So, what do we make of the concerns and accusations referred to at the beginning of this article?
First of all, there is no intentional deceit going on with respect to celebrating the Nativity on December 25. We have seen that there are and historically have been some Christian writers & leaders who genuinely believe(d) it was the actual date. Whether it is or not, that’s OK. It doesn’t affect the historicity of Christianity or any other apologetic concern. There is no big secret; all it takes is a bit of investigation. (This was true even before the Internet.)
Furthermore, other birthdays/holidays are also celebrated on dates that are used more for convenience or other concerns rather than calendar accuracy, but they don’t garner the same sort of accusations and/or dismissals that Christmas Day does. For example, the eight days of the Hanukkah celebration shift each year, due to its beginning on the 25th day of the month Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which ranges between late November and late December. In the U.S., George Washington’s birthday used to be celebrated on his actual birthday of Feb. 22, then was switched to the 3rd Monday in February. Some states initiated a holiday called “President’s Day”, which eventually merged with Washington’s Birthday, keeping the “Presidents Day” name (in most states) and the observance on the latter’s schedule. The day now honors both Washington and Abraham Lincoln (b. Feb. 12), and some states include other U.S. Presidents, as well. Are those who don’t know the details of this being intentionally deceived? To what end?
Secondly, it is kind of presumptuous to assume that one group has some sort of superior claim on any particular date or use of an item in their particular practices & observances. After all, there are only so many days in the year and untold numbers of birthdays, events, and customs going back thousands of years, plus the objects associated with them. There MUST be some overlap, even when limited to just religions. And, no one seems to complain that, for example, the recent practice of Kwanzaa — originally created to be an anti-Christian alternative to Christmas — is observed from Dec. 26 – Jan. 1 and involves candle-lighting, gift-giving, and feasts. Why is that? Maybe because it isn’t that big of a deal.
Some Christians over the centuries have reasoned that the commonalities among certain Christmas traditions and pagan traditions were/are reason enough to reject Christmas. For example, 18th-century German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski expressed concern that the “paganization” of having Christmas on December 25 (coinciding with the Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, meaning “the birthday of the unconquered Sun”) dishonored the church. But, are such denunciations really necessary?
Now, the main concern by some Christian groups, of course, is the danger of syncretism. The ancient Jews were guilty of this when they allowed pagan practices to be absorbed into their culture & religion, resulting in their being estranged from Yahweh. And in Christian history, some churches (and many individuals) have allowed worldly, non-Biblical thinking and activities to influence their doctrine & practice. Therefore, in order to obey Scriptural commands to reject pagan influence and to avoid compromising their Christian beliefs, some groups call for the denunciation and condemnation of modern Christmas traditions. And, the concern is certainly understandable.
But, this line of thinking is actually guilty of a mistake in logic called the “genetic fallacy”. This is where a conclusion or judgement of a thing is made based entirely on its origins rather than its current meaning or context. Consider that, even outside of the religious context, the meaning of a particular custom (or, just a word or phrase) can differ from one culture or sub-culture to the next. It can also change over time. We don’t dismiss the value of modern astronomy just because it originated in the pagan practice of astrology, do we? Nor do (most) Christian denominations forbid the (modest) use of jewelry and cosmetics just because they have long been associated with prostitution. The fact that many of the traditions carried forth in today’s Christmas celebrations may have been borrowed in their earliest forms from the pagans does not make Christians guilty by association.
More importantly, the point here is that the Church realized it needed to adopt & adapt, but without gutting the Gospel message. It took the date of December 25, along with several specific items and activities that were popular among the pagans, and re-invested them with new religious content and meaning appropriate for the Christian Church. This is entirely consistant with Biblical teachings about renewal & redemption. Missionaries have been doing this sort of thing for years. They will identify something of significance to the local culture (e.g., a holiday, ritual, or object) and replace any occultic or otherwise negative symbolism it has with new value & purpose, representing something positive and of a Christian nature. (Pagans and other non-Christians nowadays may object to this as Christianity’s efforts to eradicate other cultures and indoctrinate their peoples. But, that’s a subject for another day.) God even gave an example of this type of thing in the Old Testament, when he “took” the ritual of circumcision from the Egyptians and “gave” it to Abraham and his descendants (the Jews) with new meaning.
Some will point out that Jesus never instructed His disciples to commemorate His birth, nor do the New Testament writers mention such a celebration or imply that one should be instituted. But, uh, so what? They never commanded that Christian believers build church buildings or hospitals either, but we still think of those as good things. More to the point, silence cannot be taken as proof against. There are many things that were not directly addressed in Scripture that are still OK to do, even encouraged, based on what was addressed. Without clear, Biblical instruction against such things, and as long as it is in accordance with Biblical principle and the focus is in glorifying God, there should be freedom to worship God in this manner. It could also be pointed out that, while Jesus did instruct His followers to commemorate His death & resurrection, He never hinted at anything as elaborate as some of the Easter / Resurrection Day celebrations that many churches have. Should we stop them, too?
So, in my opinion, at least, the complaints or derision made by non-Christians are specious and not a big deal at all. And Christians today should not worry about whatever similarities some ancient pagan festivals had with current Christian celebrations. When I set up a Christmas tree in my house (does it count if it’s plastic?), decorate it, and put gifts under it to be exchanged later, it has nothing to do with saturnalia. When I go caroling (well, I did it twice), eat a big Christmas meal with family or friends, then maybe play games, I never think of Roman gods, the Sun, or probably even the winter solstice. Nor do my non-Christian friends, I would bet. These Christmas traditions mean something totally different to 99.99% of those celebrating the season. Those of us who are Christian believers or, at least, enjoy the Christmas Story, are free to focus on the true meaning of Christmas — the ultimate gift of God’s Son to the world and the possibility of redemption before the Father (i.e., the gift of Salvation) that He would provide.