Did God invent Christmas? The modern-day Christmas festival, like most such cultural phenomena, is a confusing mishmash of elements and influences. How should fathers sort out and celebrate this holiday ‘Christianly” with his family?
Did God Start This?
Did God invent Christmas? God did send the Son to take on flesh that He might live, die, and rise for us. But did God establish the Christmas holiday? True, it’s called Christmas because of the long, long tradition of celebrating Christ’s incarnation in December. But did God institute this annual celebration of Christ’s incarnation and birth as an act of Christian obedience?
If we are honest, we must answer this series of questions (even if a little sheepishly), “No.” When the last page of the canon was penned, there was no Christmas festival to be found in Holy Writ. Jesus did establish one simple feast to commemorate His broken body and shed blood: the Lord’s Supper. Yet featuring His birth in a special festival, as edifying as it may be, is not a tenet of Christian obedience.
If and how we celebrate Christmas in 2021 is, therefore, a matter of Christian conscience, on which believers are free to differ with one another but must be “fully persuaded in [their] own minds” (Romans 14:5). God didn’t invent Christmas or command it.
What is Christmas?
But for most of our families, Christmas in some form is part of our winter experience each year. As Christians, we should think carefully about how to keep Christmas well. Should we keep it? What should we keep of it? In order to answer these important questions, our first challenge will be to define this holiday. If it’s not a divinely ordained festival, what is Christmas, exactly?
A favorite answer of Christmas’s Christian detractors has been that the holiday’s ancient pagan roots still define it today. While continuing scholarship has cast doubt on that assertion, I believe this origin-centric style of cultural disparagement misses the point. While origins may shed some light on current cultural phenomena (like Christmas), these products always meet us in the here-and-now. Cultural connotations can shift in emphasis and even in essence.1 So the question, “What did it mean for their society, then?” is much less useful for us than, “What does it mean in our society now?” Answering the first is easy but impractical; answering the second is more pertinent but also more complicated.
If we assess Christmas as a whole, in our own cultural moment, we have to admit that the wonderful fact of Jesus’ birth is only one of many reasons for the season as it stands in society. That doesn’t mean the extras are all bad—or all good. But they’re all in there: rustic winter nostalgia, gift-exchange traditions, family feasting, the whole Christmas tree thing, and lots of lights. All of that is Christmas, like it or not.
A Pile of Spaghetti
The modern-day Christmas festival, like most such cultural phenomena, is a confusing mishmash of elements and influences not unlike first century festivals that caused such quarrels in the early church. (See Romans 14.) You can imagine how quarrels would arise.
Which elements of [insert festival] are tainted with “all that is in the world…passing away” (1 John 2:16–17)? What part of the holiday can you “clean up” and re-invent for Christians? What aspects are fine just as they are? What aspects are entirely unredeemable?
Can I go Black Friday Christmas shopping, or is that materialism? What about Santa? Can I hang Christmas lights? Do I have to mentally connect Christmas lights to Jesus’ birth or the Bible? Can I enjoy cocoa just because? Is it OK to sing about Jesus being born in winter, because technically… What a mess! All of this is kind of like trying to analyze individual noodles when what we’re actually handed is a plate of spaghetti. This cultural complexity is precisely why believers analyzing the same cultural products will disagree on what to do with them.
“Every [created thing] is good.”
So the easy solution when we spot in the pile several “noodles” obviously connected to our faith in Christ (the Nativity story and images) is to assume they’re the only noodles we are allowed to enjoy.
Many of us tacitly assume that the Christian’s holy task each December is to purge—or at least, demote—the non-sacred elements from our observance of Christmas. Or, if we do keep our lights, gifts, and Christmas trees, we must be sure to make a clear Nativity connection to “sanctify” them.
Yet Paul presents another approach in 1 Timothy 4–5. First, he warns Timothy that one hallmark of a certain kind of false teacher is to forbid the enjoyment of good things (marriage and meat, to be precise) that God intends us to “receive with thanksgiving.” Paul then expands the principle. What “sanctifies” any “created thing” for a Christian, he says, is our active gratitude to God for it. Paul is encouraging us to replace the categories of “sacred” or “secular” with “sanctified.”
Sanctifying Christmas for Your Family
Which brings us to the right question: “What aspects of the Christmas festival can I receive and enjoy with thanksgiving to God?” While a discerning study of the modern Christmas festival will certainly reveal some things we should dismiss or reject, I do believe there are many noodles in this pile of spaghetti that God intends His children to enjoy “with thanksgiving and prayer.” (You are free in good conscience to disagree.) There’s a lot a Christian can keep when it comes to Christmas.
So how can you, head of your household, “keep Christmas” well with your family? Here are some principles, with a few personal ideas mixed in.
Reject materialism. Give meaningful gifts.
Probably the worst thing about Christmas these days is the commercialization of nostalgia to fuel retailer profits. They want you to associate “that Christmas feeling” with buying presents—from their store, of course. I suspect most of you can spot the commercial aspects of Christmas. But it’s easy to get sucked in and equate quantity with generosity. Whatever your family’s unique “recipe” of the elements of Christmas, purchasing extravagant gifts probably ought not be the primary ingredient. Talk through a restrained gift budget with your wife well before the hype takes over the aisles and airwaves. Then consider how spend your allocated funds on fewer gifts for your family and loved ones that are personal and meaningful.
Extend Thanksgiving through the passing of the year.
Our family has found it edifying to think of Thanksgiving as the first in a grand trilogy of holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year) in which we annually celebrate the goodness of God to us. This celebration is made all the sweeter by remembering Christ as God’s greatest gift, through whom we enjoy all the rest to their fullest (Romans 8:32). Standard Christmas traditions really can take you on a tour of God’s good gifts. Here are just a few you can sanctify along the way “with thanksgiving and prayer” as a family:
- Work & Rest – Thank God for your job, but also for the time off to rest over the holidays. Both are His gifts.
- Passing Seasons – God’s mercy is evident in the passing of the seasons (Genesis 8:22). Let the beauty of snow, the warmth of fire, and the glow of candles after early sunsets remind you of God’s faithfulness each day and each passing year.
- Feasting – Good food and merriment are part of God’s good creation! Enjoy the merry meals and laughter, the parties and silly games. “This, too, is from the Lord” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).
- Family & Friendship – You will likely spend a bit more time with your family and friends this month; and you’ll consider them as you purchase and give your gifts. Thank God for them, and express verbally your love for them and the important place they hold in your life.2
Make first-hand family memories.
Christmas songs are full of nostalgic references to activities most of us never experience. It’s true that few of us have access to a “one-horse open sleigh” or a fireplace at which to roast chestnuts. But how many of us actually go hear “[Christmas] carols being sung by a choir” and “dress up like Eskimos” to, literally, “walk out in that “winter wonderland”—and even build a snowman?
Find ways to make some real-life memories with your family. Don’t just listen to them in a song or see them referenced in the ads. There are wholesome ways to decorate your home and interact with winter weather that build family culture and make much of God’s good world.
Alter your household to remember God’s faithfulness.
Remember the Sabbath Weeks of the Mosaic Law? I love in particular the Festival of Booths, in which Jewish families altered their living conditions to remember the goodness of God. Each year, we adorn our household again. The glow and sparkle help us see and enjoy anew the material and familial blessings God has lavished our household.
Remember Christ’s birth.
Am I saying Christians should downplay the sacred aspect of the holiday? Not at all.
Why wouldn’t you let this season encourage you to meditate on the early chapters of the Gospels? What better time than Christmas to begin a season of meditation on the life of Jesus which culminates in His saving work—which we celebrate on Easter? Why not remember in your gift-exchanging the Gift of God we could never repay?
In this and so many other ways, we can choose as Christian families to “observe [Christmas] for the honor of the Lord” (Romans 14:6). We can keep Christmas to the glory of God.
Trace, for instance, the piano’s complex cultural journey from the classical performance hall, to the raunchy night club, to the musical preference for evangelistic and revival meetings, to the leading instrument of choice for “traditional” churches. The instrument’s associative meaning evolved through many settings with varied moral connotations. ↩
Be sure you don’t forget your family in Christ, too—especially those who may not have close biological families. They are part of God’s “family blessings” to you, as well. ↩