Time for my Christmas Soapbox Sermon! Every year I lament the waning Christmas “nativity” merchandise offered by retailers. If you want Christ-themed Christmas ornaments, you have to shop at a Christian bookstore. Last month I was finishing up packing my Christmas shoe boxes for the Samaritan’s Purse’ annual drive (these are sent to children around the world), and I wanted to include a nativity ornament in each. But once again, I found shopping for Christian inspired CHRISTmas anything a futile effort. Among the rows and shelves of glittery and gaudy ornaments and decorations, Santas and reindeers, penguins and snowmen, there was not found one item about the Christ Child. Not one.
That same week I read that Americans are now spending almost as much on Halloween decorations as they do Christmas decorations! This is incredible to me, but I have seen in my own neighborhood an abundance of Halloween decorations increasing in popularity every year. But I have not seen nor heard of one demonstration protesting ghosts or witches, zombies or vampires, or devils that bedeck public places, front lawns, and come knocking at my door in evil regalia Halloween night! I am not talking about harmlessly cute princesses and pirates, supermans and mermaids. Where's the outcry against the creepy creatures representing the sinister darkness of ghoul and death?
Secular Americans have no problem with these displays that are enough to give young children nightmares, but display a baby Jesus in a manger of hay, and you have perpetrated a grave offense against someone’s sensitive conscience! God forbid that you should show angels singing, shepherds bowing, and kings giving gifts to the baby Jesus! Such symbols integral to the Christian faith could do irreparable harm to little children, unbelievers, atheists, and other anti-religious protagonists. Yet they quietly look the other way as Halloween enthusiasts flaunt their satanically-rooted celebration.
Isn't Christmas A Pagan Holiday?
Before you prepare to write that scornful letter or e-mail decrying the paganism of Christmas, I understand the various ancient pagan rituals that predated but seem to be attached to Christmas. I am not ignorant of the fact Christmas was not celebrated by the early church and did not become commonly practiced till centuries later, notably during the time of Constantine. If you really want all the details, you can Google scores of articles on the subject like this one:
“No such festival as Christmas was ever heard of until the third century, and not until the fourth century did it gain much observance. Long before the fourth century, and long before the Christian era itself, a festival was celebrated among the heathen at that precise time of the year in honor of the birth of the son of the Babylonian queen of heaven. It may fairly be presumed that in order to conciliate the heathen, and to swell the number of the nominal adherents of Christianity, the same festival was adopted by the Roman Church, only giving it the name of Christ. This tendency on the part of Christians to meet paganism halfway was very early developed.” (http://www.goodnewsaboutgod.com/studies/holidays2.htm)
The basic reasoning behind instituting the celebration of Christmas on December 25 was to replace pagan celebrations for new converts to Christianity. The church was reaching far out into the empires of the world, winning souls to Jesus Christ. In an effort to substitute a Christian holiday for the pagan holidays they once celebrated, they chose December 25, already a pagan celebration, to celebrate the birthday of Christ. Here’s a different commentary on the claim:
“This was especially the case after the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed, but converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point, dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.” (http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/)
Annual celebrations are biblical. God gave His people seven feast days to be observed annually. The anniversary of their exodus from Egypt, Passover, has been celebrated thousands of years. In addition to these, there were the annual Jewish feasts of Purim (February) and Hanukkah (December) which Jesus observed (Feast of Dedication, John 10:22). Therefore, to observe Jesus’ birthday annually is not a far-fetched idea; nor a pagan one. The problem is the Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born, as it does tell us the time of His death. The general consensus amongst Bible scholars and historians is He was not born in December. It is widely accepted Jesus was born in September, probably during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, aka the Feast of Tabernacles.
Was Jesus Born in December?
We know the angels announced the birth of Christ to the Bethlehem shepherds in the open fields who were tending their flocks by night (Lk.2:8). This fact implies the birth of Jesus could not have been in December when the nights in Palestine were too cold for the shepherds to watch their flocks in the open fields, which they normally would cease doing around the end of October, because there would have been no pasture in winter. Jesus Himself said: “But pray that your flight be not in winter, neither on the Sabbath day.” (Matt. 24:20). Obviously, Jesus understood wintertime in Palestine was harsh enough to make traveling difficult and uncomfortable. If winter was such a bad time in which to flee, it seems unlikely that the shepherds would be sleeping out in the fields while tending their sheep during winter season.
It is also unlikely the Roman government would have passed the edict for citizens to return to the town of their birth to register for the census at such an inconvenient time to travel. And certainly it would have been almost impossible for Mary, nine months pregnant, to have made such an arduous trip of 70 miles through hilly landscape almost 3,000 feet above sea level in the middle of winter.
When Was John the Baptist Born?
In order to determine when Jesus was born, it is first necessary to know when John the Baptist, His cousin, was born, because his mother Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would also conceive. John's father, Zechariah, a priest, was of the priestly division of Abiah (Lk.1:5). There were 24 such divisions, each taking their turn twice annually over the course of the year. Abiah was the 8th division (1Chr.24:7-18). According to the Mishnah (the Jewish commentary on the O.T. Torah), the priestly cycle began on the first Sabbath (Saturday) of Nisan (April), and each division ministered for one week. The cycle was delayed during each of the three major Jewish feasts when all priests were required to attend the Holy Temple: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.
Thus, the first few weeks of the duty roster would have put Zechariah’s course on Sivan 12-18 (June 13-19). Allowing time for an old man to make the journey from Jerusalem back to the hill country where he lived (about 20 miles), he would have returned home on Sivan 21-22, and John’s conception would have taken place on Sivan 23-24 (June 24), and his birth on March 25-28. Gabriel made his announcement to Mary “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Lk.1:26, 36). This would have been six months after June 23-24, in December. This means it is almost certain December 25 was the day on which Jesus was conceived, begotten of the Holy Ghost. (Lk.1:31-35).
Considering the perfect human gestation of 280 days, His birth would have been in September the following year, on the 15th day of the seventh Jewish month Tisri, which corresponds to September 29 and the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles. John1:14 declared: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The Greek word means “to live in a tent, a temporary dwelling place” which is what Jews do during this festival of Sukkot to commemorate their wilderness years when they lived in tents. How fitting for Jesus, “the Word of God made flesh,” to be born during this festival! His circumcision would have taken place on the last day, “the great day of the Feast of Tabernacles.” (Jn.7:37). WOW!
The point is: Jesus was not born on December 25th! However, there is ample evidence that He was conceived on December 25th! This miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit by the overshadowing of the power of the Highest in the body of a virgin girl is something to be celebrated.
So, Friends, I will continue to keep Christ in Christmas!
I know it is not His actual birthday, but I believe it is the day of His conception. Furthermore, the attention we give to this day, and the good we do in His Name, to a world steeped in darkness and despair is sound reason to partake of this celebration in a holy, spiritual, generous way that honors the Christ Child and gives glory to God for His unspeakable Gift! If we can celebrate the Savior of the world on the one day of the year that has the attention of the world, and defy the pagan pushback that hates the Name of Jesus, we should shout “Merry Christmas!” from the rooftops!
Why is there so much animosity against saying “Merry Christmas”? Clearly, the secular culture believes we are celebrating Jesus Christ, and they fight fiercely against all things associated with Him, especially Christmas! My father, R.G. Hardy, has often related how they were not allowed to have Christmas decorations in the home when he was a child—not because his father, an avowed atheist who often physically prevented my grandmother from going to church and tore up her Bible—thought it was a pagan holiday—but because he saw it as a celebration of Jesus Christ!
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being in our annual church Christmas play. It filled my young moldable heart with the wonder of baby Jesus’ miraculous birth. When I grew older, I inherited the director’s chair, and it was my joy every year to impart to a new flock of actors the inspiring, changeless, transforming truths of the coming of Israel’s Messiah, the Son of the Highest, and Savior of the world.
Christian Friend, if your conscience prevents you from celebrating Christmas, then you should follow it. But I firmly believe lashing out against those who do celebrate the joyous coming of Christ to the world is unfair, and plays into Satan’s clever agenda to undermine all redeeming things pertaining to Jesus Christ, his arch enemy. When we see at the center of this debate the incarnation of the Word of God, we will see Christmas in a different light. In the words of prominent theologian R.C. Sproul:
“I can’t think of anything more pleasing to Christ than the church celebrating His birthday every year. Keep in mind that the whole principle of annual festival and celebration is deeply rooted in ancient Jewish tradition. In the Old Testament, for example, there were times when God emphatically commanded the people to remember certain events with annual celebrations. While the New Testament doesn’t require that we celebrate Christmas every year, I certainly see nothing wrong with the church’s entering into this joyous time of celebrating the Incarnation, which is the dividing point of all human history. Originally, it was intended to honor not any mystery religion cults, but the birth of our King.”
It’s time to get off my soapbox and head for the housetop: Merry Christmas to All!
(Bibliography: The Companion Bible, (AV), Bullinger, Zondervan Publishers, London, England, 1974)