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The Pilgrims Wouldn’t Have Wished You a Merry Christmas

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On Thanksgiving we often think about the Pilgrims who came to Massachusetts in 1620 (400 years ago ago this year). Since these settlers came to America for the sake of religious freedom, we might wonder how they celebrated Christmas. Interestingly enough, they didn’t celebrate Christmas at all (it seems they spent December 25, 1620 working on a building). In fact, they banned Christmas celebrations and people who disobeyed would be punished. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, I thought it would be interesting to explore more about the origins of their belief and any implications it might have for us today.

Why Some Christians Have Chosen Not to Celebrate Christmas

Before rejecting someone’s view that you find troublesome or shocking, it’s always good to  understand why they believe what they do. Therefore, it is good to examine the reasons the Pilgrims and others did not celebrate  Christmas. 

First and foremost,there is no direct command in the Bible to gather on the day that marks Jesus’s birth. In the New Testament, we see early Christians gatherings on Sunday (the first day of the week) in honor of the resurrection, but never gathering to mark Jesus’s birth. While some Christians say that unless something is forbidden in the Bible (either directly or indirectly, by implication), it is allowed. Other groups, however, including the Pilgrims, say that we should not do anything unless it is commanded in Scripture. They felt that gathering for worship and celebrating Christmas would be inventing a way of worship and be a form of idolatry; creating man-made, not God-sanctioned forms of worship was what got the people of Israel in trouble and thus to be avoided

Another reason some Christians have not celebrated Christmas is because they view its origins as being connected to various pagan festivals, both in terms of the date and in terms of various traditions found in it. This was a particular objection of the Pilgrims, as Christmas Day had come to be a day in which there was much drunkenness and misconduct in England — it was an excuse to party. Similarly, some Christians today feel that Christmas is so commercialized and can be an excuse for parties that do not reflect godly behaviors.  In addition, some do not believe the birth of Jesus occurred on December 25, so to celebrate at this time of the year would be because Christians were simply accommodating to pagan traditions. 

So Does This Mean We Should Not Celebrate Christmas?

Understanding why the Pilgrims and others who follow in their footsteps do not celebrate Christmas is helpful, but I don’t think it means that Christians should not celebrate Christmas. That said, it is a good reminder that nothing says we are expected/required to celebrate. We must be careful not to judge or demean other Christians who may choose not to have a Christmas worship service or a Christmas celebration. In fact, Paul seems to acknowledge that we can have different views on festival days to observe. (See Romans 14:5-6: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.”) While Paul might be referring to particular Jewish festivals, I think the same principle can be applied to us. Some Christians have a special day in which they celebrate and remember the Incarnation, while others say they do this each time they gather. Neither view is right – or wrong. The key is not to judge others. Nothing in the Bible says that we must gather on Christmas, but nothing is wrong with having extra gatherings and celebrations outside of weekly worship (traditionally the first day of the week) as long the purpose is to honor and glorify God. 

But what about the claim that December is not the time of year in which Jesus was born and that the selection of this date reveals an attempt to synthesize Christianity with pagan religions? There does not seem to a wide consensus on the time of year Jesus was born; the Gospels of Matthew and Luke state that Jesus was born during the time of King Herod (Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5), so we know that it was some time before 4 BC (as that is when Herod the Great died), but it does not mention a specific time of the year. Some believe that shepherds watching their sheep at night points against a December date, as it would be too cold to watch sheep in the winter (however, the climate in the area of Palestine is warmer than what we have in the Midwest). Some think it may have been closer to October and the Jewish Festival of Booths (Sukkoth) because of the reference about the conception of John the Baptist happening shortly after the service of John’s father, Zechariah, as a priest according to the order of Abijah (Luke 1:5-9). and Jesus was conceived six months later. However, there is some question about the precise rotation of priests after the destruction of the first Jewish temple and the desecration of the Second Temple by the ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. Other early Christians thought Jesus might have been born in the spring, close to the day of Passover. So while December 25 might not be Jesus’s birthday, we don’t necessarily have a clear day to offer as an alternative – and this date came to be fairly early on in church history (and the common alternative was January 6, still in the winter). In fact, rather than being a way to bring pagan customs to Christian faith, the selection of a date to celebrate this wonderful truth so close to old pagan holidays may have been a way to show the inadequacy and bankruptcy of these pagan celebrations. These celebrations also point forward to the deep longing we have for God to come and save us (for more on that, see this post from a few years ago). The imagery of this celebration seems fitting, as in the midst of the darkest time of the year, we are reminded that the birth of Jesus brings hope and salvation to His people when we are living in darkness.

In addition, while many Christmas traditions have been hijacked, when we examine the origins of Christmas trees or Santa Claus, we find some really cool stories that point us back to Jesus. The fact that we don’t know the true meaning behind some customs doesn’t mean we should not celebrate them, but rather, that we should explore their origins. If something does not point us to Jesus or points away from the truth of his birth, by all means do not do it. Let’s not lose potential reminders of the truth of Christmas and instead even see how we can transform things of this world to be pointers to Jesus. 

Free to Celebrate Or Not

Hopefully this post has shown that you are free to celebrate Christmas — or not. Whether or not you celebrate isn’t important; what is important is what you believe about the birth of Jesus. Do you believe it really happened? Do you believe that God came in the flesh to save His people from their sins? Do you believe that Jesus has promised to come again? May you answer yes to these questions and ponder their significance for your life and how they affect how you live each and every day.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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