Points to Ponder Christmas Traditions Why Is Christmas Day on December 25?
by Pastor Dennis Whitmore
Did you know that Christmas almost was banned as a legal holiday? An article by Larry Burkett (Money Matters, Nov. 1995), points out that 15 years ago, the US government was sued for endorsing a “religion” by its sponsorship of Christmas as a legal holiday.
“What an indictment of American Christianity that our Lord’s birth has become a commercial tradition,” says Burkett. And what a shame that Christmas has become more expensive and yet so “cheapened” in the lives of Christians.
It is a great irony that on Christ’s birthday it is very difficult to find a church that’s open. When it fell on Sunday last year, some churches even closed then!
It is an interesting twist of events. In the days of the Roman Empire, the feast of Saturnalia (named for the Nature god, Saturnus) was celebrated from December 17 into the New Year. Being the darkest time of year, when the days were shortest, there was great celebration and revelry in the hope that the sun would be reborn, and come back. It was a time of merriment and gift giving among friends (especially to children); and also a time of wild parties and good times all around, which would have put today’s office Christmas party to shame.
The highlight of this period was the “Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun” on December 25 (according to our calendar). It was the great feast day of the pagan Mithraic religion, a faith which rivaled Christianity in popularity, particularly among the Roman soldiers. Certainly there were other influences, but essentially this period of December was a pagan festival time designated for worshipping the sun god.
In A.D. 354, Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered all Christians to celebrate the birth of the unconquerable Son, Jesus Christ on December 25. It was a deliberate way of Christianizing a pagan holy day. It was called “Christ Mass Day,” or as we now call it, “Christmas Day.”
St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 386) writes, “They called this December 25, the Birthday of the Invincible One (Mithras); but who was so invincible as the Lord? They call it the birthday of the Solar Disc; but Christ is the Son of Righteousness.”
Things have certainly changed, haven’t they? And since the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christians, guess who is charged with changing it back?
We can’t blame “culture” or the “non-believers.” People who don’t believe in Christ and say so are at least honest about it. But those of us who say we know Jesus Christ as Savior and call him Lord are put to the test at this time of year. What will take priority?
And with all the “busy-ness” of this season, what will we choose to cut out of our busy schedule? This is probably the only birthday we celebrate all year in which the “birthday boy” is often not invited and, by some, even forgotten.
It’s time for the Body of Christ to examine and re-examine how we approach this season and consider where our hearts truly lie. And the clergy should lead the way. How many of us make bold speeches before our leaders and mighty sermons toward our people about how we must care for others above ourselves, those who are poor and oppressed, those who are in darkness and gloom because life’s circumstances have crushed them.
I believe the Bible speaks of God’s commands to us to be a light, to point to Christ, and to be different from the world. Christ is supposed to be the center of our churches and our ministries. Yet, how many of us will have our churches locked on Christmas Day?
Like the mall, we’re open late on Christmas Eve and closed on Christmas Day. Where can the poor or the downtrodden, whose pain is magnified that day, turn, if not to the House of God?
And as the former pastor of a three-church charge, who is well aware of how “busy” clergy are, is there one Christ-centered, God-glorifying reason why we can’t spare 45 minutes of our time to gather God’s children on His Son’s birthday to honor Him?
What greater gift is under your tree on Christmas morning than the gift of eternal life for which He spent six hours on a cross to give to you? Think about it.
The Mithraic religion is long gone, but Christ Mass Day lives on! Let’s not give it back to the pagans.
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Whitmore serves God at the First United Methodist Church in Laurel, MD.