CHRISTIANS AND CHRISTMAS
by Angel Manuel Rodriguez
Should Adventists celebrate Christmas?
Every year I receive letters or phone calls asking whether it is correct for Adventists to celebrate Christmas. The uncertainty is usually based on the absence of any biblical information about the date of Christ’s birth, and on the conviction that December 25 has been associated with a pagan festival. Let me provide some historical information about the celebration of Christmas and say something about its significance.
1. Christmas and Adventists: Before I comment on the question, let me clarify that Adventists are not, nor should we be, against Christmas. Why would we be against a period of time when Christians remember the birth of our Savior? However, since this festivity is not ordained by Scripture, we don’t consider it to be binding on believers. We recognize only one holy day, the Sabbath; and we keep it holy in obedience to our Creator and Redeemer.
2. Christmas and History: It is well known that the term “Christmas” is derived from the old English word “Christmesse,” which means “Christ’s Mass.” The term originated during the Middle Ages from the practice of having a midnight Mass on the eve of December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ. In other languages it is called “Nativity” (Latin, natalis) or “Holy Nights” (German, Weihnachten).
The history of this Christian feast remains unclear. Historians have indicated that the nativity feast began to be observed by Christians during the fourth century. Some Christians calculated it based on the death of Christ taking place on March 25. It was then speculated that He must have been born nine months before on December 25. Others placed the birth of Jesus on March 25.
But the most common explanation is that Christmas is somehow connected with the Roman cult of the Invincible Sun (Latin, Sol Invictus), the rebirth of the sun, which was celebrated on December 25. This could explain the importance of lights during the celebration of the Nativity, although “light” is also associated with Christ in the Scriptures (e.g., Luke 1:78, 79). It is therefore common to hear it alleged that Christians adopted and adapted a pagan feast. This is possible, but it’s difficult to demonstrate from available historical evidence.
3. Christmas and the Believer: We should acknowledge two facts: First, we do not know why God, in His providence, chose not to preserve for us a record of the day of Jesus’ birth. There is no need to speculate about this. Second, the fact is that the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25. We cannot change this, and there is no reason to try to change it. Attempts to reject the feast are based on the absence of biblical evidence and its possible connection with a pagan feast. Therefore, we should leave this matter to the conscience of each individual.
Having said that, let me state again that there is absolutely nothing wrong with selecting any particular time to meditate and reflect on the incarnation of our Savior. I would suggest that during Christmas we could spend time thinking about the mystery of the Incarnation. It is a mystery in that it testifies to the fact that the Son of God became “flesh” (John 1:14). The Creator became a creature in order to save us from the power of sin and death.
The Nativity can also be understood as God’s gift to the human race; in His Son, God gave us the most precious gift He could bestow on us. He was the bread of heaven freely given to us by our heavenly Father (John 6:48-51).
But the Nativity is also a time of proclamation. That night angels proclaimed to shepherds the good news: “Do not be afraid…. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you” (Luke 2:10, 11). We should join our voices with that of the angels and proclaim once more throughout the planet the glorious news of peace and freedom from fear and through Christ, the Lord. Christmas provides an excellent opportunity to remind the human race that the Child born in Bethlehem is coming soon.
IS IT OK TO CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS?
by Lori Pettibone
I’d like to introduce you to George Reid, the director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference. Here is how he responded to someone who had this same question:
“Despite a crusade against Christmas in our church by a handful of people, we do not see the question as of importance and never have taken an official position on it. Here is why. It is true that Christmas as now celebrated carries certain trappings drawn from a pagan background, largely from the Roman culture. The day, December 25, is drawn from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a commemoration of the winter equinox. Contrary to the contention of a few uninformed persons, Jeremiah 10 does not declare that the Christmas tree came from paganism. That passage refers to making of idols, not Christmas trees. Apparently the first person to place lights on an evergreen tree in honor of Christmas was Martin Luther.
“For us Christmas as now celebrated is a secular holiday, even if cued to a religious event. It has become highly commercialized, as we all know. It is a time for family gatherings, when almost everyone is off work, and a time for fellowship and giving of gifts to friends and relatives. Little of this has any pagan connection, and if it did, the pagan element is so long past it would have no significance to today’s people. Many things we have come with pagan connections. The world’s first glass windows were placed in ancient pagan temples, but we still use glass windows with no sense of reverence to anything pagan. Roman bridges, aqueducts, highways, walls, etc., were generally dedicated to and often named after Roman gods. The water system in cities, famous from Roman times, also had pagan connections, but we still have water systems in our houses with no sense of honor to pagan gods.
“The only sacred time in the Scriptures is the seventh day of the week. Early Christians did not have any celebration to mark anniversaries for Christ’s birth or even His death and resurrection. The latter was of course tied to the Jewish Passover, but nowhere in the early church is there any reference to Easter, despite one mistranslation in the King James Version of the Bible. Both Christmas and Easter celebrations were introduced among Christians more than a century after the events they commemorate, and do not represent biblical festivals. Only the Sabbath is a biblical festival for Christians.
“Because we live in a culture saturated by the commercial interests with the importance of Christmas, we can hardly ignore it, while treating it as a secular holiday. Seventh-day Adventists are guided in our attitude by the counsel of Ellen G. White, found on pages 477-483 of her book The Adventist Home. I would recommend you read these pages carefully for a balanced understanding of how we deal with Christmas. If some want to mark the birth of Christ, we have no special burden, but all of us recognize that the evidence suggests that Christ was born no later than October, certainly not in December. The eastern branch of Christianity, incidentally, including the Greek, Russian, and various branches of the Orthodox Church, celebrates Christmas in January. Their celebration is no more a biblical event than that of December 25.”
SEE ALSO: http://www.adventistreview.org/article/889/archives/issue-2006-1535/ellen-g-white-christmas
WHAT IS CHRISTMAS?
Director of Music & Spirit of Prophesy
South Ghana Conference
Christmas is “the English name for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ kept on December 25 by the Western Church.” (ibid. p.223). The Encarta World English Dictionary defines it as “an annual Christian festival on 25th December, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ (p.341).There is no authoritative historical evidence as to the day or month of Christ’s birth but “Sometime before 336 the Church in Rome unable to stamp out a pagan festival of the worship of the sun, spiritualized it as the Feast of the Sun of Righteousness.” – (ibid). In 350 Christmas was fully adopted by the Western Church and “purged of its pagan elements” (Earle E. Cairns CHRISTIANITY THROUGH THE CENTURIES p.116).
The Eastern Church celebrates the Christmas together with Epiphany on Jan. 6. This makes it clear that the celebration of Christmas is purely based on ecclesiastical authority and celebrated at different dates.
The traditional customs and practices associated with Christmas have come from many sources:
- Merrymaking and exchange of presents originated from the Roman Saturnalia festival (Dec.17-24)
- Greenery and lights come from the Kalends of January (January 1)
- Festing and fellowship came from the Germano – Celtic Yule rites. (ibid. 223)
- Santa Claus (Father Christmas) – originated with Saint Nicholas, the Patron saint of children.
- Christmas tree – came from Baal-Tamar (Egypt) and Baal-Berith (Rome) rites (H.M.S. Richards, Christmas Catechism, p.30).
THREE FACTS ABOUT CHRISTMAS
In December 1996, Signs of the Times, a periodical of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, published an article in answer to a question, raised by a reader, about Christmas. In that article three facts about Christmas were emphasized. They are:
First Fact: December 25 is not the birthday of Christ. The Shepherds could not havebeen in the fields during that cold period of the year. Simply, no oneknows the date for Christ’s birth.
Second Fact: There is no biblical command to celebrate Christ’s birth.The Bible is silent on the issue on any celebration of the sort.
Third Fact: Some of the roots of Christmas do go back to paganism. In ancient times there were many festivals for pagan gods which tookplace from mid to late December. These included a festival in honour of the Roman god Saturn. “Early Christians chose this time of the year tocelebrate Christ’s birth.”For the fact that Signs has been publishing articles about Christmas each year, it reacted to these facts as follows:First, the birth of Christ is an event worth celebrating. Since the actual date is not known, Christians can choose any date, that will do.Like other celebrations, like birthdays, weddings, graduations etc. Christmas may be celebrated joyously with food, special programmes, and gifts.According to the second fact, there is no biblical injunction to celebrate Christ’s birth. This in itself does not mean it is wrong to celebrate it, because neither does the Bible prohibit it.“Where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15), and therefore either way holds, Christians are free to choose to celebrate or not to celebrate Christ’s birth in a special way.The last fact states that Christmas has roots in paganism. This is true, but does modern celebration of Christmas include worship of pagan gods? Of course not, the only thing that comes to the minds of people is the birth of Christ.Remember all the English names of the week also have roots in paganism.
This does not mean that by using these names today, we are worshiping these pagan gods.
Most musical instruments (including the organ) have their roots in paganism (Gen. 4:21), but does this mean that by using these musical instruments in Church today, we are desecrating the worship of God?
“The major problem with Christmas in our day is not paganism, but materialism” (p. 14)Signs of the times concludes the article in the following words:“While we at Signs of the Times see no problem with celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25, we respect the views of those who do. In the absence of a biblical command either way, it seems to us that each of us needs to respect the views of others in this important matter.” (ibid.)
Ellen G. White comments on Christmas
In her book Adventist Home, pages 477-483, E. G. White answers series of questions on Christmas and makes the following comments among others.History and the Bible do not give us the exact date of Christ’s birth. “Had the Lord deemed this knowledge essential to our salvation, He would have spoken through His prophets and apostles that we might know all about the matter. But the silence of the scripture upon this point evidences to us that it is hidden from us for the wisest purpose” (p. 477).
The Day Not To Be Ignored:– “As the 25th of December is observed to commemorate the birth of Christ, as the children have been instructed by precept and example that this was indeed a day of gladness and rejoicing, you will find it a difficult matter to pass over this period without giving it some attention. It can be made to serve a very good purpose” (p. 478).
The Interchange of Gifts as Tokens of Affection:- “It is right to bestow upon one another tokens of love and remembrance if we do not in this forget God, our best friend. We should make our gifts such as will prove a real benefit to the receiver. I would recommend such books as will be an aid in understanding the word of God or that will increase our love for its precepts” (p. 479)
She emphasizes the following points in our meaningful celebration of Christmas:
- Jesus Not to Be Forgotten
- Christmas – a Time to Honor God
- Turn Thoughts of the Children into a New Channel.
- Provide Innocent Enjoyment for the Day
About the Christmas tree she stated:“God would be well pleased if on Christmas each church would have a Christmas tree on which shall be hung offerings, great and small, for these houses of worship… There is no particular sin in selecting a fragrant evergreen and placing it in our churches, but the sin lies in the motive which prompts to action and the use which is made of the gifts placed upon the tree… Christmas and New Year celebrations can and should be held in behalf of those who are hopeless” (p.482).
Quotations From other Seventh-day Adventist SourcesJohn Rhodes, Success Secrets for Pastors, p. 135.Caroling Bands:- “Some churches use taped caroling. However, a number of churches (Seventh-day Adventist) still use the old fashioned singing band. Many pastors encourage their members to attend Sabbath vespers, then go caroling immediately afterward.”
The Children’s Choir is descriptively identified as:
“A musical group for kids that performs mainly in church as well as in thecommunity. It can be a long-term or short-term project in preparation for Easter, Christmas, or Children’s Sabbath.” – Pastor’s and Elder’s Handbook for Children’s Ministries p. 72.
Our Greatest Gift to Jesus.“… In fact, by giving us His righteousness, He makes us more precious than gold” (Isa. 13:12). He made this gift when He left the matchless splendor of heaven and was born that day in Bethlehem. So let us bow down on this eve of Christmas and worship Him!” – H. M. S. Richards Jnr. The Best News Ever, p. 367
A Birth to Celebrate“The baby born in Bethlehem’s manger is your savior and mine. The Christmas season is a time to celebrate and rejoice. It’s a time to praise. We were not left alone in the depths of our sin. In the darkness of our rebellion, there is a light Imprisoned in sin’s bondage, there is hope.” – Mark Finley Solid Ground p. 393.
A RIGHT WAY TO CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS
Elder’s Digest, vol. 15 No. 4, October/December, 2009, p.18.
Do holiday services go Unnoticed at our church?Ministry – International Journal for Pastors, vol. 81 No. 10, October, 2009 p.7.
The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal
The official hymnal of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, The Seventh-dayAdventist Hymnal, which also in some way serves as a liturgical book of the church, contains 32 Christmas carols.
- O Little Town of Bethlehem
- Silent Night
- In the Bleak Mid-Winter
- O Come All Ye Faithful, etc.
Indications from the Topical Index of Hymns and Readings show that these carols are meant for the celebration of Christmas.It also has a number of hymns for the celebration of Easter
Why is Christmas so important to many people?
H.M.S. Richards in his book, Christmas Catechism states:“Some people refuse to use the word “Christmas” because of its ecclesiastical background. Others say that it is wrong to pay any attentionto it because nobody knows the exact date of Christ’s birth, which is, of course, true. However, to the average person, Christmas has come tomean something very definite. No matter what its ecclesiastical origin may be, whether in paganism or in early Christianity; and no matter if it comesat the right time of the year or not, Christmas is a reminder of the fact that God once came to this earth.
“It is true that the Christmas season is now greatly commercialized and many people take advantage of it merely for selfish gratification,drunkenness, foolishness and sin. But, in spite of all this, millions of people do think, at least once a year, about the incarnation – the fact that Godbecame flesh. He came as a babe in Bethlehem to live and die and rise from the dead and ascend to heaven. Jesus Christ was born. The actualdate is not so important. The fact is immeasurably important. Whenever it was, I am glad He came.” (pp.111, 112).
Should we expect another new Christmas?
“Even more wonderful is the certainty of a still greater Christmas – using the word in the sense of its acceptance – the second coming of God to thisearth… He’s coming back again.
“Let us all be happy and rejoice in the fact that our Lord was here on earth. He paid the price of our redemption on the cross. But our eyes must befixed on the future, on a time still ahead, the day when he will come to earth as King of kings and Lord of lords” (ibid 143, 144).
Some Special Programs Held to Celebrate the Birth of Christ in Seventhday Adventist Churches.
- Carol Service
- Feast of Lights
- Nativity Plays
- Nativity Tableau
- Christmas Concerts
- Caroling. etc
Difference between Seventh-day Adventist celebration of Christmas and Most other Christian Denominations
Most Christian Denominations regard the 25th of December not only as a holiday to celebrate Christ’s birth but a holy day, and therefore abstain from work and hold holy convocations (special church services).
Seventh-day Adventists do not regard the day as a holy day but a holiday to celebrate Christ’s birth. They do not hold any particular position on this issue.
Whether to celebrate or not is an individual or family decision. It is also up to congregations to decide what they will do at church.
Douglas, J. D and Cairns, Earle E. eds. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids:The Zondervan Corporation), 1978, pp. 223, 322.
Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1996). pp. 116, 153.
White, Ellen G. The Adventist Home, (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 2932), pp. 477-490.Rhodes, John Success Secrets for Pastors, (Silver Spring: The Ministerial Association General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists), p. 135.
Pastor’s and Elders Handbook for Children’s Ministries, (Silver Spring: The Children’s Ministries Department and the Ministerial Association, The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists), p. 72.
Richards Jnr., H. M. S and Guild, Daniel R. The Best News Ever, (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2001), p. 367.
Finley, Mark Solid Ground (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2003), p. 393.
Moore, Marvin Dialogue, Signs of the Times, December, 1996, p. 14Do Holiday Services Go Unnoticed at Your Church, Advert on a collection of Holiday Sermons, Ministry vol. 81Number 10, October 2009, p. 7.
General Conference Ministerial Association. A Right Way to Celebrate Christmas, Elder’s Digest, vol. 15 no. 4,October / December, 2009, p. 18.
Pioneer Memorial Church, The Twenty-Third Annual Andrews Academy Feast of Lights Programme, 1995, 1996, 1998.
Richards, H.M.S. Christmas Catechism, pp.30, 111, 112-114.Rooney, Kathy ed et al. Encarta World English Dictionary, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 1999) p.341.
Is Christmas pagan, Christian or just convenient?
by Andrew Willis
Is the celebration of Christmas on December 25 really a pagan custom that early Christians borrowed?
Atheists often mock Christians for celebrating a “pagan” festival and some Christians decline to celebrate Christmas, while others argue that regardless of its origins, Christmas is a good evangelistic opportunity. Who is right?
To answer that question we need to go to North Africa at the end of the 3rd Century.
In AD 284, Diocletian became emperor. Under his rule, the early Christian church suffered some of the harshest persecution in its history. Many Christians, including some church leaders, renounced their faith in the face of persecution. Later, with the abdication of Diocletian, persecution stopped in the West and Christians returned to a life of peace and security. This left one problem: should those Christians who gave up their faith under duress be allowed back? Could the leaders who left be allowed to take office again?
Following their Savior’s example, the church said “yes,” giving them the chance to start over.
In North Africa, however, there was a movement in the church that rejected this idea. There, Christians believed that if members who’d turned their back on their faith were allowed back, it would contaminate the church. They were concerned with the purity of the church and wanted to avoid any pagan influences. This group became known as the “Donatists,” named after their leader Donatus.
What does this have to do with Christmas? The Donatists celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25. This group, who were studious in their avoidance of anything that even resembled compromise with the world or hint of paganism, was following an old tradition of remembering the birth of Jesus on the same date most Christians still celebrate today.
So where did some get the idea that celebrating on December 25 has pagan roots?
Some claim Christians borrowed the day from those who celebrated the winter solstice. But the solstice is actually a few days earlier than Christmas. Some suggest that it’s because of the Saturnalia festival, but that runs from December 17 to 23.
Others claim it corresponds with sun worship, citing the festival of “Sol Invictus” (Unconquered Sun) that Emperor Aurelian instituted on December 25 in AD 274. However, upon closer examination, this was not a traditional day of sun worship. The two sun temples in Rome celebrated their feasts on August 9 and 28, and even that had fallen into neglect by the time of Aurelian. By then, the new sun god Mithras was growing popular.
Although long thought of as a development of eastern sun worship, historians now believe Mithras worship to be a Roman invention — a cult created by and for the imperial bureaucracy. But even Mithras did not have any feasts associated with solstices or equinoxes until a hundred years later.
So it appears that Aurelian, who was hostile to Christianity, picked a date with no pagan sun worship and created one. Why? Some suggest that he was trying to create a pagan alternative to another festival on that day to help unite his empire. That other festival was the celebration of Jesus’ birth. In fact, in spite of Aurelian’s declaration, there is no record of celebrating Sol Invictus on December 25 until AD 354/362, much later than the Christian celebration in Africa and elsewhere.
It was only in the 17th and 18th Centuries that secular enlightenment scholars started to suggest that Christianity had borrowed the date of Christmas from pagans.
Yet this leads to another problem. We know from the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the gospels that it was unlikely he was born in December, so why had the church chosen to celebrate it then?
The answer is twofold: the date of Jesus’ death, and Jewish tradition. For early Christians, celebrating the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was very important. The church worked hard to determine the date of this events, a calculation made more difficult by having to work out which year it was, and which calendar to use — Jewish or Roman. After much research, the church in the West and Africa settled on March 25 as the date of Jesus’ crucifixion.
This was important in determining the date of Jesus’ birth because in Jewish tradition it was thought that prophets died on the same day as they were born. This idea may seem strange to us, but was understood and accepted by the early church. Jesus was different from the prophets, however — his life didn’t start at his birth, rather it began when the angel spoke to Mary. This is why early Christians celebrated the annunciation (or announcement to Mary that she was carrying the child) on March 25. Add nine months of pregnancy and you arrive at a birth date of December 25.
Today, we know Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas day, but the church choose to celebrate it on this day. Even though they didn’t know the real date of Jesus’ birth, early Christians — following Jewish traditions — choose a date to celebrate the fact God loved the world enough to send his Son as a baby.
This date had no connection to pagan gods or ideas — these were invented years later.
So how should Seventh-day Adventists respond to Christmas? First, we should understand that it is not a pagan festival “borrowed” by Christians. Rather, it is a very early Christian memorial. Second, we should focus our attention on the event it celebrates and witness to the world about our Savior. Finally, following the example of Adventist Church co-founder, Ellen G. White, we can use this opportunity to respond to the needs of the world around us.
–Andrew Willis is a course tutor at the Adventist Discovery Centre, the Voice of Prophecy in the United Kingdom. Reprinted with permission from British Union Conference News.