A Christmas Tree on Mars Hill

December. 'Tis the season for Christians to argue. Over the years in ministry, I’ve run across some interesting claims about the nature of Christmas. Santa is just a secret word jumble for Satan. The Christmas tree is actually Thor’s oak tree and when you put presents under it you’re offering sacrifices. Christmas is actually a pagan winter solstice celebration. Christmas is actually the festival of Horus, Mithras, and Chuck Norris. It’s a holiday invented by Hallmark and Coca-Cola. A lot of believers have come to reject the celebration of Christmas just on the basis of the worldly connotations it has taken on. Christians for and against the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 can be quite passionate about this subject.

My goal here is not to convince you one way or the other about pagan influences and origins of the holiday. Suffice to say, like a lot of extra-biblical Christian traditions, there’s a bit of a tangled mess to it all. Instead, I want to offer a humble suggestion about how to approach it if you choose to observe the day.

In Acts 17, we read the account of Paul in Athens. Athens was a jumbled mess of paganism with its pantheon of gods. At one point, Paul stumbled across an altar to the unknown god. The Athenians were always open to hearing something new, so Paul took the opportunity to preach to them of what they did not know, of whom they did not know. At the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, Paul proclaimed to them the God they did not know. In that sermon, he drew from philosophers and the world in which they lived to show them their need for Christ. Certainly, Paul could have stood up and denounced all their pagan worship and practices. He could have done a real hellfire and brimstone sermon, and while that would not have been wrong, it would not have been wise. Paul wisely used the context in which he found himself as an opportunity to preach the gospel.

When my wife and I were first married, we had a lot of discussions about traditions we wanted in our home. When the topic of Christmas came up, Paul’s time in Athens came to mind. We could do tree burnings and tell our children we were more holy than these consumerist pagans around us, but would that really be the best way to glorify God? I know solid believers who don’t observe Christmas, even some in my congregation, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we decided to take these traditions as an opportunity to share the gospel with our kids and others in our lives.

We talked about evergreen trees and the everlasting life we can only have through Christ. We taught them about the gifts of the Magi, and how those pointed to the real reason Jesus was born, to die for our sins. We sidestepped the reindeer and elves, and just talked about St. Nicholas. I told my kids he was “a pastor like daddy” who gave anonymous gifts to children, following Christ’s command in Matthew 6:3-4: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Admittedly, that last one led to an interesting situation when one of my kids told a friend that the real Santa Claus died a long time ago. But the upside was that it led to some God-centered conversation with that kid’s parents.

However you observe December 25th, I just want to encourage you to do so intentionally with an eye to the Gospel. If you don’t celebrate the day, guard against self-righteousness, and use the inevitable conversations to talk about how we celebrate Christ every Sunday. Every Lord’s Day is Christmas for a Christian! Be charitable with those who don’t agree with your position. And whether you eat Christmas cookies, or drink eggnog, do all to the glory of God.

Chris Marley is the pastor of Miller Valley Baptist Church in Prescott, AZ. Chris has an M.Div. from Westminster Seminary California (from the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies). He is the author of Scarlet and White.

Related Links

"Preaching during the Christmas Season" by Sean Lucas

"A Tale of Two Advents" by Harry Reeder

"Venite Adoremus: The Creedal Hymnody of Christmastide" by Sean Morris

The Theology of Christmas, with James Boice, Donald Barnhouse, Philip Ryken, and Richard Phillips

40 Favorite Hymns for the Christian Year by Leland Ryken