Why We Celebrate Christmas the Way We Do
Recently we were asked through a social media platform why we celebrate Christmas the way we do, specifically how we as Christians are ok with using old pagan rituals during the holidays. As you may or may not be aware, most of the ways modern holidays are celebrated is by using old pagan rituals surrounding an astronim event such as a solstice, equinox, or moon cycle. New believers coming out of neo-paganism may especially have questions as to how these rituals can be used in a Christian context. I took some time to put together a response, and thought it would be worthwhile to post it here on the Staff Blog as well. Enjoy!
There are several reasons why we, along with other Christians celebrate Christmas the way we do. The first that comes to mind is that Jesus is the great Redeemer; it’s who He is and it’s what He does. He makes all things new (2 Corinthians 5, Revelation 21); He redeems our lives from the pit (Psalm 103), and by faith in Him, we can be a part of that redemption. Paul says in I Timothy 4:5 that even our food is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. The context of that Timothy scripture is especially relevant to the Christmas issue because Paul was writing to Timothy, a pastor of a church in a pagan land that still practiced the old pagan rituals.
In Ephesus, where Timothy was located, everyone was taught from childhood to worship and pray to the Greek and Roman pantheons of gods. They would bring offerings to the temple of Minerva (Roman version of the Greek Athena) to pray to “her” for wisdom in warfare and for help in their craft businesses. They would bring food to the temples of Zeus and Aphrodite in hopes that they would be able to bear children and so that their cattle would reproduce in the Spring. It was a highly religious culture full of pagan rituals, so you can imagine that a new follower of Jesus may not yet realize that there is actually only one true God. Many of them evidently believed that Jesus was indeed their savior, but they also still thought that Apollo would grant one wisdom if one brought food to his temple and worshiped him. Paul therefore encouraged Timothy to be aware that these new believers might not yet be able to differentiate between the worship of false gods and the worship of the one true, living God. Paul makes the point several times in his first letter to the Corinthian church that these gods are not gods at all: they are powerless idols, and therefore it’s perfectly safe to eat food that’s been offered to those idols. Since the idols are powerless and false, the food that was offered to them is also powerless, and is just normal food. See I Corinthians 8 and again in I Corinthians 10. However, he gives the caveat that since many new believers don’t yet know that those old gods were false, they could stumble in their faith if they were to see Timothy eating food from Apollo’s temple or Athena’s temple or any of the other “gods”.
Imagine this scenario: a farmer has grown up with the deep belief that in order to get good crops in their farm, they had to take fresh bread and meat to the temple of Demeter (or Roman Ceres), lay that food on the altar, and pray to Demeter several times a year. One day this farmer is in the temple square, having just brought a sacrifice of food to Demeter and is on their way to Apollo’s temple with more food, so that they can pray to Apollo for wisdom. On the way, they hear someone proclaiming a new religion in the public plaza. They stop and listen, and hear a message that causes them to suddenly become aware of their own sin. They begin to see that their motives are corrupt, and they feel dirty. Then they realize that the person proclaiming this new religion is saying that there is one true God, who is the God above all other gods, and that He alone is worthy of worship, but that we are too sinful to approach Him. Thankfully, He has given us a savior, a redeemer, who was betrayed by His people and executed by the Romans, yet He rose from the dead 3 days after His death. The preacher explains that this savior took our sin upon Himself and even BECAME sin for us! (2 Corinthians 5) This means that through God’s only Son, Jesus, we can be clean, forgiven, and made right with the God above all gods. In fact, in light of who God is, all the other gods are shown to be what they really are: useless works of wood and stone fashioned by human beings in our own likeness. So our example farmer falls on his knees and repents of his sinfulness, accepting Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for his sins, and begins to live for Jesus.
There’s a problem, though: they didn’t quite catch the fact that all the other gods are worthless. They are a brand-new Christian, and have much to learn. They feel in their heart, though, that they should no longer bring food sacrifices to Demeter; they have a feeling inside (because of the Holy Spirit), that they should have faith in Father God that He will provide for them, and that God will bless his farm crops because of Jesus, and not because the farmer brings sacrifices to Demeter's temple. But then one day they see their pastor Timothy and some of the church elders in Demeter’s temple! You can almost hear the young believer's thoughts: “GASP! What is this?? Why is my pastor Timothy in Demeter’s temple? And look: he is getting the food and taking it home to eat!” For this new believer, seeing this could shake their faith and make them think that they SHOULD still be worshiping the old gods. They might think that Jesus is actually just another of the many gods, and that they should still be worshiping Demeter, Zeus, and the other gods along with Jesus.
That is the situation which Paul was addressing when he taught that it is just fine to eat that meat, BUT if doing so will cause another believer to stumble in their faith, it would be better not to eat that meat. It would be more loving to forego the discounted food until the new believers have been taught more thoroughly. In that situation, Timothy should not eat the meat, even though he knows it would be perfectly fine to do so, because it would be unloving to the young believer, as they don't yet know that Jesus alone is God.
I think this historical instance is relevant to your question because as Christians, we know that decorating a pine tree in celebration of Jesus’ birth can be a worshipful experience. We gather our families together and give each other gifts in honor of God giving the ultimate Gift to us (His son Jesus). We light the tree because Jesus is the great Light who came into our dark world. We string up green holly on our doorways because Jesus brings life into even the coldest of hearts, and causes us to be spiritually evergreen, even in a cold dark world, we can be alive because Jesus is inside of us! Students of history know that Jesus was most likely born in Spring or Summer, but the early Church redeemed the Winter Solstice celebration and took it over for Jesus. They used the fact that everyone was already celebrating the solstice as a way to turn the tide of culture in God’s favor, much like they did with the Spring Solstice celebration, wherein they turned it around to become a celebration of Jesus rising from the dead (Easter).
Another point here: it was originally God’s idea to celebrate seasonal changes and moon cycles. If you look in the Old Testament law, God commands His people to celebrate new moons and to mark the changing of seasons with celebrations, feasts, fasts, etc. God wants us to be aware of how faithful He is throughout our lives, and one way to do that is to be aware of seasonal changes, and to remember how God has been good to us during the previous season. The pagans distorted the original celebrations by turning them into the worship of nature, drawing down the moon, and other methods which they believed would give them power, but in the beginning, God had holy intentions for helping us to mark the changing of time.
This also happened when the early Church fathers decided to make Sunday the start of the week, and for it to be the day they met together. Traditionally, the Hebrews met on Saturdays because that was the Sabbath, but after Jesus rose from the dead (on a Sunday), the Church decided to make Sunday the new Sabbath, and for that to be the day they would meet.
So you can see a long history of redemption in this: God’s people redeem days and celebrations, using them to celebration Jesus and the goodness of God.
Another point that comes to mind is from Titus 1:15: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” As God has purified our hearts by Jesus, we can use powerless objects like an evergreen tree and boughs as tools to worship the only true God and the amazing gift of His Son.