Christmas continues to be stubbornly rejected by multiple small Christian Churches, many individual Christians, and the Jehovah's Witnesses. They oppose festivals or celebrations that are unbiblical or linked with pagan Yuletide and the celestial cycles. The only birthdays observed in the Bible are by two rulers "who did not worship Jehovah"1 (Genesis 40:20 and Mark 6:21) and the first Christian generations didn't celebrate Jesus' birthday1 nor know when he was born2. Debates from 1643 to 1656 established that "the feast of the Nativity was wholly a creation of later authorities"3. The Biblical book of Jeremiah, 7th century BCE4, warns readers not to learn the ways of pagans who bring trees into their homes and decorate them with silver and gold (Jer. 10:2-4).
Individual Christians5 have also railed over the years against the merry-making, drink and food (1875)6; against the gift-giving and christmas-tree preparations (1926)7. But mostly, they've preached against the commercialism of christmas-cards, the pagan nature of Santa Claus himself, and the prevalence of symbols of light and natural renewal, which have long since dominated all festivals that derive from the mid-winter solstice.
They aren't the first. In the 17th century English Puritans banned Christmas celebrations multiple times8 arguing that it lacked biblical connection with Jesus and that it was pagan9. The Scottish reformers of the 16th, 17th and 18th abolished all of the rites of Christmas and in New England celebrating Christmas was a criminal offense until the 19th century; in 1870s Boston, students who missed school on Christmas were punished'10. In 1926 Rev. Wagner preached that the gift-giving and decorations are all getting in the way of Christianity7. Christians who argue that we should 'put Christ back into Christmas' or 'remember the reason for the season' have forgotten their own history.
The rhetoric that Christians have used against the celebration of Christmas pre-dates Christianity and originated with Jewish mores against the celebration of birthdays plus their wish to avoid pagan practices. In the book of Jeremiah, 7th century BCE4, it warns Jews and Christians not to "learn the ways" of pagans who bring trees into their homes and decorate them with silver and gold:
“This is what the LORD says: Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.”
Jeremiah 10:2-4 (NIV)
The first Christians were Jewish converts such as the Nazarenes and Ebionites. Such early Christians and Jews did not celebrate birthdays because they considered it a pagan practice. There are no Christian birthday celebrations in the Bible. It was related, said early Christians, to pagan representation of sun cycles. For these reasons, Biblical fundamentalists do not celebrate birthdays, including Christmas. One such group is the Jehovah's Witnesses:
“There is no evidence that the first-century disciples of Jesus observed such a holiday. [...] Even if Jesus' disciples had known the exact date of his birth, they would not have celebrated it. [...] The only birthday observances mentioned in the Bible are those of two rulers who did not worship Jehovah. (Genesis 40:20; Mark 6:21). [...] Those who want to please God do not celebrate it or any other holiday that has its roots in pagan worship.”
"What Does the Bible Really Teach" by The Jehovah's Witnesses (2005)1
The suspicion of birthdays and the fact that there are no written first-hand records of Jesus or his life, mean that it has long been impossible to work out when he was born.
Modern Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals tell Christians not to celebrate Christmas. "Three and a half centuries ago the English Puritans used their influence within the Cromwellian Republic (Protectorate) to ban Christmas celebrations. [...] They asserted (quite correctly by their own lights) that the 25 December had no biblical connection with the birth of their messiah and that the Christmas festival was therefore essentially pagan"9. The Scottish reformers of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, claimed that the "Papists" (Catholics) had invented all the rites of Christmas so they abolished the lot of them.
“A literary debate [...] broke out in December 1643 and was to continue intermittently [...] until 1656. Despite a few desperate efforts upon both sides to find some scriptural indication of the true date of Christ's birth, a common ground was established almost at once; that as there was indeed no objective evidence of when Christ was born, the feast of the Nativity was wholly a creation of later authorities and supported by tradition and not the Bible.”
"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain"
Ronald Hutton (1996)3
“In 1647 the English Parliament ordered that Christmas, along with other pagan holidays, should cease to be observed. A 1652 Parliamentary act repeated [the ban on Christmas]11. In New England, where celebrating Christmas was considered a criminal offense and remained forbidden until the second half of the nineteenth century... [...] as late as 1870 in Boston, students who failed to attend public schools on Christmas were punished by public dismissal.12”
“[Puritans] contended that there was no Scriptural warrant for the celebration of Jesus´ birth [and] that Christmas represented nothing more than a thin Christian veneer slapped on a pagan celebration. Believing in the holiday was superstitious at best, heretical at worst.
When the Puritans rebelled against King Charles I, inciting the English Revolution, the popular celebration of Christmas was on their hit list. Victorious against the king, in 1647, the Puritan government actually canceled Christmas. Not only were traditional expressions of merriment strictly forbidden, but shops were also ordered to stay open, churches were shut down and ministers arrested for preaching on Christmas Day. [...]
The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas. From 1659 to 1681, anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony would be fined five shillings.
Well into the 18th century, those who attempted to keep the tradition of wassailing alive in New England often found themselves arrested and fined. Indeed, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted up to 1870, when Christmas became a legally recognized federal holiday.”
New York Times (2012)13
The debates have continued ever since; in 1926 Rev. C.E. Wagner preached in New York, saying that all the gift-giving and christmas-tree preparations are pagan rituals that are getting in the way of Christian Christmas7.
Luke 2:8 states that shepherds were out watching their flocks by night. Due to the temperature, no flocks were kept out over winter. But it was done in spring, therefore early Christians celebrated Jesus' birth in the spring14. The modern belief that Jesus was born on the 25th is due to Emperor Constantine combining pagan winter solstice celebrations (especially those of Mithras) with Christianity, in order to try to harmonize the two belief systems15,14 although many Christians condemned the pagan influence (including many of the most eminent theologians and Church Fathers)14, it was gradually accepted by most churches (although some today still reject the 25th and some reject the concept of Christmas in its entirety16.
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Christmas is a multicultural, multi-religious festival. It combines sun worship, polytheism, pagan nature religions who have venerated the natural cycle for many thousands of years, Christianity and other myths and traditions. When Christians complain it is too pagan, or when lay folk complain it is too religious, or when both groups complain it is too commercial, then they are all in need of realizing that Christmas is a commercial fusion of diverse nature-based festivals. The date of the 25th accords with Sun Worship thousands of years old, the Christmas tree and some of the decorations are pagan, even the Nativity stories are originally pagan, Mithraistic, Roman and Christian.
The main outstanding issue in the West is the Christian assertion that Christmas has something to do with the Christian figure of Christ or his birthday. These elements should be disclaimed. Firstly, the paganism inherent in Christmas, such as decorating trees, is warned against in the Bible (Jeremiah 10:2-4). Second, there are no Christian birthday celebrations in the Bible. Thirdly, early Christians celebrated Christ's birthday in April or May - it was only changed to match with 25th of December, a major pagan holiday, by Emperor Constantine, in order to harmonize Christianity with paganism. It is certain that Christians should not attempt to celebrate Jesus' birthday, and they certainly shouldn't do so at Christmas.
In addition to its rich history, Christmas has now become largely a secular holiday, a social festival based on the family, and a commercial enterprise. Critics largely concentrate of the portions of Christmas they don't like, and claim that those portions ruin the rest of it. As long as no-one tries to "capture the flag" and exclude others, then there need be no modern conflict over the nature of Christmas. The non-religious can celebrate the commercial and social event, Christians can pretend Christmas has something to do with Christ, pagans can celebrate nature, and all can be happy. There are even alternative and well-known names for Christmas, such as Yuletide, which can be used according to taste. Whether or not one choses to celebrate Christmas is often a matter of mood!
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