The Truth About Christmas
DO YOU care about spiritual truth? If so, then perhaps you have asked these questions: (1) Was Jesus actually born on December 25? (2) Who were the “wise men,” and were they really three in number? (3) What sort of “star” led them to Jesus? (4) What does Santa Claus have to do with Jesus and his birth? (5) How does God view the Christmas custom of giving gifts or, to be more precise, exchanging gifts?
Let us now consider these questions in the light of the Bible and historical facts.
(1) Was Jesus Born on December 25?
The custom: According to tradition, Jesus’ birth took place on December 25 and is celebrated on that date. “Christmas,” says the Encyclopedia of Religion, means “‘Christ’s Mass,’ that is, the mass celebrating the feast of Christ’s nativity,” or birth.
Its roots: “The establishment of December 25 evolved not from biblical precedent,” says The Christmas Encyclopedia, “but from pagan Roman festivals held at year’s end,” about the time of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Those festivals included the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture, “and the combined festivals of two sun gods, the Roman Sol and the Persian Mithra,” says the same encyclopedia. Both birthdays were celebrated on December 25, the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar.
Those pagan festivals began to be “Christianized” in the year 350, when Pope Julius I declared December 25 to be Christ’s birthday. “The Nativity gradually absorbed or supplanted all other solstice rites,” says the Encyclopedia of Religion. “Solar imagery came increasingly to be used to portray the risen Christ (who was also called Sol Invictus), and the old solar disk . . . became the halo of Christian saints.”
What the Bible says: The Bible does not give Jesus’ birth date. But we can safely conclude that he was not born on December 25. How so? The Bible tells us that when Jesus was born, shepherds were “living out of doors” tending their flocks at night in the vicinity of Bethlehem. (Luke 2:8) The cold, rainy season usually began in October, and shepherds—especially in the colder highlands, such as those around Bethlehem—brought their sheep into protected shelters at night. The coldest weather, sometimes accompanied by snow, occurred in December.*
Significantly, the early Christians, many of whom had accompanied Jesus in his ministry, never celebrated his birth on any date. Rather, in harmony with his command, they commemorated only his death. (Luke 22:17-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) Still, some may say, ‘Does the pagan connection really matter?’ The answer? It does to God. “The true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth,” said Jesus Christ.—John 4:23.
(2) The “Wise Men”—How Many? Who Were They?
The custom: Guided by a “star” from the east, three “wise men” are portrayed as presenting gifts to Jesus in a manger in a stable. Sometimes shepherds are also shown as being present.
Its roots: Aside from the brief account in the Bible, “everything written about the Wise Men stems principally from legend,” says The Christmas Encyclopedia.
What the Bible says: The Bible does not say how many “wise men” visited Jesus. There may have been two, or there may have been three, four, or more. Although termed “wise men” in some Bible translations, the original-language word is magoi, which means astrologers or sorcerers—professions that the Bible says are “detestable to Jehovah.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) By virtue of their long journey from the East, the astrologers did not arrive in time to visit Jesus in the stable. Rather, after perhaps months of travel, they “went into the house” where Jesus was staying. There they saw “the young child with Mary its mother.”—Matthew 2:11.
(3) What Sort of Star Led the Astrologers?
Clues are provided by what the star actually did. For one thing, it did not lead the men directly to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem, where their inquiries about Jesus reached the ears of King Herod. Herod then “secretly summoned the astrologers,” who told him about the newborn “king of the Jews.” Herod then said: “Make a careful search for the young child, and when you have found it report back to me.” Herod’s interest in Jesus, however, was anything but noble. Rather, this proud and ruthless ruler was resolved to put Jesus to death!—Matthew 2:1-8, 16.
Interestingly, the “star” now led the astrologers south to Bethlehem. There “it came to a stop” above the house where Jesus was.—Matthew 2:9, 10.
Clearly this was no ordinary star! And why would God, who had used angels to inform humble shepherds of Jesus’ birth, now employ a star to guide pagan astrologers—first to Jesus’ enemy and then to the child himself? The only reasonable conclusion is that the star was a sinister device of Satan, who is capable of such manifestations. (2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10) Ironically, an ornament called the star of Bethlehem is usually seen at the very top of the Christmas tree.
(4) What Does Santa Claus Have to Do With Jesus and His Birth?
The custom: In many lands, Santa Claus is viewed as the one who brings children gifts.* Children often write to Santa, asking for presents, which, according to tradition, elves help him to make at his North Pole headquarters.
Its roots: According to the popular view, the Santa Claus myth owes its origin to Saint Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Asia Minor, now Turkey. “Virtually everything written about St. Nicholas is based on legends,” says The Christmas Encyclopedia. The designation “Santa Claus” may owe its origin to the word Sinterklaas, a corruption of the Dutch terms for “Saint Nicholas.” Historically and Biblically, Santa Claus has nothing in common with Jesus Christ.
What the Bible says: “Now that you have put away falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor.” Our closest ‘neighbors’ are our family members. (Ephesians 4:25) The Bible also says that we should “love truth,” “speaking the truth in [our] heart.” (Zechariah 8:19; Psalm 15:2) True, telling children that Santa (or the Christ child) is the bearer of presents at Christmas may seem to be innocent fun, but is it right or wise to deceive little children, even if one’s intentions are not bad? Do you not find it ironic that an occasion that is supposedly meant to honor Jesus becomes a time to deceive children?
(5) How Does God View Christmas Gift-Giving and Merrymaking?
The custom: Christmas giving is unusual in that it largely involves an exchange of gifts, and the Christmas season is marked by partying, feasting, and drinking.
Its roots: Ancient Roman Saturnalian festivities began on December 17 and concluded on the 24th, when gifts were exchanged. Homes and streets were noisy with banqueting, heavy drinking, and riotous behavior. The Saturnalia was followed by an event celebrating the first day of January. This was also observed by a festival, usually lasting about three days. The Saturnalia and the first day of January likely formed one festive occasion.
What the Bible says: Joy and generosity characterize true worship. “Be joyful, you righteous ones; and cry out joyfully,” the Bible says. (Psalm 32:11) Such joy is often associated with generosity. (Proverbs 11:25) “There is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving,” said Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:35) He also said: “Practice giving,” or make it a regular part of your life.—Luke 6:38.
Such giving has little in common with ritualized giving or giving that is compelled, perhaps by social custom. Describing the true spirit of generosity, the Bible states: “Each person should give as he has decided for himself; there should be no reluctance, no sense of compulsion; God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7, The New English Bible) Those who heed these excellent Bible principles give because their generous heart impels them to do so, which can be at any time of the year. To be sure, this kind of giving has God’s blessing, and it is never burdensome.
When examined in the light of the Bible, virtually every facet of Christmas is either pagan in origin or a distortion of the Bible accounts. Hence, Christmas customs are Christian in name only. How did this come about? Centuries after the death of Christ, many false teachers arose, just as the Bible had foretold. (2 Timothy 4:3, 4) Those unprincipled men were more interested in making Christianity fashionable to the pagan masses than they were in teaching truth. Hence, they gradually adopted popular pagan religious festivals and labeled them “Christian.”
Such “false teachers,” the Bible warned, “will exploit you with counterfeit words. But as for them, the judgment from of old is not moving slowly, and the destruction of them is not slumbering.” (2 Peter 2:1-3) Jehovah’s Witnesses take those words seriously—as they do the entire Bible, which they view as the written Word of God. (2 Timothy 3:16) Hence, they reject false religious customs or celebrations. Has this stand deprived them of happiness? On the contrary! As we shall now see, they know from experience that Bible truth is liberating!
It appears that Jesus was born during the ancient Jewish month of Ethanim (September-October).—See the reference work Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 2, page 56, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In some European lands, such as Austria, “Santa is still not as eagerly expected as Christkind,” or the Christ child, says a BBC news report. Nevertheless, the visit is still about presents.
[Box/Picture on page 8]
SOW WEEDS, REAP WEEDS
At one time, church authorities fought “tooth and nail against [the] relics of heathenism,” says the book Christmas Customs and Traditions—Their History and Significance. But in time, church leaders became more eager to fill pews than teach truth. Hence, they began to “wink at” those pagan practices. Later they embraced them.
‘What you sow you reap,’ the Bible says. (Galatians 6:7) After sowing their fields with the seeds of paganism, the churches should not be surprised that “weeds” proliferate. A celebration allegedly honoring the birth of Jesus becomes an excuse for drunkenness and revelry, the shopping mall becomes more popular than the church, families go deeply into debt buying presents, and children confuse myth with reality and Santa Claus with Jesus Christ. Yes, for good reason, God said: “Quit touching the unclean thing.”—2 Corinthians 6:17.
[Pictures on page 7]
The Christmas season, like the ancient festival of Saturnalia, is marked by partying, feasting, and drinking
© Mary Evans Picture Library