the celebration of three voluntary holidays, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. So Christmas was celebrated, but it wasn’t commanded.
The closest thing to commanding the celebration of Christmas came in the requirement set forth in Article 67 of the Synod of Dort’s Church Order. That church order required churches to hold a Christmas worship service on Christmas Day. It stated that churches “shall observe in addition to the Sunday also Christmas...”
While I don’t have a problem with churches holding worship services on Christmas Day, or on any other day of the week, I don’t believe Christians should be “required” to celebrate it.
I’m not sure the Synod of Dort required members of the church to be at their Christmas service. But if they did, then I believe they went too far in making that a requirement.
I personally think that the celebration of Christmas is a good thing, especially if its symbolism is properly seen in light of the Scriptures. And if it’s properly celebrated, as Paul says in our text, “to the Lord,” I see no harm in it.
But I repeat: Christmas and other holidays are not commanded celebrations in Scripture. So you’re not a “sinner,” or even a “Scrooge,” if, for whatever God-honoring reasons, you choose to abstain from celebrating these holidays.
In short, Christians don’t need to be afraid of using the Biblical symbols that God gave us, even if pagans twist and distort those very same symbols and use them for pagan purposes.
Remember, “We had ‘em first!”
ADDENDUM WAS JESUS REALLY BORN ON 25 DECEMBER?
By Dr. Peter Hammond, Frontline Fellowship
One of the more recent Christmas traditions has been the repeated assertions, on the internet, in the press and from some pulpits, that the 25th December could not have been our Lord's actual birthday.
Examining the Historical Record According to this position, He could have been born on almost any other day of the year, except 25 December. It is asserted that 25 December had originally been the pagan winter solstice festival, which had been taken over by the Christians to promote the new Faith. In doing so, many of the old pagan customs crept into this new Christian celebration. Numerous articles, booklets, radio programmes and T.V. documentaries have been produced asserting this position.
The Myths of Time However, this opinion is itself based upon historical myths, incomplete research and ignorance of history.
Christmas Predates Constantine Christians have celebrated the Incarnation and Nativity of the Lord Jesus on December 25, since the earliest centuries. Long before the conversion of Constantine in AD312, and the end of the persecution by the Roman Empire, 25 December was already established as a venerable and tenured tradition for celebrating Christmas Day.
Christmas Predates Catholicism The assertion, that Christmas is a creation of the Roman Catholic church and that it has something to do with the mass, is false. The tradition of Christmas, the Christ Festival, long pre-dates the establishment of what became Roman Catholicism.
Pagan Attempt to Hijack Christmas It is true that one Roman Emperor, Aurelian, did attempt to inaugurate 25 December as a pagan festival "the birth of the unconquered Sun." This was in AD 274. Aurelian was attempting to breathe new life into a declining paganism devastated by the advances of Christianity. However, the Roman pagan festival was instituted after the Christians had already been celebrating the birth of Christ on that day for many decades. Their pagan festival was an attempt to create an alternative tradition, which already was associated with the birth of Christ, and of significance to the Roman Christians. This is not a case of Christians imitating the pagans. The pagans were attempting to imitate the Christians, by celebrating the Sun on the day when Christians celebrated the Son of God.
Comparing Calendars Already in the 2nd Century, church councils had established the date of Christ's birth, and the dates of Christ's Death and Resurrection. Because Scripture identifies Christ's death at the time of the Jewish Passover, the time of year could be known with precision. However, differences in the Jewish, Greek and Latin calendars, and the discrepancies between the Lunar (moon) and Solar (sun) calendars caused intense debate over whether to observe Easter/Resurrection Sunday on a fixed date, no matter which day it fell on, or to ensure that it always fell on a Sunday, the first day of the week, as identified in the Gospels.
The Annunciation On the basis of records available to them at that time, the early Church established 25 March as the Feast of Annunciation to mark when the Angel first appeared to Mary, and as the date of Christ's conception. They also came to consensus that Christ was born 9 months later - on 25 December.
25 March used to be New Year's Day It needs to be noted that, from the earliest days of the Roman Imperial calendar, the New Year was celebrated on 25 March - the first day of spring (in the Northern hemisphere). This is why September, October, November, December derived from the Latin words, Septem (7), Octo (8), Novem (9), and Decem (10).
The New, New Year's Day The celebration of the New Year on 1 January dates back to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1600, in Scotland and 1752, in England. From the 17th Century, 1 January began to be celebrated in Christian nations as a day of Renewal - a renewal of vows, vision and vocation. It was on this day that guild members took their annual pledge, that husbands and wives renewed their marriage vows, and young believers recommitted themselves to walk in the Grace of the Lord.
In the Darkness 25 December occurs in the northern hemisphere in the darkest time of the year. 25 December is during the longest nights, and shortest days of the year. So, the early Church establishing that the Incarnation, when Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, occurred on the first day of spring, 25 March, and that His Advent occurred when He was born at the darkest time, during the longest night of the year, 25 December.
A Light Has Shone "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined... For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His Name shall be called, Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His Government and peace there will be no end." Isaiah 9:2-7
New Covenant 1 January, as the first day of the New Year, follows 8 days after the birth of Christ, on the day when he would have been circumcised and come officially under the Covenant.
An Age of Presumption It is remarkable how so many people today, with no historical research, and next to no knowledge of the historical realities and complexities of 2,000 years ago, can assume that they know better than learned men and Church councils convened much closer to the events in question for the express purpose of ascertaining the most accurate dates of Christ's birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection. But then, we live in a world where everything is being questioned - even God's Law and the Word of God.
Victory Over Paganism Instead, we should celebrate that Christ's Coming did replace desperation with joy, oppression with celebration, human sacrifices with Christmas Festivals; Christ replaced Baal, Molech, Apollo, Mars, and Thor. At the time of greatest darkness, Christ came. "The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it." John 1:5
Christmas is a time to celebrate Christ's victory over paganism. New Year's Day is a time to renew our vows, vision and vocation, and the first day of spring to celebrate the Life of Christ. Christmas presents us with tremendous opportunities for Evangelism and discipleship of family, friends, neighbours and strangers. Let us remind them whose birthday we are celebrating. Jesus is the reason for the season. Wise men still seek Christ!
Dr. Peter Hammond
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa