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Why is the celebration of Christmas considered
to be controversial in some churches?

Historically, Christmas has been an object of debate and controversy by church leaders, largely because its celebration did not originate in the Bible, and because many of its customs contain a mixture of non-Christian ideas which evolved from various secular and pagan cultures over a period of centuries. In fact, Christmas was actually outlawed in colonial New England, from 1649 to 1658, by the influence of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, who cited the "heathenistic traditions" involved in the celebration. It took two centuries for the celebration to gradually gain acceptance in the New World. Massachusetts was the first American state to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday in 1856.

Christmas was never mentioned in the New Testament, and we have no evidence that it was ever celebrated by the earliest believers. However, this fact alone does not invalidate its place in Christian worship. Since the birth of Christ is a Biblical truth, we are at liberty to celebrate His birth anytime we wish, especially once a year set aside for this purpose.

The annual celebration of Christ's birth can be traced back to at least 336 A.D., when it was observed by western churches on December 25th. Since the event was honored in the form of a religious service, the term "Christmas" came from the Old English term Cristes Maesse, meaning "Christ's Mass."

The original date of Jesus' birth was never known for certain, as it remains today. But toward the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria was known to have cited various opinions of concerning Christ's birth date, the two most prominent of which were January 6th and December 25th. Later in the fifth century, Augustine commented: "For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day He also suffered... but He was born according to tradition upon December 25th."¹

It's strongly speculated that December 25th was selected for the Christmas celebration as an effort to bridge the gap between Christian and pagan traditions. Such mergers became common practice for Constantine, Emperor of Rome (306-337), after his controversial conversion to Christ. He legalized Christianity, and by decree, combined numerous pagan customs with state Christianity — which provided many of the traditions observed by the church of that era. In Rome, the supposed birthday of the pagan sun god was on December 25th, and the pagan winter feast of Saturnalia was celebrated for seven days from December 17th to the 24th, marked by a spirit of merriment, gift giving to children, and various forms of entertainment. It seems likely the latter was the basis for modern day Christmas gift traditions. Later, the cultures of such nations as the Germans, French, English, Scandinavians and others, eventually influenced the celebration by their added traditions.

The Christmas tree has especially been a major source of controversy, as it has sometimes been associated with an idol, described in Jeremiah: "Thus says the LORD: Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good" (Jer. 10:2-5). Indeed, this rendering does sound much like a Christmas tree. But the original Hebrew makes it clearer, "They cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with a chisel." This would indicate that the tree itself was not the idol, but its wood was carved into an idol which was overlaid with silver and gold. While a Christmas tree is admittedly secular in its origin, it's not likely that it came from the idol described by Jeremiah.

The traditional Christmas tree, an evergreen trimmed with decorations, only dates back a few centuries. There are several unverified traditions which claim its origin — even one which says that it began with Martin Luther, the famed reformist of the church, who used candles to decorate it as symbols of the light of the world. However, historical references seem to show that it was probably derived from the so-called "paradise tree" that symbolized the Garden of Eden portrayed in German mystery plays in the 16th century.

The widespread use of the Christmas tree in connection with the holiday gained popularity in the early 17th century, spreading throughout Germany, France and northern Europe. In 1841, Albert, prince consort of Queen Victoria, introduced the Christmas tree custom to Great Britain.

The custom had apparently accompanied immigrants to the U.S. where it gained acceptance in the early 19th century. From a family diary, the earliest evidence of an American Christmas tree was recorded on December 20, 1821 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — where a tree was displayed in the German settlement home of Matthew Zahn.²

Santa Claus has been criticized as a counterfeit persona which diverts attention away from the real central figure of Christmas, which is Christ. In reality, Santa is a fictional character, a combination of the Germanic legend of Kriss Kringle, derived from Christkindle, meaning "Christ child," intermingled with the inspiring history of Saint Nicholas in the fourth century. Nicholas was orphaned in his youth by the sudden death of his wealthy Christian parents, and eventually rose to become the bishop of Myra, a coastal town of Lycia (now in Turkey). He was legendary for his generosity and giving of gifts, especially to children. The term, Santa, is another spelling for saint, and Claus was a Dutch pronunciation of the last part of his name, Cholas. Over the years, these interwoven legends of "Santa Cholas" were handed down from one European generation to another.

Eventually Dutch immigrants to America brought their custom of celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, and especially on St. Nicholas eve, when gifts were given to children. British settlers to America later incorporated the tradition as part of their Christmas eve celebration, and Santa Cholas gradually evolved into the embellished image of Santa Claus, who was assimilated into our common Christmas customs.

These secular traditions and others, combined with a very commercialized, materialistic emphasis makes Christmas somewhat less than a pure Christian celebration. However, we realize that our society is filled with many other secular customs in which we all participate. For instance, many of the traditions surrounding a wedding ceremony are based upon non-biblical ideas. Dozens of other social customs, which are common to most Americans, also had their roots in secular beliefs. Merely because a custom is not biblical in origin, doesn't make it evil. It would, however, be inappropriate for a Christian to "substitute" these customs in the place of what Christmas is supposed to represent to us — the birthday of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Regardless of whether Christmas began in New Testament times or not, its origin seems ordained of God. It is the one day of the year when Jesus is spoken of more than any other. It perhaps is the single greatest opportunity to speak about Christ during an entire year, giving an open door to explain his birth — His reason for coming into this world. In my opinion, Christians need not be concerned about secular Christmas customs as long as they don't "secularize Christmas" into the commercial, pagan holiday it has become to the world.

¹ De Trinitate, Augustine
² The Christian Book of Why, John C. McCollister

This article is from the book, What People Ask About the Church, authored and copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2015, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple use permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us. A newer revised version of this book is available from Amazon. If you have appreciated these online materials, help us reach the world with the Gospel by considering a monthly or one-time tax-deductable donation.