I am often asked about the biblical truth or perspective of Christmas around this time of year. There are those who want nothing to do with the celebrations of Christmas because they see the celebration as unbiblical. Yes, many people say that December 25th was the day on which some ancient people celebrated the winter solstice or the ancient Roman sun god, Sol Invictus. They say that Jesus wasn’t really born on this day, but that the Catholic Church invented the birth of Jesus on December 25th in order to baptize a pre-existing pagan holiday. On the other hand, others feel absolutely sure that Jesus was born on December 25th because of the traditions of the early church. Several Christians hold the middle ground. “It doesn’t really matter when Jesus was born, anyway,” some say with a shrug. “This is just the day on which we choose to honor it.” One curious individual asked, “Was Jesus born on December 25th, and if He wasn’t born on December 25th, then is it still wrong to celebrate the holiday?”
Some of the early church writers such as Hippolytus of Rome (170–235 A.D.) and Theophilus (115–181 A.D.), the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, claim Decembers 25th as the day on which Christ was born (Gretchen Filz, “Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem on December 25th?” The Catholic Company, 2020. https://www.catholiccompany.com/magazine/jesus-bethlehem-december-25th-5956#:~:text=Yes%2C%20many%20people%20say%20that%20December%2025th%20was,in%20order%20to%20%22baptize%22%20a%20pre-existing%20pagan%20holiday.). However, others like Clement of Rome picked November 18th (Jeffery Sheler,“In Search of Christmas,” U.S. News & World Report, 1996. https://www.ucg.org/the-good-news/biblical-evidence-shows-jesus-christ-wasnt-born-on-dec-25#comments). The Chronography of A.D. 354 contains the earliest evidence in history for celebrating December 25th as a Christian liturgical feast for the birth of Christ. The Western Roman Christian Church (Catholics) established the date. The date was then finalized for the universal Church by Pope Julius I in 350 A.D. (Filz, “Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem on December 25th?”). The date was later adopted by the Eastern Orthodox Church in coordination with their previously established Epiphany (the eastern liturgical feast celebrating the birth of Christ on January 6th). While some evidence suggest that the date existed as the date of Jesus’ birth before the Catholics sought to baptize a pagan holiday, there remains no real consensus with the early church as to when Jesus was born.
The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has also continually evolved since the holiday’s inception, ranging from a sometimes raucous, drunken, carnival-like state in the Middle Ages, to a tamer family-oriented and children-centered theme introduced in the 19th-century holiday reformations that began in New York City by such individuals as Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, and Thomas Nast. Additionally, the celebration of Christmas was banned on more than one occasion within certain Protestant groups, such as the Puritans, due to concerns that it was too pagan or unbiblical. In spite of the controversial celebration in early American history, Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States on June 26, 1870.
When examining scripture, no verse specifies on what day Christ was born. We know that shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:7-8). Shepherds were not in the fields during December. According to Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, Luke’s account “suggests that Jesus may have been born in summer or early fall. Since December is cold and rainy in Judea, it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night” (p. 309). Similarly, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary says this passage argues “against the birth [of Christ] occurring on Dec. 25 since the weather would not have permitted” shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night.
When examining further biblical thoughts, Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). Such censuses were likely not taken in winter, when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition. Taking a census under such conditions would have been self-defeating.
Christians should remember that all religious aspects of life in practice and teaching must be done by the authority of Christ (Col. 3:17, 1 Peter 4:11). Paul warns the church in Galatia of regarding special days or times as “holy days” (Gal. 4:9-11), which is where the word “holiday” is derived. There is nothing in the Bible mentioning Christmas or worship for the birth of Christ. Christ told His followers to remember His death on the first day of the week through the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-25; Acts 20:7); this is how Christians are authorized to remember Christ, as He specified (Mat. 26:26-28)! Christ never authorized a religious time set aside for His birth. Truth be told, Christians should celebrate Christ’s birth everyday (John 3:16)!
Paul authorized the recognition of esteemed days that were set aside for cultural or traditional practices in Romans 14:5: “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” In connection with the context mentioned in verses 3-4, these special days were not to be bound on others as religious, and brethren were not to look down on those that elected not to participate in the esteemed days, and those that did not participate were not to judge those who did participate (Rom. 14:3, 21-22).
Is it wrong to celebrate Christmas? No, not as long as one is not binding or celebrating its observance as Christ’s birth but are simply celebrating it as a cultural day in which families have fun together. The fact remains, if believers say Christmas should be celebrated as a religious ceremony authorized by God, they are teaching the commandments of men (Mat. 15:9), but if they celebrate it as a special day reserved for family, friends, and generosity, they esteem the day as nothing more than joyful (Rom. 14).