[241] The True Meaning of Christmas


Christmas, is it really about Christ? Does it really signify the birth of our Lord and Saviour? For the vast majority of people the question is really no question at all. Is Christmas about Christ "Of course it is! What could be more Christ like than Christmas? Isn't it Jesus’ birthday?" Others have begun to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the celebration of Christmas. When they look at the goings on that takes place around December 25th , there is an uneasy feeling that something is just not right. And yet they keep telling themselves, "Isn't Christmas Jesus' birthday? In my opinion, after deliberating about Christmas, I have come to a very powerful conclusion.

There is nothing “Christian” about Christmas. Christmas is basically and essentially Pagan. If this thought comes as a shock to you, then I invite you to consider other the possibility that for you Christmas is a blind spot that needs some re-examination.

To say that I am not impressed with the sentimental appeal of the “holiday spirit” would be a meaningful gesture. There is a certain appeal about this season of the year, the thought of family gatherings, dreaming of a “White Christmas” as Bing Crosby once wrote about, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," "city streets, busy streets, dressed in festive cheer."  No one with any sentimentality could escape a twinge of nostalgia when there's a feeling of Christmas in the air. Even the most hardened cynic can't stifle a softening childlike feeling of good will that lasts for a few days.

I’ve tried though very hard to understand the true meaning of Christmas, yet no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to grasp the element of trying to put “Christ” back into Christmas. Christmas as we know it today is a product of mass commercialisation, it is a time where people forget the “Christian” aspect and in place add their own version. Well, this is not the case. I have undergone some research into “the true meaning of Christmas” and here in this article I ask you "What is the true meaning of Christmas?" When you get right down to its essence, what is Christmas? Where did it come from? How did it originate? What does it stand for now? The real question is the nature of the institution itself. 

I think you will be shocked if you evaluate the institution of Christmas realistically. What I'm asking you to do is lay aside your cultural prejudices and preferences, and approach this question with an open mind. Granted, that's hard to do. We are so snowed under a century of tradition and nostalgia, that it's almost impossible for some people to look at the issue objectively at all. I'm asking you to put aside your preconceived notions, at least temporarily, to look honestly at this institution we call Christmas. Frankly, this article is calculated to disturb you, to make you think, and to cause you to change your actions if they are not consistent with the truth of the gospel.

I. What is Christmas?

The origin of Christmas? How did it begin? Were its beginnings pagan or Christian? There is no indication in the New Testament that the early Christians observed Christmas at all. It can be demonstrated in church history that, for probably the first 300 years after the birth of Christ, Christians knew nothing of Christmas celebration. It was only as the Church began to drift from apostolic doctrine and practice into corruption that Christmas began.

Where did it come from? Where did the drifting Church get the ideas and customs associated with Christmas today? The source of most of the basic forms of paganism in the ancient world can be traced back to the Babylonian "mysteries." All of the ancient cultures, Egypt, Greece, Rome, even India and China, had beliefs, traditions, practices, gods and goddesses that were related to those found in Babylon. The names were different, and different modifications were added, but basically the ancient religions were related and find their "purest" form in Babylonia. In the Old Testament Babylon stands as the epitome of everything that is godless and perverse. The greatest indignation suffered by God's people for their sins is to be carried away into Babylonian captivity, into the heart of the heathen world.

In the New Testament, Babylon becomes the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Empire corrupted the first true Christian church, and result was what is now called the Roman Catholic Church. Jesus advised his followers to be no part of the world, but his followers concluded a deal with the Roman Empire and became corrupt. The Roman Empire embodied the pagan beliefs and practices of ancient Babylon and is seen as the arch-enemy of God's people. 

What was to be the attitude of God's people toward this "Babylon" of their day? "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues" (Rev. 18:4). But, did God's people hear the warning and separate themselves from Babylon? Well yes. When a command is written in Revelation it is followed, and those in the first church who loved the glory of God more than the glory of man, left it and joined the second church. St Peter was among the. He joined the second church found by St. Paul in 79Nisan. 

But those who remained in the new Babylon, the Roman Catholic church, the mother of all of the harlot churches continually compromised with Rome and became contaminated with pagan corruption. In 313 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly adopted the Christian faith and declared it to be the official religion of his realm. His embracing the Christian Church proved detrimental to true Christianity. Constantine retained the traditional pagan titles, and his coins still bore the figures and names of the old Roman Gods.

This corrupted Church over time became "the Roman Catholic Church" and its method was compromise with paganism in order to gain numbers to the congregation. Ever since, the Roman Catholic way of converting pagans to its style of worship has been to absorb them gradually, along with their idolatrous observances. The church was content to swell the number of nominal adherents by meeting paganism halfway. There were some valiant voices of protest who bitterly lamented the inconsistency of this approach, but their voices were raised in vain.

The Roman church has continued the same approach until this day. It can be seen particularly in Central and South America, where idols have simply been replaced with statues of the saints. Some of their names and traditions have even been combined. Roman Catholic churches in these countries are often opened to the Indians for the worship of their animistic gods.

How then did we receive our holidays (holy days) with their customs and traditions _ Christmas as well as Easter, Halloween, and Mardi Gras? Each of them has come to us from ancient Babylon, through Rome, through the Roman Catholic church.

It was for this very reason that in the city of Geneva in Switzerland in Calvin's day you could have been fined or imprisoned for celebrating Christmas. It was at the request of the Westminster Assembly that the English Parliament in 1644 passed an act forbidding the observance of Christmas, calling it a heathen holiday. In an appendix to their "Directory for the Public Worship of God" the Westminster divines said: "There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord's day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called 'Holy-days', having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued."

When the Puritans came to America they passed similar laws. The early New Englanders worked steadily through December 25, 1620, in studied neglect of the day. About 40 years later the General Court of Massachusetts decreed punishment for those who kept the season: "...anyone who is found observing, by abstinence from labour, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas Day, shall pay for every such offence five shillings."

It was not until the 19th century that Christmas had any religious significance in Protestant churches. Even as late as 1900, Christmas services were not held in Southern Presbyterian churches. The pcus General Assembly of 1899 declared: "There is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holidays, rather the contrary (see Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:16-21), and such observance is contrary to the principles of the Reformed faith, conducive to will-worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

II. The History of Christmas

What then is the history of Christmas?  The ignoble nature of the origins and customs of Christmas can be found in many standard reference sources; therefore, we will not dwell on them in great detail. It is appropriate, however, to mention a few highly significant facts pertaining to the origins behind Christmas.

Evidence points to the fourth century as the time when Christmas celebration began. Records covering the first three centuries of New Testament church history mention an increasing significance given to the period from Passover to Pentecost; yet, evidence is lacking to prove any celebration regarding the Saviour’s birth.

In the middle of the third century, Origin gives a list of fasts and festivals which were observed in his time, and no mention is made of Christmas. The lack of such testimony supports the conclusion that no celebration was then observed.

Although there was no Christmas observance at this time, there were various pagan celebrations held in conjunction with the winter solstice.

In Scandinavia, the great feast of Yule with all its various ceremonies, had celebrated the birth of the winter sun-god. In the Latin countries there reigned Saturnalia, a cult of the god Saturn. The date December 25, coincided also with the birth of Attis, a Phrygian cult of the sun-god, introduced into Rome under the Empire. The popular feasts attached to the births of other sun-gods such as Mithras, were also invariably celebrated at the time of the winter solstice.

The transition from festivals commemorating the birth of a sun god to a celebration ostensibly for the Son of God occurred sometime in the fourth century. Unable to eradicate the heathen celebration of Saturnalia, the Church of Rome, sometime before 336 AD, designated a Feast of the Nativity to be observed.

Many of the customs associated with Christmas also took their origins from the heathen observances. The exchanging of gifts, extravagant merriment, and lighting of candles all have previous counterparts in the Roman Saturnalia. The use of trees harkens back to the pagan Scandinavian festival of Yule.

This process of assimilation is characteristic of Roman Catholicism throughout the centuries. Within Roman Catholicism, there is no policy designed to eradicate such heathen practices; rather, the general practice is to foster assimilation by replacing pagan superstitions with similar ecclesiastical institutions. An example of this policy is illustrated by a letter which Pope Gregory wrote to Abbot Mellitus on how to order things in Britain (AD 606):

The temples of the idols among the people should on no account be destroyed. The idols themselves are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God. And since they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of Dedication or Festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there. On such occasion they might well construct shelters of boughs for themselves around the churches that were once temples, and celebrate the solemnity with devout feasting.

This is quite a program! The church is encouraged to give the pagans ecclesiastical relics, rites, ceremonies, and festive celebrations as a substitute for their heathen ones. This policy differs greatly from the conduct of the children of God who cut down sacred groves, destroyed the remnants of idolatry, or burned their heathen books in order to make a clean break with pagan ways (Ex. 34:13; Deut. 12:2-4, 29-32; 2Kings 18:4; Acts 19:19).

The theory of conquest through assimilation is only too apparent in an examination of Christmas. A casual glance will show how the holiday incorporates heathen observances on a world-wide scale. Each culture seems to have its own local "contribution" to the celebration of Christmas. The serious question for the Christian is this: Are we not commanded, "Learn not the way of the heathen" (Jer. 10:2)?

Along with Rome's direct infusion of paganism, the papal church has added some novelties of its own. The principal perversion is the celebration of the Mass. Since the middle ages, the concept of transubstantiation has been an integral part of Popish worship. Roman Catholics contend that the communion elements are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ, in order to offer a re -sacrifice of Christ ­ a sacrifice which is said to possess propitiatory merits. The Mass is a blasphemous assault upon the finality and perfection of Christ's sacrifice on the cross of Calvary (Cf. Heb. 9:12, 24-26; 10:10-14).

The Mass is the pre-eminent feature of Christmas celebration. "In the Roman Catholic Church three masses are usually said to symbolise the birth of Christ eternally in the bosom of the Father, from the womb of Mary and mystically in the soul of the faithful.

The concept of the Mass is embedded in the English term Christmas, its etymology being traced to the Old English words Christes maesse, meaning "the mass or festival of Christ."

Because of its pagan and papal associations, Christmas met strong objections during and after the Protestant Reformation. This opposition was especially forceful among Presbyterians.

III. Opposition to the Celebration of Christmas

The celebration of Christmas seemed to be opposed by many, some of these dated back to the early days of the sixteenth century. This was the case in the city of Geneva. The Register of Ministers in Geneva (1546) records a list of "faults which contravene the Reformation." Among the directives regarding "Superstitions" is the following: "Those who observe Romish festivals or fasts shall only be reprimanded, unless they remain obstinately rebellious. "

On Sunday, 16 November 1550, an edict was issued concerning holidays; it was a decree "respecting the abrogation of all festivals, with the exception of Sundays, which God had ordained. "

This ban on festival days (including Christmas) caused an uproar in certain quarters, and Calvin was reproached as the instigator of the action.

Calvin's personal writings about holidays, in this instance, are somewhat ambiguous. He says he was not directly involved in the decision. In personal correspondence with John Haller (pastor in Berne), Calvin writes, "Before I ever entered the city, there were no festivals but the Lord's day." He added, "If I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favour of what has now been agreed upon.”

It seems that Calvin was initially uneasy about the edict to ban the festivals, because he feared that the "sudden change" might provoke tumult which could impede the course of the Reformation. Nevertheless, in the same letter to Haller, Calvin says, "Although I have neither been the mover nor instigator to it, yet, since it has so happened, I am not sorry for it."

King James I

Another of those who strongly opposed Christmas was King James I . When King James took the English throne, he disallowed Presbyterianism and became an advocate of the Anglican Church government, because it was more compatible with his notions of monarchy.

At the Assembly of Perth, in 1617, the king sought to impose various ceremonies designed to enhance the Episcopal cause. The liturgical impositions included receiving communion in a kneeling position, private administration of the sacraments, Episcopal confirmation, and the observance of Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide, and the Ascension. Scottish ministers resisted this action, with a supplication against all points of the program.

David Calderwood (1575-1651) represents the firm opposition given by faithful Scottish ministers. He issued a pointed critique of the Perth Assembly, published in 1619, in which he attacked these innovations in worship that were imposed upon the Church of Scotland.  In a section on festival days, Calderwood asserts that only God has the prerogative "to appoint a day of rest and to sanctify it to his honour." Under the law of God, no one presumed to appoint holy days "but God, and that either by Himself, or by some extraordinary direction. "

Moreover, the anniversary days prescribed by God "pertained to the ceremonial law; but so it is that the ceremonial law is abolished. The anniversary days were distinguished from the moral Sabbath;" only the ordinary (weekly) Sabbath remains. "The moral use of the ordinary Sabbath was for the service of God in general both private and public. The mystical use [of the anniversary days] was to be a memorial of things bypast, and a shadow of things to come. The moral use endures, the mystical uses are vanished." "The Judaical days had once that honour, as to be appointed by God himself; but the anniversary days appointed by men have not the like honour."

Calderwood continues, "If it had been the will of God that the several acts of Christ should have been celebrated with several solemnities, the Holy Ghost would have made known to us the day of his nativity, circumcision, presentation in the temple, baptism, transfiguration, and the like." "This opinion of Christ's nativity on the 25th day of December was bred at Rome." He then exposes some of the preposterous Romish claims made for the 25th day of December as the day of Christ's birth; and he notes inconsistent claims, made in previous centuries, for other dates on the calendar, as the day of the Saviour’s nativity.

"The diversity of the ancients observing some the 6th day of January, some the 19th day of April, some the 19th of May, some the 25th day of December, argues that the Apostles never ordained it." "You see then as God hid the body of Moses, so has he hid this day, and other days depending on the calculation of it, wherein he declared his will concerning the other days of his notable acts: to wit, that not Christ's action, but Christ's institution makes a day holy." "Nay, let us utter the truth, December-Christmas is a just imitation of the December-Saturnal of the ethnic [heathen] Romans, and so used as if Bacchus, and not Christ, were the God of Christians."

"It is commonly objected, that we may as well keep a day for the nativity, as for the resurrection of Christ. We have answered already, that Christ's day, or the Lord's Day, is the day appointed for remembrance of his nativity, and all his action and benefits, as well as for the resurrection."

Further, says Calderwood, even supposing that the keeping of holy days was initially indifferent, the festival days must now be abolished, because "they are abused and polluted with superstition." Indeed, the brazen serpent was originally constructed by God's express command; yet it was destroyed when it became a snare to the people of God (2 Kings 18:4). How much more, then, should we discard man-made observances which are additionally contaminated with Romish superstition and idolatry.

IV. Other Opposed Views

We have seen that Presbyterian opposition to Christmas is consistent, historical, and based upon solid scriptural considerations. Yet, Presbyterians were not the only persons who maintained a strong stand against Christmas and kindred corruptions of worship; there were other Christians who held a similar convictions. For example, the famous Baptist preacher Charles H. Spurgeon opened a sermon on 24 December 1871 with the following words:

“We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Saviour; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority.”

V. Concluding Thoughts

A few final words remain for those who claim to be “Christians”. The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy.

A consistent application of Reformed and Presbyterian principles of worship requires the repudiation of Christmas. Answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism forbids "any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself.”

The issue is not a matter of indifference. Since Christmas was not instituted by God, it should not be approved or tolerated in the official practices of the Church. Ministers and church officers are not being true to their ordination vows, if they encourage or tolerate Christmas observance in their congregations.

Moreover, the obligation to protect our families from corrupt worship resides with all heads of households. We must strive to follow the example of Abraham, who received a commendation from the Lord: "I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord" (Gen. 18:19).

At the outset of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox issued the following charge to the heads of households:

You are ordained of God to rule your own houses in his true fear, and according to his Word. Within your own houses, I say, in some cases, you are bishops and kings; your wife, children, servants, and family are your bishopric and charge; of you it shall be required how carefully and diligently you have always instructed them in God's true knowledge, how that you have studied in them to plant virtue and repress vice.

Of course, there are always those who agree "in principle," but offer lame excuses for their reticence to apply their beliefs to their actions. To such men, the words of Gillespie stand as an appropriate exhortation:

Do not reckon it enough to bear within the enclosure of your secret thoughts a certain dislike of the ceremonies and other abuses now set afoot, except both by profession and action you evidence the same, and show your faith by your fact. We are constrained to say to some among you, with Elijah, "How long halt ye between two opinions?" and call unto you with Moses, "Who is on the Lord's side? Who?" "Be not deceived: God is not mocked." And, "No man can serve two masters.

To all readers, this study is presented with the hope that it will foster a desire to maintain the purity of scriptural worship, in service to the living God. May the Church be liberated from the corrupting influences which destroy the spiritual vitality of her worship; and may a zealous concern for our worship flow from a desire to glorify almighty God Jehovah and the only begotten God, his son, Jesus Christ.