The debate about the propriety or otherwise of celebrating Christmas is not new in the world. The Puritans of the 17th Century England, members of Jehovah Witness sect and some other splinter pseudo-Christian groups have always kicked against the Feast of Christ Nativity. And recently, the debate is bestirred in Nigeria by some respected pastors of the Pentecostal hue. And as the Christmastide of the year is drawing to a close, I feel compelled to contribute to the raging controversy that has featured prominently in the social media. I do not in any way question anyone’s right to air his views or express his beliefs on any matter of interest to him. In this age of enlightenment, it is a good and a healthy practice to be inquisitive.
It is also good sometimes to interrogate ones beliefs and values. But what I consider not charitable is one condemning in public sphere what one does not understand. Condemning what one does not understand smacks of hypocrisy or ignorance or both. However, the criticism against the celebration of Christ as recently stirred up, may not be out of deceit as alluded by some protagonists but out ignorance and perhaps misguided zeal.
The anti-Christmas Christians opposed the celebration of Christmas on three main grounds. One, they said Christ was not born on 25th December and so it is wrong to celebrate his birthday on that day. Secondly, that Christmas was not written in the Bible and thus there is no biblical basis for its celebration. And thirdly, that Christmas has pagan origin and therefore celebrating it is tantamount to idolatry.
Clearly, the Church does not claim that Christ was born on 25th December and historical and geographical evidence did not indicate that either. The birth date of Christ was not stated explicitly in the Bible neither was there any record of birthday celebration in the early Christian days. In fact, there are only two instances of birthday celebration in the Bible; the birthday of Pharaoh Gen. 40:20 and that of Herod Antipas, Matt. 14:6; Mark 6:21. Both resulted in deaths: the hanging of the Pharaoh’s chief baker and the beheading of John the Baptist. The early Christians who were facing grave persecutions in the pagan world were not concerned with the birthday of Christ.
Their interest primarily was in spreading the good news of salvation as contained in the ministry, miracles, passion and resurrection of Christ. Indeed the Christmas celebration observances began in the 4th Century when the Church had got its toehold in the Roman Empire. So, the word Christmas could not have been written in the Bible after the fragmented books that make up the Bible as we have it today have been put together and canonized into a single document by the Church.
Therefore, it sounds somewhat hypocritical if not preposterous for anyone to say that he cannot celebrate Christmas because it is not written in the Bible when there are many practices by present-day Christians that are not contained in the Bible. Crusade which means take up the cross is not in the Bible but different Christian denominations do it. And so are other latter day practices. The Church of Christ continued after the Bible days. At the First Ecumenical Council meeting held by the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15), vital decisions that helped the early gentile converts were made. After that, there are other council meetings and the Council still meets today to make decisions on matters of faith. The decisions taken by the Church Council after the canonization of the Bible were not invalidated simply because they are retroactively fixed in the Bible.
Another point of disagreement is the purported pagan origin of Christmas. Admittedly, evidence from history indicates that the date of Christmas corresponds to the time of the year when some people in the ancient and medieval times used to hold special feast in honour of their gods. The Persians dedicated the 25th day of the December to the worship of their sun-god Mithras.
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia on that day in honour of Saturn and later the unconquered sun. The pagan worshippers who understand the signs and season had fixed that day that corresponds with winter solstice that has the shortest day in the northern hemisphere to worship the sun-god. It is believed that the Church fathers deliberately chose that day also to show that the one who deserved to be worshipped on that day is Christ. Yes, if 25th day of the December is dedicated to sun-god, it is proper and fitting to celebrate Christ whom the Scripture describes as the “Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), the Light of the world (John 8:12), the Bright and Moring Star (Rev. 22:16), on that day. The Psalmist also described God as a “sun and a shield” (Psalm 84:11). Saint Ambrose (339–397) who lived about the time the first Christmas was celebrated in the fourth century, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order.
Moreover, Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights held on the 25th day of the month of Kislev to commemorate the rededication of the temple is usually at this time of the year too. And as one scholar aptly observes, “Jesus was a Jew, so this could be another reason that helped the early Church choose December the 25th for the date of Christmas!” So, the early Christians thought that this was the right time to celebrate the birth of Jesus as an acknowledgement of the power and universality of God.
Thus, the Church Fathers adopted that day also as the birthday of Jesus the anointed one in order to show that Christ is the son of the living God who created the universe and to convert the pagan worshippers and it worked. It is to show the supremacy and universality of God. It is to show that Christ who is the son of God and the light of the world deserves to be worshipped on that day not idols. Indeed, choosing the day pagans worship in order to worship God did not in any way make your worship idolatry.
Nevertheless, it is indubitable that in the course of time some pagan customs and practices like the use of mistletoe, Christmas tree, burning of the Yule logs among others may have been incorporated to make it more attractive to the pagan targets. And as the celebration spread to different cultures, many local flavours were added, all to the glory of God. But, it is obvious that the early Christians deliberately chose that date to encourage the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world.
To be concluded tomorrow
Irogboli writes via [email protected]