Christmas—Is It Truly Christian?
ACCORDING to The World Book Encyclopedia, “Christmas is the day on which Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ.” Nevertheless, the encyclopedia also states: “The early Christians did not celebrate [Jesus’] birth because they considered the celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom.”
The Making of the Modern Christmas, by Golby and Purdue, agrees: “Early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ. Birthdays in themselves were associated with pagan practices; the Gospels say nothing about the actual date of Christ’s birth.”
If birthday celebrations do not have a Christian background, how did the birthday of Christ become such a prominent “Christian” festival?
The Pagan Origin of “Christmas”
“Everyone feasted and rejoiced, work and business were for a season entirely suspended, the houses were decked with laurel and evergreen, visits and presents were exchanged between friends, and clients gave gifts to their patrons. The whole season was one of rejoicing and goodwill, and all kinds of amusements were indulged in by the people.”—Paganism in Christian Festivals, by J. M. Wheeler.
Does this description fit the Christmas festivities you know? Surprisingly this was not Christmas! Rather, that is a description of Saturnalia—a week-long pagan Roman festival associated with the winter solstice (depicted on opposite page). The birthday of the unconquered sun was celebrated on December 25, a principal feast-day of Rome’s Mithraic religion.
According to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “December 25, the birthday of Mithra, the Iranian god of light and . . . the day devoted to the invincible sun, as well as the day after the Saturnalia, was adopted by the church as Christmas, the nativity of Christ, to counteract the effects of these festivals.” So the pagan birthday celebration continued with a simple switch in names, from Mithra to Christ!
However, you may feel that the birth of God’s Son, Jesus, was something special, deserving to be remembered. A look at what the Bible relates about this will prove to be very enlightening.
A Joyous Event
The 2nd chapter of Luke’s Gospel sets the scene. Luke tells us how heavenly angels, humble shepherds, devout servants of God, and Mary herself reacted to this noteworthy event.
Consider first the “shepherds living out of doors” who were “keeping watches in the night over their flocks,” which they would not have been doing in the depths of winter. When “Jehovah’s angel” appeared and God’s glory shone around them, the shepherds were at first afraid. Reassurance came when the angel explained: “Have no fear, for, look! I am declaring to you good news of a great joy that all the people will have, because there was born to you today a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” When “a multitude of the heavenly army” of angels suddenly appeared, the shepherds knew that this birth was different from all others. Interestingly, the angels brought no gifts for the newborn infant. Rather, the angels praised Jehovah, saying: “Glory in the heights above to God, and upon earth peace among men of goodwill.”—Luke 2:8-14.
Naturally, the shepherds wanted to see this baby for themselves, for it was Jehovah who had announced the happy event. When they found the infant lying in the manger, they told the parents what the angels had said. The shepherds then departed, “glorifying and praising God,” not the baby.—Luke 2:15-18, 20.
Mary, Jesus’ mother, no doubt rejoiced over the successful delivery of her firstborn. But she also drew “conclusions in her heart.” Then, accompanied by her husband, Joseph, she traveled to Jerusalem in obedience to the Mosaic Law. This was no birthday celebration. Instead, it was a time to present the infant to God, “just as it is written in Jehovah’s law: ‘Every male opening a womb must be called holy to Jehovah.’”—Luke 2:19, 22-24.
At the temple in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph encountered Simeon, whom Luke describes as “righteous and reverent, waiting for Israel’s consolation.” Under inspiration, he had been told that he would not die before seeing “the Christ of Jehovah.” What happened next was also “under the power of [God’s] spirit.” Simeon took the infant in his arms, no, not to give him a present, but, rather, to bless God, saying: “Now, Sovereign Lord, you are letting your slave go free in peace according to your declaration; because my eyes have seen your means of saving that you have made ready in the sight of all the peoples.”—Luke 2:25-32.
Next, the aged prophetess Anna came near. She too “began returning thanks to God and speaking about the child to all those waiting for Jerusalem’s deliverance.”—Luke 2:36-38.
Mary, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds, as well as the heavenly angels, all rejoiced at Jesus’ birth. Please note, however, that they indulged in no birthday revelry, nor did they engage in gift giving. Rather, they glorified Jehovah, the heavenly Provider of their means of salvation.
Still, some may reason, ‘Surely Christmas gift giving cannot be wrong, for did not the “three wise men” honor Jesus with gifts?’
Again let us examine the Biblical account. You will find it recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, Mt chapter 2. There is no mention of any birthday celebration, nor is any specific time given, though obviously it was some time after Jesus’ birth. In Mt 2 verse 1, Matthew calls the visitors “astrologers [Greek, maʹgoi] from eastern parts,” hence pagans with no knowledge of Jehovah God. The star these men followed led them, not directly to Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem, where King Herod ruled.
When this wicked ruler heard them inquiring about “the one born king of the Jews,” he sought out the priests to find exactly “where the Christ was to be born” so that he could have the child killed. The priests answered by quoting Micah’s prophecy that located Messiah’s birthplace in Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2) Herod hypocritically instructed his visitors: “Go make a careful search for the young child, and when you have found it report back to me, that I too may go and do it obeisance.” The astrologers went on their way, and the star “went ahead of them, until it came to a stop above where the young child was.” Notice that he is described as a “young child,” not as a newborn baby.—Matthew 2:1-10.
As befitted Oriental magnates visiting a ruler, the pagan astrologers fell down and “presented [the young child] with gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Matthew adds: “However, because they were given divine warning in a dream not to return to Herod, they withdrew to their country by another way.”—Matthew 2:11, 12.
From this brief Scriptural account, some people might attempt to find support for their Christmas gift giving. Nevertheless, Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore explains that the current custom of giving gifts finds its roots in the Saturnalia gifts that Romans offered their poor neighbors. “The early church . . . cleverly transferred its significance to a ritual commemoration of the gifts of the Magi.” What a contrast this is to the true worshipers—such as the humble shepherds—who simply praised God at Jesus’ birth!
Honor Christ as King!
Today Jesus is no longer a baby. He is a powerful Potentate, King of God’s heavenly Kingdom, and he should be honored as such.—1 Timothy 6:15, 16.
If you are now an adult, have you ever felt embarrassed when, in your presence, people showed photographs of you as a baby? True, such pictures remind your parents of their joy at your birth. But now that you have an identity of your own, do you not usually prefer others to see you as you are? In a similar vein, think how disrespectful it is toward Christ Jesus when those who claim to be his followers become so engrossed each year in the pagan traditions of Christmas and in honoring an infant that they fail to honor him as King. Why, even in the first century, the Christian apostle Paul reasoned on the propriety of thinking of Christ as he now is—a King in heaven. Paul wrote: “Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, certainly we now know him so no more”!—2 Corinthians 5:16.
Christ, as King of God’s Kingdom, will soon make come true the prophetic promise to remove pain, suffering, disease, and death. He is the One who will ensure adequate housing and rewarding work for all under Paradise conditions here on earth. (Isaiah 65:21-23; Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 1:20; Revelation 21:3, 4) Surely, these are reasons enough to avoid dishonoring Jesus!
Following Christ’s own example, true Christians strive to give their neighbors one of the greatest gifts anyone can offer—an understanding of God’s purpose, which can lead to eternal life. (John 17:3) This type of gift giving brings them much joy, even as Jesus said: “There is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.”—Acts 20:35; Luke 11:27, 28.
Christians who have a genuine interest in one another find no difficulty in spontaneously expressing their love at any time of the year. (Philippians 2:3, 4) As a simple example, what a thrill it would be to receive a picture from a Christian youngster who, after listening to a Bible talk, drew it as an expression of thanks! Equally encouraging is the unexpected present from a relative as a token of that one’s love. Likewise, Christian parents gain much joy when they choose appropriate occasions throughout the year to give gifts to their children. This kind of Christian generosity is untarnished either by perceived obligation on celebration days or by pagan tradition.
Consequently, today over four and a half million Christians from all nations do not celebrate Christmas. These are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who regularly busy themselves by giving to their neighbors a witness about the good news of God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 24:14) You may well meet them when they visit your home, perhaps soon. May your eager reception of what they bring you lead your family to great joy, as you learn how to praise Jehovah God every day of the year.—Psalm 145:1, 2.
[Picture on page 7]
Christians give their neighbors one of the greatest gifts—the understanding of God’s purpose that leads to eternal life
[Picture Credit Line on page 4]