Celebrating Christ at Christmas – by Pastor Curt Sharbaugh
December 21st is the winter solstice. It’s the darkest day of the year. People have celebrated at this time of year for thousands of years. The Chinese have celebrated the Dongzhi Festival. The Scandinavian and Germanic peoples celebrated the Feast of Juul. There was also the Roman festival, Saturnalia. Their reasons for celebrating vary. Some celebrated because there was an abundance of meat. The people chose to slaughter many of their animals rather than feed them through the sparse winter months. Others were celebrating the return of the light after the solstice as the days began to lengthen again.
Celebration is not a sinful practice. Jesus joined a celebration at the wedding of Cana. He even contributed to it by making more wine when the hosts had irresponsibly run out. It’s good to enjoy the gifts that God gives, just as Paul told Timothy. Others were restricting certain foods and even restricting marriage, and Paul disagreed, saying, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1Timothy 4:4 ESV). Celebrations are not inherently sinful.
Christmas is a time of celebration, and it’s loaded with traditions. It’s not so important where those traditions came from despite the efforts of some who try to ruin Christmas for Christians by claiming that all we do at Christmas time is pagan. Some Christmas traditions likely do come from previous celebrations, but celebrating God’s gift of daylight or feasting with thankful hearts is not wrong simply because pagans did something similar first.
The truth is that God’s people predate paganism. In the Garden of Eden, God’s people enjoyed life without sin. Sin entered and gave birth to pagan worship, but now God is in the process of filling the earth with his people, who will live the way he intended humanity to live. And we can live as God’s holy image-bearers even in the way we celebrate. Our lives can contrast with worldly philosophies and devotion, and the contrast often shows best in the practices we share in common with unbelievers.
There is nothing inherently Christian about giving gifts since Revelation 11:10 describes pagan people exchanging presents. But we can give with Christian attitudes, thinking more about giving than receiving. There’s nothing specifically Christian in decorating trees or baking cookies, but all of God’s gifts can be received and enjoyed with thanksgiving. Christians can enjoy the holidays alongside those who don’t know Christ, and many of the things we do may look very similar. This is a blessing, and not a curse.
Sharing similar practices with the people around you is a great point of contact. We live in this world, even though we are not of this world, because Christ sent us into this world (John 17:13-20). So we practice our faith in the presence of an unbelieving world by God’s design. The uniqueness in Christian practices at Christmas time may be more in our attitudes than in what we’re actually doing. Use what you have in common with the unbelievers around you to make connections—baking Christmas cookies and sharing them with neighbors or giving gifts to those often overlooked by others. This is a time of year when little kindnesses aren’t looked at with suspicion. Take advantage of it.
In addition, there is no need to mount a campaign to force others to keep Christ in Christmas since our goal is not correct Christmas practices but saving faith in Christ. We can certainly encourage our fellow believers to remember Christ at Christmas, but our job is not to conquer unbelievers by force but to be faithful instruments of Christ who conquers by his gospel. So, we shouldn’t sour over signs that read “happy holidays” or “happy Kwanzaa.” Keeping Christ in Christmas is a personal attitude that shows love to the atheist as well as to a fellow believer. Nor should we be persnickety with people who greet us with “happy holidays.” Be winsome not coercive. Smile and respond with the love of Christ. That’s how you celebrate Christ at Christmas in contrast to the other celebrations this time of year.