Concerning the Observance of Christmas
For some, Christmas marks the actual day of Christ’s birth. For others, it is simply a day on which to commemorate Christ’s birth. For others still, it is a day for enjoying the pleasures of friends and family, and the birth of Christ has nothing to do with it. This broad range of beliefs and practices creates no small amount of friction within the churches, so I think it prudent to share a few words on the observance of Christ’s birth. We will begin with the Scriptures.
Christians are at liberty to keep or not to keep Christmas in any of the ways that we have just described. Paul writes, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14.5). In some case, the “weaker brother” (14.2) feels compelled to celebrate the birth of Christ; in others, the “weaker brother” cannot observe the holiday in good conscience. Whatever the case may be, Paul commands us not to quarrel over opinions or to despise each other over them. Instead, we must forebear and show deference to our brothers.
The New Testament does not provide the church with any specific ritual for celebrating the birth of Christ in the worship assembly. It only provides such a ritual for Christ’s death and resurrection (that being the Lord’s Supper). The rest of the acts of worship—prayer, singing, and reading and proclaiming the Word—are general in nature. As such, the church is at liberty to consider any Biblical matter in its praying, singing, reading, and preaching—including the birth of Our Lord. We are not under any obligation either to consider or to avoid the subject of Christ’s birth in any scriptural act of worship based solely on the date.
What the church is forbidden to do is to bind the observance of Christmas on anyone. No congregation may make Christmas a “day of obligation,” requiring Christians to attend a special worship assembly outside of the regular assembly on the Lord’s Day. No congregation may coerce its members to confess December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth. The church is also forbidden from commanding that anyone abstain from observing Christmas. In short, the church has no business regulating holidays one way or another except for the regular worship assembly on the first day of the week.
To my knowledge, this is the extent of what the Scriptures teach on the matter of Christmas, both as it pertains to our private observance and to our corporate worship.
I consider the date itself of Christ’s birth to be a secondary matter, since the Bible says absolutely nothing about it. But the date is always a matter of much curiosity and discussion, so I feel that I cannot avoid saying a few words about it.
Concerning the season: it is said that Christ could not have been born in December because the shepherds could not have pastured their flocks during the winter. This is untrue. Winter temperatures in southern Palestine average around 50-60° F, more than warm enough to pasture sheep. Late fall and winter are also Palestine’s rainy season, which makes for good pasturage. The season and the shepherds do nothing to preclude the December 25th date.
Concerning supposed pagan influences on the date: there is no historical evidence that any pagan holiday formed the basis for the December 25th observance of Christ’s birth. Saturnalia occurred more than a week before Christmas, and there is a period of about a century where it was common for people to observe both Saturnalia and Christmas as separate holidays. There is also no historical evidence that Christmas was ever connected to the feast day for Sol Invictus. From what I have read, Rome did not even keep a solstice holiday—that in fact, Christmas became Rome’s first solstice holiday.
The more likely origin of the December 25th date comes from the rabbinic and early Christian superstition that great prophets and saints were “conceived into heaven” on the same day of the year that they had been conceived on earth. Some early commentators, such as Hippolytus of Rome, placed the Crucifixion (and thus conception) on March 25th, making December 25th the date of Christ’s birth. As we have said, this is superstition and has no basis in Scripture.
The best argument against the date is statistical: there is a 99.7% chance that Christ’s birth occurred on a date that is not December 25th. In short, there is absolutely no reason to prefer one date as the “definitive” date on which Christ must have been born, and there is absolutely no reason to reject any date on the basis that “Christ could not possibly have been born on that day.”
When we consider the birth of Christ, we must heed Paul: “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14.19).