At this point, it might be good to stop and consider a question that people often ask at this time of years: Was Jesus actually born on Christmas as we know it today?
Well, it may come as a surprise to find that December 25th was originally chosen as the date of Jesus’ birth to in order to establish a “Christian holiday” as an alternative to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. The Saturnalia festival (or “festival of the sun”) was held each year around the time of the winter solstice. One feast that was held during this time was the Sol Invictus or the feast of the “invincible sun” and it celebrated the fact that the shortest day of the year had passed and the days were about to grow longer again.
The ancient Saturnalia festival was said to be a non-stop blowout of drunkenness and feasting that often featured practical jokes, drinking, gambling and lots of immorality. Of course, many people choose to celebrate Christmas in much the same manner today so perhaps things haven’t changed as much as we might like to think.
Anyway, the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25th was first popularized during the fourth century A.D. and while it is unlikely that December 25th represents the actual date of Jesus’ birth, it’s not entirely impossible. You see, it’s difficult to establish the exact time of year that Jesus was born from the information that’s given to us in the Bible. In fact, even the year of Jesus’ birth is uncertain, although many commentators believe it took place around 4 B.C. This, of course, puts us in the awkward position of saying that Christ was born “before Christ” but that’s the way it is.
So with these things in mind, is it wrong to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th? Well, the New Testament book of Romans tells us this: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). We could apply this verse to our question by saying that if someone wishes to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th, then he or she should do so because people are free to dedicate certain days to God as long as they remain convinced that they are doing the right thing.
Of course, someone who wants to celebrate Jesus’ birth on some other day of the year is also free to do so as well. Remember, “…some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable” (NLT).
Since we’re on the subject of holiday traditions, let’s take a moment to look at another well-known holiday tradition: Christmas trees. Have you ever wondered how a decorated tree inside a house became a Christmas tradition? Well, believe it or not, the Christmas tree traces its origins to the ancient non-Christian peoples of Europe.
You see, the winter seasons are often very severe in northern Europe. Because of this, the ancient peoples of that area often blamed evil spirits for the arrival of winter when much of the existing plant life appeared to die. However, there were a few trees and other plants that seemed resistant to the brutal winter weather and stayed “alive” while everything else “died” during that time of year. Those trees were the evergreen trees, along with certain other plants like holly and mistletoe.
These trees and plants were thought to offer protection against the life-threatening evil of the cold winter darkness and over time, people eventually came to believe that wherever these evergreens were placed, evil spirits could not go. So people began to bring such trees and plants into their homes and decorate them as a sign of worship.
For example, garlands made of evergreens were hung inside the home. This is where the tradition to “Deck the halls with boughs of holly” got started. Evergreens were also “sacrificed” to encourage the return of the sun in some Scandinavian countries,. This represented the origin of the modern-day “Yule Log” tradition. The ancient people of what is now Germany were probably the first to place lights on their trees in the form of candles.
So it seems that there is no real historical evidence to connect these holiday traditions with Jesus’ birth. But does that mean it’s wrong for Christians to put up a Christmas tree or hang evergreen wreaths and garland during the holidays?
Well, we might think of these traditions in the following manner: when an artist like a musician or a painter becomes a Christian, he or she will often rededicate their creative talents, skills, and abilities for use in a way that honors God. In a similar manner, we can look at many of the symbolic elements of Christmas (like a Christmas tree, for example) in much the same way. In other words, Christians have an opportunity to rededicate those symbols for use in a manner that honors God..
For example, here are a few traditional Christmas elements along with the new symbolic meanings…
- Evergreen tree: An evergreen tree symbolizes everlasting life through Jesus (John 10:27-28).
- Lights: Lights indicate that that Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12).
- Gifts: Giving gifts at Christmas time reminds us that “…the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
- Star at the top of a Christmas tree: This represents the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2).
- Angels: These are representative of the angelic beings who announced Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8-14).
- Ornaments/Decorations: These help symbolize the joyous celebration of the Savior’s birth (Luke 2:10-11).