Some of those we love and work alongside are passionate about not celebrating Christmas, not having Christmas trees or decorations. Some mark the incarnation of our Lord at different time, notably at the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, others don’t mark this at any special time. For example the Jesus Army say, “The popular Christian festivals such as Christmas are not celebrated, on the quite accurate grounds that they have Pagan origins. (One of the reasons that Christianity took root throughout Europe during the Dark Ages was its habit of taking over local Pagan festivals and sacred sites, adapting the customs of the Winter Solstice into Christmas, and of the Spring festival into Easter, and building churches over ancient wells and springs.)” This is a historic position amongst reformed people, the Puritans shunned Christmas and it was against the law to celebrate Christmas Day following the civil war.
Maybe you are wondering why have a tree and mark the festival? Or maybe you wonder how to answer those who bring objections to celebrating Christmas? I want to spend a few lines making a defence of our practice. In the end this is not something that is essential to our salvation so is a matter of individual conscience. It does bring out important principles that are worth considering.
One of the missionary tactics of the early church was to look for points of contact between the culture they were going to and the Gospel. So when evangelising Jewish communities Christians would show how the festivals of the Jewish year pointed to Christ. When evangelising Gentile communities that would not work because these communities had no knowledge of the Jewish Festivals. So when Paul went to Athens, he found an altar to an “unknown god” Paul used this point of contact, along with quotes from Greek poets and philosophers, to preach the gospel. He encouraged Titus to do the same in Crete, quoting local poets. Imagine how modern Christians would react to Paul’s sermon? He quoted no scripture, he used a pagan altar as an illustration and referenced pagan writers.
Most northern hemisphere cultures held a mid-winter festival, the early Church missionaries used this festival as a point of contact. Most of these festivals were held around the time of the winter solstice and called for the return of the sun. Christians used these festivals to preach that the true Light of the world had come amongst us. Like Paul in Athens they used that which was familiar to people to bring the gospel message. They subverted local traditions to convey truth. As the Jesus Army acknowledge this was a powerful evangelistic tool, it was using these means that the gospel was brought to Europe.
What about today? We live in a secular nation that holds a mid-winter celebration, we continue to take those customs people are familiar with to preach a gospel message. Like the early missionaries and Paul himself, we are inserting a message into a festival and we compete with other stories that are told at the same time. Christmas is a point of contact with our society, an opportunity to teach truth, in my view we should take it. Use the Christmas tree to teach of God’s everlasting grace, use the darkness to teach about the true Light who came into the world and show to the world true joy that Jesus gives.
So, at Christmas and at other times, we could be pure, absolutely right, so right we become dead right enslaved again by law, or we can joyfully seek to share our faith with a world that is dying. I know what I want to do!
Written by Tony Thompson