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The History of Christmas

A great number of people in our country have been taught for years that the birthday of our Lord is on December 25th. They have been taught that people must celebrate it in some form or fashion each year in order to please God. However, does the Bible teach us to celebrate the birthday of Christ on December 25th, or any other day of the year? The Bible teaches that all we do and say must be in accordance with the will of God (1 Peter 4:11; Colossians 3:17). Therefore, where has the Bible revealed that man celebrate the birth of Christ? If something has been said about it, what does the Bible reveal is necessary for the appropriate celebration of the Lord’s birth? Some people will attend special “church services,” masses, and the like on December 25th, others will do nothing. I know some who have decorated birthday cakes which said, “Happy Birthday Jesus” on it, and other such things. What is the truth? Are we to celebrate the Lord’s birth as some type of “holy day”? Let us spend some time in God’s book, and learn what the Bible says about our remembering Christ, as well as examine some misconceptions about Christmas.

The Wise Men

Many believe that there were three wise men that came to visit Jesus at His birth. Any “nativity scene” you see will portray three wise men standing around looking at a baby lying in a manger. People assume that there were three wise men present within a few minutes or hours of the birth of Christ, since this is what the majority of the world has said over the years. Yet, Matthew 2:11 reveals that the wise men came into the house…” and not the stable! J.W. McGarvey (The Fourfold Gospel, p. 42-43) shows by the Bible and historical records that Jesus was no less than 40 days old by the time the wise men worshipped Him and presented the gifts. This is because Luke’s account of Christ’s birth shows that after our Lord’s birth, Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice (Luke 2:22-24). It was upon their return from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, that the wise men came and found Jesus (Matthew 2:9-11).

As we continue to study this account, we see that in Matthew 2:16, Herod began killing “all the children that were in Bethlehem … from two years old and under.” Why is this? If the wise men had talked with Herod the exact day of our Lord’s birth (vs. 1-2), as is assumed by many, why would he then kill so many older children? If they were there the very day of the Lord’s birth, why did not Herod simply kill the newborns? Yet, he killed all babies two years old and under. This is further proof that the wise men came at a later time, not the day of our Lord’s birth. A good rule we ought to apply to all aspects of Bible study is that we need to stay away from teachings that are based on speculation!

Many assume something else about these men, and that is that there were three wise men in number who worshipped the Lord. It is assumed that since three gifts were brought to Jesus (“gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” Matthew 2:11), there must have been three wise men. A casual reading of Matthew 2:1-12 will show that this reasoning is faulty. We read about “wise men,” but are never told how many there were (Matthew 2:1, 7). The number of gifts has nothing to do with the number of wise men. There could have been many more there, or just two. A modern example of this would be if a parent said, “My child got a board game, some clothes, and a toy truck for his birthday.” Does that mean only three people gave him gifts for his birthday? Of course, not! If we can understand the concept here, we need to apply this same reasoning when studying the birth of our Lord. Matthew just mentions “wise men,” and the number of gifts has nothing to do with the number of people present. Therefore, the “nativity scene” so popular today is wrong in having three wise men standing around looking at the baby, for they were no where near that place. Nor do we know the number of wise men present. All we know is that there was a plurality of men looking for the Lord, and they found him “in the house” (Matthew 2:11). Upon finding Him, “the King of the Jews,” they “fell down and worshipped him” (Matthew 2:2, 11).

As we simply study this aspect of our Lord’s birth, if we see that men got this part of the account wrong, could it be possible that they got other parts wrong, too? Could it be that perhaps the teaching of Christ being born on December 25th is wrong also? Let us look at other parts of the so-called “Christmas story,” compare them with the Scriptures, and learn the truth.

The Star

Many have the mistaken idea also that the shepherds, wise men, and all, followed the star to the spot where Jesus was born. This is false. In Luke 2, we read about the angels speaking to the shepherds, and their announcing the birth of Christ (v. 9-14). As they spoke, they told the shepherds that they would know who the Messiah was when they saw a baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” This was the sign to them, not the star (v. 12). They then went to Bethlehem and found the Lord, told many people about His birth, and then “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen…” (v. 16-20).

The wise men, on the other hand, followed the star (Matthew 2:2). This is further evidence that the wise men did not arrive on the day of the Lord’s birth, for they were not looking for a baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” The star was their sign, and it led the wise men to “the house” (vs. 11) in Bethlehem where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were staying until they fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:12-14). In a casual reading of Matthew 2:1-2, we see that Matthew did not record the happenings on the exact day of the Lord’s birth, but recorded the events which took place during a time period that was just after the Lord’s birth. Notice that the record says, “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the king … there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.” Jesus had been born, and was some days/weeks old when the wise men came looking for Him. This is harmonious with the events recorded by Luke. Only the wise men followed the star (Matthew 2:10-11).

Why Is December 25th Considered By Many As Being The Day Of Christ’s Birth?

Based on the fact that the accounts of the wise men and star have been distorted by men, is it not also possible that men may have distorted and perhaps made a mistake as to the actual birth date of Christ? In truth, we never find a specific date revealed in the Scriptures which tells us on what day the Lord was born. Nor do we find an occasion in Scripture where our Lord tells us to observe and celebrate His birthday on any day of the year. By looking back into history, we find that “there is no month of the year not assigned by some writer as that of Christ’s birth” (St. Louis Register, [Catholic publication], Nov. 11, 1955). We find from historical documents that a celebration of the birth of Christ was not celebrated until the 3rd or 4th century (The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia, Vol. III, p. 47; Walker Williston, A History of the Christian Church, p. 169).

Yet, the decision to celebrate a birthday for Christ on December 25th was made; and it was made by the Catholic church. Liberius, a bishop in the Catholic church (considered by Catholics to be one of the early Catholic popes), ordered December 25th to be adopted as the date for the celebration of the birth of Christ in the year 354 A.D. (World Book Encyclopedia; Encyclopedia Britannica; Collier’s Encyclopedia). “December 25 was already a festive day for the sun god Mithra and appealed to the Christians as an appropriate date to commemorate the birth of Jesus, the ‘Light of the World.’” (The Lincoln Library of Essential Information) At this point, some may say, “You have told us several things from history, but haven’t included any Scripture concerning the celebration of Christmas.” Friend, that is exactly my point!! We cannot find the date of the birth of Christ in the Scripture, nor the authority for men to celebrate that day as a religious holiday. Actually, the very fact that shepherds were out all night tending to their flocks (Luke 2:8) suggests that Christ was born earlier in the year, not in December. By late October, or early November, the shepherds take their flocks in, because it is too cold to be outside in the mountainous regions around Bethlehem (Barnes, Albert, Commentary on Luke, p. 18-19). Therefore, if I am interested in doing all things by the authority of Christ (Matthew 28:18; Colossians 3:17), why would I engage in something such as celebrating the birth of Christ when such a celebration is the invention of men?

“Let’s Put Christ Back In Christmas.”

Some billboards during the December months carry this slogan or something similar to it. But understand, Christ was never in Christmas!! He can’t be put back into something He was never in! Let those who think Christ’s birthday ought to be celebrated produce the Scripture that proves that Christ’s birthday was celebrated at any time in the Scriptures, let alone on December 25th. Please find the book, chapter, and verse that proves Christ commanded us to remember His birthday. Or, find an example of the early Christians celebrating Christ’s birthday. Or, find the necessary inference which shows undeniable proof that the early Christians celebrated Christ’s birthday. Let us know about it, and we will celebrate it without fail from now on. What is interesting to note is that while there is not one word said about an observation of Christ’s birth, there is much said about our observing and remembering Christ’s death! We find much evidence concerning our remembering the death of Christ. We have a command, example, and necessary inference for such a memorial (Matthew 26:26-29; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). When people can produce such evidence for the observing of our Lord’s birthday, as can be found for the observation and remembrance of our Lord’s death, then we will be willing to celebrate it.

When we study the Bible, we see that God never commands us to observe a religious holiday. Our responsibility is to honor Christ as we worship Him “in spirit and in truth” upon the first day of the week (John 4:24; Acts 2:42; Ephesians 5:19)! Nothing in the New Testament authorizes celebrations, masses, or special services concerning the birth of Christ. In fact, Paul warned people against establishing special “holy days” without Biblical authority (Galatians 4:8-11).

How Should We Remember Jesus?

Perhaps at this point, honest souls might wonder, “How can I remember Christ?” Some may think that there is no way to remember Christ if they cannot have their masses, birthday cakes, or other such observations of Christ’s birth. This is just not true. The Bible has revealed how we can remember our Lord.

First, baptism reminds us of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-5). When one is baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38), it calls to remembrance Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection! Second, The Lord’s Supper reminds us of Jesus Christ. Christ has commanded us to partake of the Lord’s Supper “…in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-26). This is plain. When we partake of the unleavened bread, it reminds us of His body which was nailed to the cross (1 Corinthians 11:24). When we drink of the fruit of the vine, it reminds us of His blood that “was shed for many for the remission of sins.” Third, our worship should remind us of Christ. Our worship consists of songs praising Him (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). We also offer prayers to God thanking Him for a risen Savior that took away our sins. Our Bible-based preaching concerning Christ and His doctrine, our giving to the Lord, and our taking of the Lord’s Supper should remind us of Christ as well (Acts 2:42; Acts 20:7). He is the focus and object of our worship! As we consider these things, we see that our responsibility in remembering Christ is focused on His death, burial, and resurrection, as well as His will for men. This is what Christ wanted us to remember, rather than His birth.

We also know that we must remember Christ every day of the year, and not just once or twice a year. We do this by following His example that has been left for us (1 Peter 2:21-22). We remember Christ by doing all (word and deed) “in the name of the Lord” (Colossians 3:17). We remember Him as we confess Christ before others through our daily words and actions (Matthew 10:32; 1 John 4:15; Titus 1:16; 1 Timothy 6:12; Hebrews 3:1, 4:14, 10:23). Let us never forget these things. Christ must be remembered and reverenced daily!

While the birth of Christ takes its place as a momentous event, we need to understand that the birth of Christ means nothing if He did not die on the cross!!! If our Lord would have died a “natural death,” if He had died of “old age and complications,” then His birth would have meant nothing. It is because of our Lord’s sacrificial death on the cross for us that His birth has meaning. As Jesus stood falsely accused before Pilate, facing an unjust and cruel death at the hands of sinners, He said, “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice” (John 18:36). His birth was celebrated by the angels, and by men because of what He was going to do, i.e. die for men, bringing salvation to all (Luke 2:28-35, 36-38). Even if men did not completely understand this at the time (Matthew 16:21-22), this was the purpose for the celebration of His birth by the angels. The “peace,” the “good will,” etc., (Luke 2:14) is realized by those who are Christians! Because of this, we find repeated emphasis placed, not upon Christ’s birth, but upon His death for all mankind. Remembering the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is what is revealed in the Scriptures; but observing His birth religiously (on any day of the year) is not (Colossians 3:17; 1 Peter 4:11)!

What About Celebrating A Civil Holiday, Giving Gifts, Etc.?

Once again, we must make our appeal to the Scriptures. Though one would not celebrate December 25th as the birth of Christ, can one use this day as a national or civil holiday (like the 4th of July, or Labor day, etc.) and get together with family and loved ones to eat, thank God for our blessings, and give gifts or cards to one another? Can we find authority for giving something to others we love?

Yes, we can. Paul said, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” and “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate” (Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 6:17-18). Our Lord said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Could we take time to strengthen family bonds and togetherness at this time of year? Of course, we can. God places a premium upon family and loving one another (Ephesians 5:22-6:4; James 2:8). Family togetherness can be expressed through meals, occasions of gift-giving, or sharing of nice cards, etc., as we would celebrate an anniversary, a birthday in the family, or any civil holiday in this country such as Thanksgiving, The 4th of July, Labor Day, etc.

Conclusion

To observe Christmas as a “religious” holiday is wrong! It is wrong because the Bible has not authorized it. Friends, the day of Christ’s birth is not revealed in the Bible, and we need to respect that (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29). We also need to shun the speculation which says, “Christ had to have been born sometime, and December 25th is as good a day as any to celebrate His birth!” Let’s just obey what God has authorized, remember the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection, and leave our speculation out of it.