One day, years ago, someone asked me why I kept Christmas. "The Bible says to keep it," I responded. "Somewhere in the Gospel of Luke, it speaks of the nativity scene. An angel told some shepherds that were keeping their sheep in the fields at night that the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I think they went to see Jesus at that time.
"That was the first Christmas! And that's why I keep Christmas, because the Bible supports Christmas, the birthday of Jesus Christ."
"That's not true and here's why," my friend replied.
I soon learned that the Bible didn't teach Christmas. I also found that its origins have nothing to do with the Bible. It was an important lesson about things I'd long assumed to be true.
Just because some 2 billion people—roughly 1 billion Catholics and another billion in Protestant faiths—observe Christmas, does that make it right? Does it really matter one way or the other?
Why do so many people observe it?
If you were asked, "Why do you celebrate Christmas?" how would you respond? Many would say Christmas honors the birthday of Jesus. Others feel that Christmas is a good Christian family get-together. Many do it simply because they've always done it.
Christmas can appear tantalizing to the eye and ear. People appear happy, generous, full of good cheer. Twinkling lights decorate many houses. Santa Claus and his reindeer are pictured as poised to lift off from snow-covered front yards or rooftops, although in the southern hemisphere and tropics there is no December snow. The colorful, peaceful-appearing Christmas scene can be intoxicating, addicting.
Shoppers pack stores, browsing for gifts they hope to buy at bargain-basement prices. Soaring strains of "White Christmas," "Silent Night" or "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" resonate everywhere.
The December weather of the northern hemisphere might be frightful outside, but the feeling and warmth inside is delightful. Christmas trees with twinkling lights and bright, sparkling ornaments create a mystical and glowing environment. Entire families want to experience the special mystery that only comes with the Christmas season. There is no religious holiday quite like it for the millions everywhere who observe it.
Was Jesus really born on Dec. 25?
But stop and ask yourself: Was Christ really born on Christmas Day? After all, the Bible nowhere tells us the day of His birth.
In fact, most credible secular historical writings tell us that Christmas, more than 200 years after Jesus' death, was considered sinful: "As late as A.D. 245 [the early Catholic theologian] Origen . . . repudiates as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Christ" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910, Vol. 6, p. 293, "Christmas").
In A.D. 354, a Latin chronographer mentioned Christmas, but even then he did not write about it as an observed festival (ibid.).
There is no biblical evidence that Dec. 25 was Jesus' birth date. In fact, the Bible record strongly shows that Jesus couldn't have been born then.
For example, Luke tells us that the shepherds were keeping their sheep in the fields at night when Jesus was born. "And she [Mary] brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:7-8, emphasis added throughout).
But late December is Judea's cold and rainy season. Would shepherds actually keep their fragile flocks out in the open fields on a cold late-December night near Bethlehem?
No responsible shepherd would subject his sheep to the elements at that time of year when cold rains, and occasional snow, are common in that region.
"The climate of Palestine is not so severe as the climate of this country [England]; but even there, though the heat of the day be considerable, the cold of the night, from December to February, is very piercing, and it was not the custom for the shepherds of Judea to watch their flocks in the open fields later than about the end of October" (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, 1959, p. 91).
Luke also tells us that Jesus was born at the time of a census ordered by the Roman emperor (Luke 2:1-3). The Romans were brilliant administrators; they certainly would not have ordered people to journey to be registered at a time of year when roads would have been wet and muddy and traveling conditions miserable. Such a move would have been self-defeating on its face.
The belief that Jesus was born on or around Dec. 25 simply has no basis in fact, even if 2 billion people have accepted it without question. As the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw said, "If 50 million people believe a foolish thing, it's still a foolish thing."
Does Christmas really honor Christ?
If the Christmas holiday is an important celebration to honor the birth of Jesus Christ, why is it nowhere mentioned in the Bible? Why didn't Christ instruct His closest followers, His 12 chosen apostles, to keep Christmas? Why didn't they institute or teach it to the early Church?
Before you answer, consider that Jesus gave great authority to His 12 apostles, assuring them that they will hold positions of great importance and responsibility in His Kingdom (Matthew 18:18; Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:29-30). But since Jesus never taught His apostles to keep Christmas, nor did they ever teach it to the Church though they had years of opportunity to do so, shouldn't that make us question whether Christmas is something Jesus really wants or appreciates?
So how did Christmas become such a widespread practice if the Bible doesn't sanction it, if Christ didn't observe it and if He never taught His disciples and the early Church to celebrate it?
True origins of Christmas
Most people never stop to ask themselves what the major symbols of Christmas—Santa Claus, reindeer, decorated trees, holly, mistletoe and the like—have to do with the birth of the Savior of mankind. In the southern hemisphere summer climate of December, few people question why they observe a Christmas with northern hemisphere winter scenery!
The fact is, and you can verify this in any number of books and encyclopedias, that all these trappings came from ancient pagan festivals.
Even the date, Dec. 25, came from a festival celebrating the birthday of the ancient sun god Mithras. (If you'd like to learn more about the origins of the many customs and symbols associated with Christmas, request our free booklet Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Keep?)
Jesus never told His followers to celebrate Christmas, but He did warn us not to adhere to false, man-made religious doctrines: "And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mark 7:7). The truth is, Christmas and other non-biblical religious holidays constitute vain or empty worship of Christ.
The Catholic Encyclopedia indicates that the Christmas season came from an ancient midwinter festival that occurred at the time of the winter solstice. Interestingly, the previously noted Origen, despite the early period in which he lived (ca. 182-251), never even mentioned it (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. 3, 1967, and "Christmas and Its Cycle," The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, Vol. 3, "Christmas").
Tertullian, another Catholic theologian who lived at about the same time (ca. 155-230), referred to compromising Christians then beginning to join in the pagan midwinter festival celebrated in the Roman Empire, which eventually evolved into what is now Christmas:
"The Saturnalia, the feasts of January, the Brumalia, and Matronalia are now frequented; gifts are carried to and fro, new year's day presents are made with din, and banquets are celebrated with uproar; oh, how much more faithful are the heathen to their religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians" (Tertullian in De Idolatria, quoted by Hislop, p. 93).
In time Catholic religious leaders added solemnity to this pre-Christian holiday by adding to it the Mass of Christ, from which it eventually came to be known by its common name of "Christmas."
A matter of whether, not what
The purpose of The Good News magazine is to share with you the living truth of Jesus Christ. A true Christian cannot decide what he will obey, only whether he will obey God's truth.
We strive to publish God's pristine truth; people who read that truth have to decide what to do about it and whether they will honor it. Our commission from Jesus Christ is to teach the truth of God and to welcome as disciples and fellow workers those few who hear and obey the truth. We hope the truth about Christmas starts you on the road to true happiness and God's purpose for you.
History shows that Christmas does not represent Christ. It misrepresents sound biblical teaching and is in opposition to God's truth. God wants us to worship Him in truth (John 4:23-24), not fable.
In Deuteronomy 12:28-32, God told His people to worship only in the ways He commanded, telling them "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it." He explicitly ordered them not to copy or adopt the religious practices of the pagans, calling such practices "abomination[s] . . . which He hates."
Yet hundreds of millions of men, women and children unwittingly observe Christmas, not knowing or caring from where it came. They assume that 2 billion Christians can't be wrong or that it doesn't matter how we worship God so long as our intentions are good. But why should we think we honor God or please Him when we worship contrary to His commands?
Crucial questions only you can answer
The crucial question is, do we worry more about what others think or about what God requires? Also, can other human beings give us salvation? If honoring God's truth determines our salvation, then why honor men over God?
Jesus Christ said to those who appeared religious but denied the power of His true teaching, "But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46; compare Matthew 7:21). Since Christ is opposed to Christmas, why would any thoughtful Christian observe it?
Walking in Jesus' footsteps in a world that doesn't is never easy. But it is much better and eminently more rewarding than following the empty ways of the world.
God tells us in 1 John 2:15-17: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever."