It is that time of year again when we celebrate what is called Christmas. One does not forget this day because the world will not let us forget. We are shown and encouraged to buy Christmas gifts already in the middle of summer. Christmas, for all practical purposes, has become a secular holiday devoid of any spiritual significance. This brings us to the question as to what really is the origin, meaning, and purpose of the observance of Christmas.
The church did not always celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ by observing a particular day. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that we cannot determine with any certainty the exact date of Christ’s birth either from evidence in the Scriptures or from any sound tradition. Historical authorities place the time that Christmas was first celebrated somewhere in the middle of the fourth century. December 25 was chosen because, in the opinion of some, the universe was created on the vernal equinox, reckoned in the Julian calendar as March 25. Similar habits of thought would make the beginning of the new creation, the inception of the incarnation, fall on the same day, and therefore Christ’s birth on the winter solstice, December 25. This date was a heathen festival day celebrating the birthday of the Mithraic Sol Invictus, the Sun-god. This. was the day in which the unconquered sun, after the winter solstice, broke the growing power of darkness, and began anew his heroic career.
It is easily seen, then, how this heathen festival was turned into a Christian holiday. Christmas is the birthday of Christ, the Sun of righteousness, the Light of the world. Thus, according to St. Cyprian and St. John Chrysostom, the church grasped the opportunity to turn the people away from a purely pagan observance of the winter solstice to a day of adoration of Christ the Lord. Although Christmas was celebrated since the fourth century, it was not always called by that name. The word Christmas means Christ’s Mass and was first used in England in the eleventh century. In German the word is Weihnacht (holy night) while the Dutch has Kerstmis (yule mass). The latter reveals a direct connection with the old heathen festival, for the word yule comes from the Anglo-Saxon geol which was a feast, particularly the feast of the winter solstice.
In light of the above facts we may begin to question ourselves as to whether or not there is any Biblical root for the celebration or commemoration of Christmas. The ancient church was not agreed on the answer and neither were the churches of the Reformation. The Puritans, for example, condemned the celebration and, from 1642 to 1652, issued a series of ordinances forbidding all church services and festivities. This feeling was carried over from England to America by the Pilgrims and it was not until the nineteenth-century wave of Irish and German immigration that enthusiasm for the feast began to spread throughout the country. This caution is more than likely due to the fact that Scripture neither enjoins nor forbids such a celebration, and from the fear of falling into the practice of observing all kinds of holy days as was the prevalent practice of the Roman Catholic church.
What, then, is the meaning and purpose of Christmas observance? Does its value lie in the keeping of a day? Certainly not, for if its value were in the keeping of the day, God in His infinite wisdom would surely have made known unto us the exact day on which Christ was born. The regarding of a day as holy in itself or better than another day is condemned by Scripture, as seen in Paul’s letter to, the Galatians in chapter 4 verse 10. The Galatians had fallen under the influence of the Judaizers and were going back to the bondage of the law by observing days, months, times, and years. Certainly, then, the value of the celebration of Christmas does not lie in the observance of the day itself.
Rather, the value lies in its special attention to one of the wonders of grace. In this case it draws attention to the wonder of God’s grace with respect to the incarnation of the Word. We celebrate or commemorate the wonder of God’s grace with respect to Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. None of these would have any meaning for us if Christ first had not been born. This does not mean that we exclude attention to the incarnation at other times. No, this must be the heart of every sermon preached. Without the incarnation of the Word there is no salvation for us and no good news in the gospel. But a celebration of the birth of Christ does serve specifically to point to the wonder of the Word made flesh just as the observance of Good Friday and Easter point specifically to the death and resurrection of our Lord. So the observance of Christmas certainly has spiritual value for the true child of God.
Granted that the meaning and purpose have been established, we may distinguish various phases of such observances, first of all, in and by the church. Article 67 of our Church Order reads:
“The Churches shall observe, in addition to the Sunday, also Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, the Day of Prayer, the National Thanksgiving Day, and Old and New Year’s Day.”
This is a complete turnabout from what such early Reformers as Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox thought. It was their conviction that festival days were not ordained by God, but were a human invention which minimized Sunday and led to paganistic celebrations and promoted licentiousness. Thus, the Synod of Dordt, 1574, discouraged the observance of all other days than Sunday. This soon changed, however. Monsma and Van Dellen in The Church Order Commentary, page 274, write:
“The Synod of Dordt, 1578, Article 75, declared in substance that it would be desirable to celebrate Sunday only according to God’s ordinance. But, inasmuch as Christmas Day and the day following upon Christmas, as well as the days following upon Easter and Pentecost and in some places also New Year’s Day, and Ascension Day were legal holidays by authority of the governments, the Ministers should preach appropriately on these days in order to turn a fruitless and harmful idleness (lediggang) into a holy and profitable exercise.”
Since then subsequent Synods have revised and changed the article till it now reads as found in our Church Order which was redacted in 1914.
In this way the Church Order declares that Christmas Day must be observed by us as churches. This implies official worship services which have as their center the official, authoritative, and pure preaching of the Word of God. Other than that, our Church Order does not specify how nor to what extent we must observe Christmas. This would lead us to ask ourselves whether or not we as churches are observing this day in the best possible way, or whether there is room for improvement. We know that as long as we are pilgrims here upon this earth we are not and will not become perfect. We must strive always to better both our institutional and personal lives. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit we must seek to glorify God more and more. Certainly we must not give way to what so many churches, even those of Reformed persuasion, are doing: replacing the preaching of the Word by programs of Christmas songs and pageantry and similar ways of celebration. These programs of song are not evil in themselves and surely can be a means whereby our hearts are lifted up, but they must never take the place of the proclamation of the gospel. Christmas observance without preaching is giving way to the anti-Christ and his father the devil, who are continually trying to lead us away from the Captain of our salvation.
The same thing is true within our covenant homes and schools. We must guard against a pagan observance which is pushed upon us by every means available to the wicked world. It is indeed proper to accompany such a celebration with feasting and rejoicing and making merry. The Christian does not need to walk about on this earth with a long, sad face. He, of all people, is the most happy because of the lovingkindness of God made manifest to him by God’s gift to His own, manifest especially in the incarnation and subsequent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. And he may express that Scriptural and spiritual joy outwardly as well as inwardly. To do this we do not have to join the drunken reveling of this wicked world. No, we may feast, rejoice, and make merry as long as in so doing we can always answer affirmatively the question of whether we are glorifying the name of our Lord God. Then we will not fall into the vice of licentiousness, but rather will praise God. This is the end unto which we were formed by God.
This same principle of God’s glory will also govern our use of many customs that are connected with Christmas, such as Christmas trees, decorations, gift giving, etc. The origin of most of these customs is pagan, but their origin should not have to affect our use of them. The danger; of course, is always present that these externals become all-important. This is the case with the world and the apostate church. All the emphasis is upon the giving of gifts, not to show the mercy of Christ, but to extol a benevolent human society governed by the notion of good works. To stay free of this horrible error we must constantly tight, instructing our children as to the real significance of Christmas. This is not always so easy to do, for our children are bombarded from every side by the ideas of the world. But we must not give up and say that it is no use, that it is hopeless anyway. This is one of the burdens which God has placed upon us to strengthen us for the battle of faith. Such burdens are always accompanied by sufficient grace to bear that burden, as only a child of God can. May we in this Christmas season exercise our Christian liberty not as the Antinomians, unto licentiousness that grace may abound, but in the freedom of Jesus Christ, to glorify the name of our God by confessing the name of Jesus Christ over against the wicked world’s Santa Claus.