Why Do We Celebrate Christmas?

Dec 25

The title of this post may seem strange to you, especially if you are a Christ-follower. The answer seems obvious. We celebrate Christmas today to commemorate the birth of Jesus, the arrival of God on earth. But Christmas wasn’t always celebrated. In the early years of the Christian church, the dominant holiday was Easter. Catholic Church officials decided in the 4th century to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

Pope Julius, I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. In the 17th century, the Puritans banned Christmas, first in England, then in Massachusetts. They believed it led to idolatry. And, truthfully, 350 years of history haven’t exactly proven them wrong.

For millions, Christmas is almost entirely a secular celebration revolving around gift exchanging and partying. It looks a lot more like the pagan Saturnalia festival absorbed Christmas, than the other way around. In fact, a devout follower I spoke with recently strongly opposes recognizing Christmas for the same reason the Puritans did. That it detracts from Christ rather than celebrates His birth.

My response to that is this: It’s up to us who have accepted Christ in our lives to make Christmas about Him. As the Apostle Paul put it:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law…To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9: 19 19-20, 22-23 (NIV)

Paul managed to be in this world without being of it, without compromising his faith while sharing the Gospel. We can do the same at Christmas. And we can learn a lot about how to do this from the trio we refer to as “The Three Wiseman.” Before we attempt to follow their example, let’s learn a little more about them.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2 (NIV)

Magi: Originally a priestly caste, but could mean astrology, demonology, wisdom and magic. They may have been from Babylon, hearing of prophecies of a Messiah from Jews who settled in the east. They also would have traveled some 900 miles to find Jesus.

So, what example of theirs can we follow at Christmas? I find four elements to consider:

  • Remember: The Magi had heard the truth of the prophecy.
  • Receive: They traveled nearly a thousand miles on foot to see Jesus.
  • Rejoice: When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Matthew 2:10-11 (NIV)
  • Relay: “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

The Magi were not believers, but they appeared to know the Messiah when they saw Him, even though they may have believed they were traveling to meet a mere human Jewish king. Do we remember who Jesus is at Christmas? While taking part in secular activities do we keep Him and who He is first and foremost in our hearts and minds?

They traveled nearly a thousand miles to receive Him. What effort do we put in to make Christ about our Christmas?

Rejoice: Do you have any reluctance about being vocal about Jesus during the Christmas season? The Magi didn’t.

Relay: Do you have any reluctance about inviting Jesus to join you in all secular Christmas activities in which you take part? The Magi defied Herod to protect Jesus and take the news of Him back to their homeland.

There is no denying that Christmas has indeed drifted to the type of pagan celebration the Puritans feared in the 17th century. But we who believe that the Son of God came to save us can each do our part to reclaim it by proclaiming who Jesus is and why He came. That’s what the centuries-old phrase “keeping Christmas in your heart” is all about. May the light of Christ shine through you this Christmas Day and every day!

— Pastor Jerry Bader

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