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Celebrating the Original Overcomer
In Defense of the Faith
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Wendy Wippel

A member of a different church than I go to has posted, for the rest of us, a cautionary warning as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior.  In short, we shouldn’t. I can’t quite agree with her, as the Savior that we worship at Christmas set the standard we need to follow.

Here’s what this (good-intentioned) Grinch had to say:

"Years ago, someone asked me why I kept Christmas. “The Bible says to keep it,” I responded. “Somewhere in the Gospel of Luke, it speaks of the nativity scene. An angel told some shepherds that were keeping their sheep in the fields at night that the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I think they went to see Jesus at that time. “That was the first Christmas! And that’s why I keep Christmas, because the Bible supports Christmas, the birthday of Jesus Christ.”

Her interrogator went on to “prove” to her why celebrating Christmas was something a Christ -follower shouldn’t do. And she bought in:

I soon learned that the Bible didn’t teach Christmas. I also found that its origins have nothing to do with the Bible."

Many of  the Christmas traditions we celebrate were, in fact, absorbed from early pagan customs. The yule log was absorbed from pre-Christian Germanic tribes like the Anglo-Saxons and Normans.  Gift-giving had its origins in a Roman custom associated with the Roman holiday Saturnalia, which worshipped Saturn. Trees and mistletoe snuck in through the Roman New Year Celebration. The twelve days of Christmas comes from the Norse midwinter feast.

The last straw, however, for this person, was that we don’t really know when Jesus was born.

The shepherds in the fields apparently didn’t make a note, and the donkey in the manger didn’t send a birth announcement to the Herodian Times. So, despite the fact that there are lots of bibliophiles out there working on figuring it out, nobody really knows. But the evidence leans toward it not being the traditional 25th of December.

Which honks her off.

“Just because some 2 billion people—roughly 1 billion Catholics and another billion in Protestant faiths—observe Christmas, does that make it right?  As the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “If 50 million people believe a foolish thing, it’s still a foolish thing.”

Personally I  think most believers understand the uncertainty factor here. I mean, it’s not like December 25th came from the Bible.

So where did it come from?

The early Christian world, roughly existing for the first several thousand years after Christ’s birth, was an agricultural world. And in that world the most important holidays tended to be in winter, because at that time the population was free from the intense labor required during the rest of the year just to survive. So, as it happens, a lot of the festivals that honored gods important to those Mediterranean peoples (and others) happened right around the same time that we now celebrate Jesus’ birth.  

Tertullian, a Catholic theologian who lived during the first century (155-230), in fact, referred to the cluster of holidays around the time of the new year:

The Saturnalia, the feasts of January, the Brumalia, and Matronalia are now frequented; gifts are carried to and fro, new year’s day presents are made with din and sports, and banquets are celebrated with uproar” (Tertullian in De Idolatria, quoted by Hislop, p. 93).

Mithras, the sun god, was also believed to have come to being in a cave on December 25, adding the celebration of Mithras’ birth to the mix. So over time, the traditional date for the celebration of Christ’s birth became December 25th as well.

That's the story of the where we got the date of Christmas, but let’s pick that back up in a minute.

The last discourse our narrator offers is a summary of what, in the modern world, celebrating the birth of the Savior has come to mean: 

Christmas can appear tantalizing to the eye and ear. People appear happy, generous, full of good cheer. Twinkling lights decorate many houses. Santa Claus and his reindeer are pictured as poised to lift off from snow-covered front yards or rooftops, although in the southern hemisphere and tropics there is no December snow. The colorful, peaceful-appearing Christmas scene can be intoxicating, addicting.”

Shoppers pack stores, browsing for gifts they hope to buy at bargain-basement prices. Soaring strains of “White Christmas,” “Silent Night” or “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” resonate everywhere.  The December weather of the northern hemisphere might be frightful outside, but the feeling and warmth inside is delightful. Christmas trees with twinkling lights and bright, sparkling ornaments create a mystical and glowing environment. Entire families want to experience the special mystery that only comes with the Christmas season. There is no religious holiday quite like it for the millions everywhere who observe it."

So apparently family togetherness, generosity, good cheer, and gift-giving is a problem?

Why is revealed by the next question:

But does it honor Christ?  If  Christmas is an important celebration to honor the birth of Jesus … Why didn’t Christ instruct His closest followers, His 12 chosen apostles, to keep Christmas? To celebrate it?

I can answer that one. You can’t order somebody to celebrate.

That has to come from the heart.

And for nearly 2018 years and counting, Christ-followers have celebrated His birth precisely because it would inevitably end in His death, so that we could be redeemed from the sinful world. The world that didn’t recognize Him when was, literally, God with us. 

And here’s the deal. Somehow, as unruly, self-satisfied, distracted, quarrelsome and generally sinful church, composed of still sinful people, have managed to fulfill arguably our major mission, given to us as marching orders from the Apostle Paul.

"Overcome evil with good."

Yes, some of our cherished Christmas customs have roots in pagan worship.  But nobody is worshipping Saturn now, or Mithras, or the multitudes of other gods in other worship systems that used to exist.  The Church has, despite ourselves, and totally by the grace of God, managed to turn those original 12 disciples into millions who name themselves as followers of that Christ child today.

But our mission is not yet completed, right? And Christmas, (heathen origins of some traditions or not), is still a great time to talk about the season with those who don’t know Him as Savior.

My Bible study group is planning to visit the local hospitals with quarters for the vending machines, little toys and candy for the kids, offers of prayer, and the good news that the Bible says that you can KNOW that you have eternal life.

And the best Christmas present I could recieve, would be to see someone born into His family during the season that celebrates the Christ Child’s birth.

Whenever the actual happened to be.

"The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise."  (Proverbs 11: 30)

Am I the only one convicted? Pray for us as we go out the next couple weeks, please!

About Wendy Wippel

Last week: God's Inefficiency

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