Every year, Christians face questions about the appropriateness of celebrating Christmas and putting up Christmas trees. I think it’s inevitable. The holiday season is problematic for many. Some believe the celebration is terribly tainted with commercialism—stripped of its Christian origin—and they decry the secularization of Christmas. Others believe the celebration is an evil compromise with pagan practices and wish the season’s unholy revelry would cease.
Those who feel the season’s celebration is marred by paganism and protest its observance believe that those who observe the holiday are deceived into following a pagan practice. Such people eschew syncretistic thinking and seek to follow Jesus with all their hearts. Frankly, I don’t care much about the elaborate trappings and festivities of Christmas, but I have succumbed to the customs of giving gifts to my kids, saying “merry Christmas,” and singing carols. My family also sets up a life-size Nativity I built to honor the incarnation rather than holiday gaiety.
I think the claim that Christmas trees are equivalent to idolatrous Canaanite customs, which God forbids, is unwarranted. It seems to me that the meaning behind a Christmas tree is more related to one’s motive and what one is thinking during the holidays than it is to its pagan origins. You don’t have to fear Christmas trees because having one does not make you a practicing pagan—unless you’re bowing down and worshiping it (Jeremiah 10:2-5; 1 Corinthians 8:4). Decorating Christmas trees may be a compromise with secular society, but those who choose to have a tree can give it meaning unlike that found in the secular world.
For many Christians, holidays are times when friends and family come together to celebrate something good. For these Christians, Christmas is typically about remembering the birth of Jesus. It’s about celebrating a world of peace and goodwill for all people everywhere. It represents joyful greetings, gift giving, and happy celebrations with many fond memories of loved ones. Christians are sometimes wary of tradition, but tradition in and of itself is not necessarily evil. God doesn’t condemn family tradition or heritage, only the error and wrongdoing sometimes associated with it.
To engage in holiday revelry and merrymaking, on the other hand, is akin to paganism, so we should not sanction or participate in that. Christians can choose to celebrate this time in ways unlike the rest of the world. Instead of overspending on decorations and presents that people mostly don’t need, we can find ways to help those who are poor and hungry. Keeping things simple and focusing on others is more in keeping with the celebration of Jesus’ humble birth. If we rightly reflect on the presence of Jesus, our presents will better reflect the spirit of His birth.
It is true that many who celebrate Christmas have made the day about everything but the Savior. They make it a day of greed and materialistic gain—expressed in the desire for sparkle and amusement. It’s no act of faith to sacrifice to the gods of consumerism and merchandise. There remains a deep need to simplify our lives and to be more concerned with the Savior than with twinkling lights and glistening baubles.
Since Jesus was not born on December 25, there’s something artificial about Christmas. If we are not careful, its shimmering tinsel and festive displays can replace what actually comes from God. Christmas is nowhere ordained in Scripture, and its customs were once overladen with pagan rites. Christmas today has little to do with worshiping Jesus, so I respect the decision of those who think it’s best to avoid it altogether. We can definitely benefit and learn from one another’s concerns, but in the end, we should not let our disagreements distract us from community. Paul lays down an important principle for Christian conduct: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17, ESV).
Whatever you choose to do during this season, find a way to make the world’s most celebrated day into a time of honoring the Savior who was born into the world. God’s unspeakable gift of Jesus’s birth was a real event that continues to have significance for our world, even if secular society dominates the season. Though Jesus’s birth is unconnected to the date of Christmas, it is fitting that we honor the birth of our Savior during this season or at some other point during the year. Since this is the time when people are most prone to think about Jesus and His birth, I believe it’s a good time to talk about it.
Seek ways to redeem the season by reflecting upon God’s love expressed in the person of Jesus. When we recognize who the babe born in Bethlehem truly is, it makes a sanctifying difference in our lives. It is the union of Jesus with our human nature and with His divine nature that saves us from our sins. We can join in celebration with the angels that appeared on the hills of Bethlehem by living more incarnationally because God still wants to dwell within us.
The baby lying in a manger is not a cute Christmas decoration. He is God in human flesh. Heed the voice of the angels. Come lean over the shoulders of Mary and Joseph and look into the face of the baby lying in the manger. As you look into the face of that little baby—so peaceful, gentle, and kind—see God giving us what we need. This is none other than a face-to-face encounter with God Himself. Rather than holiday presents, let the holy presence of Jesus invade our lives, our homes, and our communities for a most impressive witness to the world.
I pray that you will be blessed this Christmas season as you contemplate God coming into our world to forever embrace us in our humanity.
Craig Ashton Jr.