Christmas Then and Now

I suppose we have heard about the pagan origins of the Christmas celebration many times. Most Christians are not deterred from celebrating in spite of the idolatrous associations that existed long ago.

Just in case you missed it, most ancient cultures had celebrations at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. These celebrations honored pagan gods such as Saturn or Thor, or “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Along with evergreen bows, lights, and decorations these festivals were characterized by pagan revelry including drinking, gambling, lewd singing and even public nudity. In the third century AD the Christian teacher Origen condemned the celebration as suitable only for sinners. Some Christian writers of the middle ages condemned caroling as an evil practice. The Reformers referred to the holiday as the “rags of the beast.” The Puritans of New England outlawed the celebration, and those in the south stopped celebrating the holiday for 70 years after the revolutionary war because it was considered a British Festival.

Many Christians resent any suggestion that the celebration of Christmas is wrong because they reason that the birthday of Jesus should be precious to all believers. The incarnation is, indeed, a vital part of our faith. The date of Jesus birth is unknown but His arrival is an historical fact, although the Bible does not tell us we need to remember it with a special holiday.

Yet in spite of the historical abuses, our rejoicing should not be half-hearted, but an enthusiastic celebration of our spiritual blessings. Avoiding the heathen, idolatrous economic excesses we celebrate with a restraint that focuses on the true meaning of the birth of a Savior. The joy is not found in unrestrained eating, drinking, partying, decorating, and gift giving, but in the One who became poor for our sakes that we through Him might become rich. As a boy of 11 in December 1743, George Washington was assigned to copy the poem, “Christmas Day.” This is part of what he learned about Christmas.


“Methinks I see the tunefull Host descend,
Hark by their hymns directed on the road,
The gladsome shepherds find the nascent God!
And view the infant conscious of his birth,
Smiling bespeak salvation to the earth!
For when the important Aera(era) first drew near
In which the great Messiah should appear
And to accomplish his redeeming love
Resign a while his glorious throne above.
Beneath our form every woe sustain
And by triumphant suffering fix His reign
Should for lost man in tortures yield his breath,
Dying to save us from eternal death!
Oh mystick (mystic) Union! Salutary grace!
Incarnate God our nature should embrace!
That Deity should stoop to our disguise!
That man recovered should regain the skies!”