About this time each year our Personal Correspondence Department receives — and answers numerous inquiries regarding the coming holiday season. Here are just a sampling.
I've heard you say on your television program that Christmas observance does not come from the Bible. Where does it come from, then?
Where Christmas customs came from is really no secret. You can read the origins of Christmas customs in encyclopedias and other reference works. The Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, draws the reader's attention to these facts: "Christmas customs are an evolution from times that long antedate the Christian period — a descent from seasonal, pagan, religious and national practices, hedged about with legend and tradition" (15th ed., art. "Christmas"). It's a fact. At the end of December and the beginning of January festive celebrations were taking place in various nations of Europe centuries before Jesus was born! When that festive season rolled around, little children were filled with anticipation and excitement. The whole family got busily involved in putting up decorations. Boughs of holly and evergreen were assembled and placed about the house. The mistletoe was hung. A tree was chosen and decorated with ornaments. It was a season of giving receiving presents, a time to sing songs, admire all the pretty lights and burn the yule log. There were parades with special floats, sumptuous meals and merrymaking. All this and Jesus wasn't even born yet! In ancient times, many of the earth's inhabitants, realizing their dependence upon the sun for light, heat and the growing of crops, watched the sun's yearly course in the heavens with deep interest. At different seasons, feasts and celebrations were held to help, it was thought, the solar orb on its way. The end of December was an especially significant time in the Northern Hemisphere. The days were short. The sun was at its lowest point. Special festivals of thanksgiving and encouragement to the sun were held. When, at the winter solstice, the days began to lengthen, there was great celebration lasting into the first part of January. The sun — the light of the world — had been (re)born! Such festivities, once meant to honor the sun and its god, were freely adopted by the spreading and increasingly popular "Christian" religion. Why not, in the same way, honor Jesus — the real light of the world (even though He was not actually born in December)? The modern Christmas tree is supposed to have originated in German lands in the Middle Ages. Since evergreens were green throughout the dead of winter, people looked upon them as especially imbued with life. It was in honor of the tree spirit or the spirit of growth and fertility that greenery was a prominent part of ancient pagan winter celebrations. The Romans trimmed trees with trinkets and toys at that time of the year. The Druids tied gilded apples to tree branches. To certain peoples an evergreen decorated with orbs and other fruitlike objects symbolized the tree of life in the garden in Eden. Branches of holly and mistletoe were likewise revered. Not only do these plants remain green through the winter months, but they actually bear fruit at that time, once again a type of the spirits of fertility. Still today, catching someone under a branch of mistletoe can serve as a convenient springboard for romantic activity. Few people stop to wonder what in the world such strange customs have to do with the birth of Jesus! The ancients lit festive fires in the last part of December to encourage the waning sun god, just as Christmas bonfires, candles and other lights burn today at the same time of the year. Use of the "yule log," part of the "yuletide" season, hearkens back to the ritual burning of a carefully chosen log by the Druids. The word yule comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word hweol, meaning "wheel," a round wheel being an appropriate symbol for the sun. You thought the Christmas shopping spree was a 20th century phenomenon? Listen to how fourth-century writer Libanius described end-of-the-year gift-giving and partying in the ancient non-Christian Roman Empire: "Everywhere may be seen... well-laden tables .... The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who through the whole year has taken pleasure in saving... becomes suddenly extravagant.... A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides" (as quoted in Christmas in Ritual and Tradition).
Of all times in the year, it was indeed the season to be jolly. Drunkenness was widespread. Fortunately, however, the modes of transportation in those days did not lend themselves to the high rate of drunken-driver-induced traffic fatalities that are part of the Christmas season in many nations today. An important part of the pagan harvest festivities — beginning in October-November with what has become Halloween — involved good and bad spirits. In many lands, visitors' — usually bringers of good or evil — made their appearance in the winter season. Through blending pagan legends with traditions about saints, certain figures emerged, with similar personalities. We recognize them today in different nations as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, St. Martin, the Weihnachtsmann, Pere Noel. Whatever name is used, all these winter visitors fulfill a similar role. These fictional persons — "Christianizations" of the pagan Germanic deities — clearly perpetuate certain folk-ritual themes wherein varying degrees of rewards and punishments were dealt out to the celebrants. Through the centuries these customs came to be centered around children. It is not too hard to see a connection between Santa using the chimney or the shoes and stockings hung by the fireplace and the ancient superstitions about hearth spirits. For thousands of years, especially among the Chinese, it was customary to sweep and scour the house in preparation for the visit of the hearth spirit. Each year, dressed in a pointed, fiery red cap and red jacket, this fire god traveled from the distant heavens to visit homes and distribute favors or punishments. Today he is welcomed in the Western world each Christmas season. Popular Christmas customs, as we can see, plainly reflect non-Christian legends and practices. Some of the very Christmas customs observed today were once banned by the Catholic Council of Rome, the English Parliament and the Puritans of New England. The logical question to ask is, What is there that is Christian about Christmas?
All right. So Christmas is based on pagan traditions and myths. What is wrong with borrowing some of those customs and using them to honor Jesus on His birthday?
To begin with, the Bible nowhere says Jesus was born December 25. In fact, it doesn't tell us which day Jesus was born. It doesn't even tell us the month. The Bible does, however, show that Jesus' birth did not take place in December or, for that matter, in any of the winter months. This is clear from Luke 2:8. When Jesus was born, "there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night." The shepherds were living out in the open fields, sleeping with their flock at night. As many Bible commentators admit, the shepherds would not have been doing this during the cold and rainy winter months. It was hardly the kind of weather for sleeping out in the fields. Or for having a baby in a stable and laying him in a manger (Luke 2:7)!
So we know when Jesus was not born. If we are supposed to celebrate His birthday, why doesn't the Bible give us the date of that event? Elsewhere in the Scriptures, when God revealed certain days He wanted His people to observe, no room was left for doubt as to when those days occurred. Information for determining the exact days for celebration was abundantly clear and precise: "the fourteenth day of the first month" or "count fifty days to the day" or "in the seventh month, on the first day of the month" (see Lev. 23, entire chapter). The instructions were specific because God wanted His people to observe those particular days. Why, then, the silence as to which day Christ was born? The plain truth is that the Bible nowhere commands us to observe birthdays in the first place! But an even more important point to consider is this: When Jesus' name is applied to borrowed pagan ideas and practices, does Jesus really feel honored? After all, it was Jesus Himself who told His people Israel not to seek to worship Him with customs borrowed from other religions (Deut. 12:29-32). Time and again He made it clear through His prophets that He wanted His people to remain "cleansed... of everything pagan" (Neh. 13:30). Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8)! For further clarification as to how God views the pagan origins of Christmas customs, be sure to read our booklet The Plain Truth about Christmas.
Even though I have ceased to celebrate Christmas because I know the truth about it, is there anything wrong in continuing to exchange gifts out of the motive of giving rather than wanting to follow pagan customs?
There is nothing wrong with giving to others. Part of God's overall purpose for our existence is that we learn to give instead of seeking to get. But a Christian needs to be careful about giving a gift around Christmas time. The reason? Christians are to be lights to the world. They must set the example of righteous living. To engage in gift giving with those who are celebrating Christmas may give the appearance to them that you are participating right along with them in Christmas festivities. God tells us to come out of the religious system of this world and to be "separate" (II Cor. 6:14-18). How can a person be separate from such goings on and continue at the same time to dabble in them? The very idea of exchanging gifts is based on an erroneous interpretation of the Bible. The giving of gifts by the Magi has been used as justification for this custom, but what has been overlooked is that the Magi did not exchange gifts among themselves. Rather, they presented all their gifts "to him" — to Jesus (Matt. 2:11). How different from the modern custom of trading Christmas gifts and giving nothing to Christ! Even if it were appropriate to celebrate the birthday of Jesus, can you imagine a birthday celebration where all the guests bring gifts and exchange those gifts among themselves, and the person they are supposedly honoring receives nothing? Doesn't make sense? Neither does the modern custom of trading Christmas gifts while supposedly honoring Christ. Why not give gifts at other times of the year when they will be appreciated as spontaneously sincere and heartfelt?
How do I tell my friends and relatives that I no longer wish to exchange presents?
With a smile! That's right. Show firmness, yet at the same time be relaxed and friendly about it. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to come across as a religious fanatic fired up with purple-veined emotion on the subject. There's no need to make friends and relatives feel condemned and guilty by what you say. Your example will be testimony enough to them. Most of them haven't the faintest idea where Christmas customs came from or why they are following them. It's more superstition than it is religion. They're just doing what everyone around them does. If you haven't read our reprint article "Should You Try to Convert Others?" you should request a copy. Many of the problems arising from the Christmas season can be resolved if you apply three principles: 1) Stress your objection to the commercialism of the season. Immediately you have everyone, with the possible exception of some shopkeepers and commercial interests, on your side. Who can deny that Christmas is a crassly commercial holiday, that it is budget-bustingly expensive? Who would not — especially as general economic conditions worsen — rather spend the money on more needful items, like maybe heating the house? Who does not dread the wearisome Christmas shopping experience, the time-consuming uncertainty as to what to buy for whom? All you have to say is you've had enough of it, that when you give a gift you want to do it spontaneously instead of as a slave to some custom. After the initial shock wears off, most people will respect your stand and secretly wish they had the courage to do likewise. Some, in fact, heartened by your example, may do just that! 2) Maintain a sense of humor. Let's face it, cutting trees down and then setting them back up loaded with ornaments, the whole gift-trading rigmarole, the thought of an overweight, bearded individual decked out in flamboyant red and traveling through the air in a sled or some other conveyance when he is not slithering up and down someone's chimney — these and so many other traditions are ridiculous. Feel free to point that out. Who can deny it? 3) Put the burden of proof on those who are celebrating Christmas. It's not that there isn't overwhelming proof to back you up in your decision to cease celebrating Christmas. There certainly is. But most people have neither the time nor the interest for a detailed explanation. So shift the burden of proof to them. Say, in effect, "If you can show me where the Bible says I ought to observe Christmas, or where it says early Christians celebrated Jesus' birthday, I will celebrate it also!" The discussion will probably end very suddenly at that point. Of course, if the person to whom you are speaking shows an obvious interest in learning about the real origin of Christmas, you should be prepared to give an appropriate answer.
What happens if someone gives me a gift anyway? Should I return it?
That depends. If a person is testing you to see how deeply your religious convictions lie, returning the gift is a proper response. On the other hand, in cases where the person sincerely doesn't know or comprehend your stand, a polite note of thanks for the gift and a brief statement that you no longer observe the Christmas holiday may be sufficient. By the way, you will find that most people will stop giving you Christmas gifts after a year or two of not receiving one in return.
My friends and relatives continue to send me Christmas cards. Should I write back to each of them and explain that I have quit celebrating Christmas?
A brief note to that effect may be in order. As with gifts, most people will cease sending Christmas cards when they stop getting them in return.
What do I tell my children now that they will no longer be receiving presents at Christmas?
Why not tell them the truth? Why not tell them that you have come to understand that the world is wrong in its observance of Christmas and that you are going to do God's will because it is better than Christmas? Be sure to emphasize the positive side — that God's way is better than Christmas. As proof of this, tell your children you are going to give gifts to them throughout the year because you love them all year long, not just on Christmas Day. That, in turn, is precisely what they can tell their friends who will be showing off their Christmas gifts. It is important not to leave a void in your children's lives by removing Christmas observance and putting nothing in its place. Arrange special activities with them often, and especially centering around the Holy Days God has ordained in the Scriptures — the days He does want us to observe. For more information, read our free booklet Pagan Holidays — or God's Holy Days — Which?
Is there anything I can do to prevent my child from having to participate in Christmas activities at school?
One of the most important steps you as a Christian parent can take is to discuss the subject with the children's teachers, addressing the problem ahead of time. Politely inform the teachers involved that you do not observe certain holidays and that you do not want to have your children take part in celebrations centering around those days.
Seek to avoid, as much as possible, leaving a teacher in a difficult situation with children to teach but not knowing what to have them do while others, for example, are drawing Santa's. You can advise that your children may draw winter scenes or snowmen instead of things immediately associated with Christmas. If the whole class is having a Christmas party perhaps you could offer to come to school and take your children home that afternoon to relieve the teacher from having to find something else for them to do. In any case, try to be very cooperative with school officials. Above all, ask God for wisdom, grace and favor in their sight. Your children themselves, especially as they get older, will be a determining factor as to whether they become involved in worldly religious holiday activities at school or elsewhere away from home. You can't be with them every minute. This underlines the absolute need to provide positive instruction at home. If children are convinced in their own minds that they should not participate in certain activities, much of the battle is already won.
It is a standard policy for the company where I work to give all employees a Christmas bonus. Should I accept this bonus?
Bonuses given at the end of the year are usually not considered as Christmas gifts. They are often given in gratitude for work done throughout the preceding year. It is logical to wait until the end of the year before giving such a bonus, and Christmas seems to be as good an occasion as any. Most large companies are not interested one way or the other in the personal convictions of their employees and, when that's the case, there is no reason to refuse the bonus. If you are working for a smaller company where you know your employer personally, it may be advisable to mention to him or her that you don't celebrate Christmas. If he or she wants to give you the bonus regardless, as simply a gift or token of appreciation, you can accept it with a clear conscience.
Some relatives have invited me to their house for dinner on Christmas Day. Should I refuse the invitation?
Not necessarily. It depends on the nature of the occasion. Since you understand the truth about Christmas, to you the day will be just another ordinary day of the year. And to you the simple fact of eating a meal with others on that day is no different from eating one with them on any other day. What matters in this case, though, is how your relatives will regard the occasion. If they look on the meal as part of Christmas festivities and place religious significance upon it, then you would be out of place there. Your attendance could give the impression that you are observing Christmas with them or, if they know about your beliefs, that you are willing to compromise on your beliefs. On the other hand, if the meal is merely a convenient opportunity for a family get-together, and there is no objectionable connotation placed upon the meal, then it might be all right to accept the invitation. Better be prepared to answer some questions, though, because sooner or later the conversation is sure to focus on why you don't observe Christmas.
What should I say when someone wishes me "Merry Christmas"?
It is often sufficient to respond with a question such as "Where has this last year gone?" or "It's that time of year again, isn't it?" or "Do you think it is going to snow?" or even a parting statement on an entirely unrelated subject such as "Good-bye now" or " Have a good day!" The surprising fact is that few individuals will even notice that you haven't wished "Merry Christmas" in return, so meaningless is the expression. At other times, a smile and a "Thank you" (meaning you are grateful for their concern) may be more appropriate. Because of space limitations we will have to stop at this point. If you have a question regarding the Christmas holiday and it has not been answered by this article, please feel free to write our Personal Correspondence Department. They will be glad to help you.