OK…time for a pop quiz. First question: True or false – According to the gospel of Luke, a multitude of angels appeared to the shepherds who were watching their flocks on the night that Jesus was born, and sang praises glorifying God. Second question: According to the gospel of Matthew, how many wise men visited Jesus after his birth? Alright, let’s do one more. In which book of the Bible are Christians instructed to celebrate the birth of Jesus? (Hint…it is not in any of the gospels.)
Now let’s look at the answers. How do you think that you did? The answer to the first question is “false.” The gospel account never mentions angels “singing.” Actually, there are no references anywhere in the Bible to angels singing. If you answered “three” for the second question, you would be incorrect. The gospel of Matthew never says how many wise men, or “magi,” visited with the infant Jesus and his mother. Tradition has always assumed that there were three because of the three gifts that are given – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
What about the third question? In which book of the Bible are Christians instructed to celebrate the birth of Jesus? This was also kind of a trick question, because there is no place in the Bible where such instructions are given. Does that surprise you?
The origins of Christmas actually pre-date Christianity, and have their roots in the celebration of the winter solstice which many ancient cultures commemorated. It wasn’t until the early part of the fourth century that the church adopted the day as a holy day to honor the birth of Jesus.
After the protestant reformation in the early sixteenth century, the puritans refused to celebrate Christmas. They viewed it as a “Roman Catholic” holiday that sought to re-offer the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. They also pointed to its pagan origins in the observance of “Saturnalia”, a weeklong celebration that lasted from December 17th to the 25th, that honored the Roman god, Saturn.
In 1644 the English parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell and his puritan supporters, banned the celebration of Christmas. The puritans in the New World soon followed suit. In May 0f 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law, that remained the law for the next twenty-two years, forbidding the celebration of Christmas.
After 1680, Christmas celebrations were legal, but its legal status did little in the minds of puritanical New Englanders to soften their resolve to refrain from the reveling and merrymaking that was still considered to be intemperate – “all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.” It took almost another century for the celebration of Christmas to gain popular acceptance. It wasn’t until 1870 that President Ulysses Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday.
Today, Christmas is viewed as both a holy day and as a secular holiday, with themes of consumerism and greed sometimes overpowering the more charitable and sacred ideas associated with the day.
For a good treatment on whether Christians should be able to celebrate Christmas or whether they should consider it a pagan holiday and avoid it all together, click here to see an article by Matt Slick, President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM).
Soli Deo Gloria