There are two sorts of people who ruin Christmas. Those who douse it with a gallon of sentimentalist syrup. These folks unreflectively trot out the Christmas tree, spread tinsel everywhere, spread “Christmas cheer”, and make sure Santa is center stage. The other sort are those who mutter about the pagan origins of all these things, and love to remind us “Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th anyway, bahumbug.”
Just because you’ve decked the halls does not mean that you are truly celebrating Christmas. You may just be celebrating an Americanized “Happy Holiday.” As a Christian, this is not at all acceptable. We celebrate Christ. He is the focal point of it, and if we or our families miss this fact, we’ve got the whole thing upside down.
But, if you’ve bought the myth that Christmas is really a pagan holiday with a Christian veneer, you couldn’t be further from the truth. To top it off, even if you’re correct about the pagan roots of Christmas, why should it surprise you that converted pagans celebrate Christ’s birth like pagans would? There’s a lot to cover in a short space so let’s look at some of the issues in question.
December 25th is a perfectly reasonable date for the birth of Christ. As William Tighe shows, the Romans likely hijacked it from Christians, not vice versa:
The pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”William Tighe, Calculating Christmas
Jeremiah 10:3-5 describes a heathen practice similar to trimming our Christmas trees. But Jeremiah goes on to explain that we shouldn’t fear the heathen’s idols or their idolatrous practices, they can’t do evil or good. God is the one who made trees and He was the first one to hang ornaments on them. If anyone did the borrowing it was the pagans. Just putting up the tree doesn’t mean you’re celebrating Christmas. We can certainly celebrate the birth of Christ without a tree. But, if we do have one we aren’t committing idolatry. After all, the trees belong to God.
But what about Santa? If you’re marking gifts “From Santa”, I think you’re setting yourself up for awkward conversations with your kids when they realize it looks an awful lot like your handwriting. But, should we do away entirely with Father Christmas? I say, “No.” First of all, Santa was a real person. St. Nicholas was a brother in Christ, who famously punched the heretic Arius. Now that’s a Santa we can get on board with. He was also well-known for his generosity and service to the poor. His legend has certainly grown and been embellished. However, as Michael Ward shows in his book Planet Narnia, the figure of Father Christmas can be a helpful literary device to depict Joviality. So tell your family about the godly man, St. Nicholas. And don’t fret over the helpful symbol that a jolly king in red offers. But do not put him in your nativity scene.
Back to Eden
So don’t ruin Christmas. Don’t ruin it by decking the halls with sentimentality, or grumbling about the jolliness of the whole affair. Make the whole lead up to Christmas a robustly Christ-centered celebration. All the festivities and hullabaloo are pointless without worship of the Incarnate Christ being the main thing. On the other hand, don’t see pagan demons behind every wreath. Remember, the pagans were grasping after God in all the wrong ways, as Paul reminds us in his rebuke of the Athenians (Acts 17:23). The pagans were trying to get back to Eden the way we all do, by their own superstitious works of self-righteousness and worldly philosophy.
However, the only way back to the tree of life is through the tree of Calvary. And at Christmas we remember that the child born in Bethlehem would one day hang upon a tree for the forgiveness of our sins. Which is why we ought to celebrate with gusto.