by Raymond L. Cox
If you listen to certain partisans you might adopt that idea! With the annual approach of this holiday, writers burst into print, radio preachers harangue and pulpiteers propagandize against observance of Christmas.
“Christmas is a pagan holiday!” thunder some.
“Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas!” warn others.
“God’s against Christmas!”
So the charges fly.
When opponents of the observance get down to particulars they voice objections on five specific grounds. Christians should not celebrate Christmas because of the name of the holiday, because of the commercialization of the observance, because of the use of the abbreviation Xmas, because Christmas trees are condemned in the Bible and because December 25th is the wrong date.
What’s wrong with the use of the word Christmas?
The ecumenical atmosphere which seems prevalent in many religious circles today tends to muffle this objection, but it will be heard this year and next and probably for a long time to come. The objection to the name pertains to its derivation. Christmas is obnoxious to some because it represents the combination of two words, “Christ” and “mass.” The word means “the mass of Christ.”
But what does “mass” really mean in the compound word Christmas? Any authoritative dictionary will reveal that the English term mass evolved from the Anglo-Saxon word maesse, which derived in turn from the Latin missa, which is a form of the verb mittere, which means “to send.”
Consequently, the root meaning of Christ-mass is “to send Christ,” or “Christ is sent.”
Is God against describing the coming of His son with a word meaning “Christ is sent”? Did not Paul refer to Immanuel’s incarnation as the sending of Christ? “When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman…” (Galatians 4:4). Moreover, the Savior spoke often of “him who sent me.” There is nothing inherently obnoxious in the name Christmas. The term accurately represents what the holiday is all about or should be–the sending of Christ.
But Christmas is becoming terribly commercialized. Shouldn’t Christians repudiate its observance on that score?
No Christian would justify much that goes on in the name of Christmas. No one disputes that the holiday is grossly prostituted to unchristian purposes. The world abuses Christmas. Alas, the church often abuses Christmas. But does abuse dictate abandonment of the observance?
We’d have very little left if we gave up everything which is abused or misused. We couldn’t eat corn, for distillers misuse it in making whiskey, which robs families of food, clothing and shelter. We’d have to prohibit all fires, because arsonists employ them for criminal ends. We’d have to eliminate knives from the kitchen because murderers use them to kill.
Christians certainly deplore the modern manner of celebrating Christmas. But that does not mean we must discontinue the holiday. We don’t do away with all birthday parties because some of them become drinking bouts. We don’t discard the Bible because false cults misuse it. No more does the abuse of Christmas dictate its repudiation by Christians. God is certainly against the gross commercialization of the birthday of His Son. But millions of believers celebrate Christmas reverently. Is God against this?
“But the use of the abbreviation Xmas takes Christ out of Christmas!” opponents allege. “Xmas is an irreverent modern substitute for Christmas. The abbreviation represents the substitution of X (which means the unknown quantity) for Christ.”
Most Christians today would nod in agreement with those charges. And certainly some who use the abbreviation may employ it for such purposes. Neither is it my intention to whitewash the use of Xmas. But in all fairness and honesty we must recognize that the abbreviation did not originate either to take Christ out of Christmas or as an “irreverent modern substitute for Christmas.”
Xmas is not of modern coinage. The Oxford English Dictionary documents the use of this abbreviation back to 1551. Undoubtedly it was employed before that. Now 1551 is fifty years before the first English colonists came to America and sixty years earlier than the completion of the King James Version of the Bible! Moreover, at the same time, Xian and Xianity were in frequent use as abbreviations of Christian and Christianity.
You see, the X in Xmas did not originate as our English alphabet’s X but as the symbol X in the Greek alphabet, called Chi, with a hard ch. The Greek Chi or X is the first letter in the Greek word Christos. Eric G. Gration claims that as early as the first century the X was used as Christ’s initial. Certainly through church history we can trace this usage. In many manuscripts of the New Testament, X abbreviates Christos (Xristos). In ancient Christian art X and XR (Chi Ro–the first two letters in Greek of Christos abbreviate his name. We find that this practice entered the Old English language as early as AD 100. Moreover, Wycliff and other devout believers used X as an abbreviation for Christ. Were they trying to take Christ away and substitute an unknown quantity? The idea is preposterous.
Some may use Xmas today as an unchristian shortcut for Christmas, but the ancient abbreviation by no means originated as such. The scribes who copied New Testament manuscripts had no intention of taking Christ out of the New Testament. They used the abbreviation simply to save time and space. We use abbreviations for the same purpose today, as witness FDR, HST, JFK, LBJ, and a host of others. Xmas is a legitimate abbreviation. I do not use it because of the possible misunderstanding it often causes as a result of its misrepresentation or abuse. But by no means can the use of the abbreviation be a valid objection to the observance of Christmas itself! Is God against abbreviations?
“But the Bible is definitely against Christmas trees!” many proclaim with reference to Jeremiah 10:2-4: “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen….For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers, that it move not.”
Now if this passage refers to decorated Christmas trees, we most certainly would be disobeying God by having them. But by no legitimate interpretation can this 10th chapter of Jeremiah be twisted into a prohibition or condemnation of Christmas trees! The context plainly associates the action not with apostates in this Christian dispensation, but with idolaters who were alive at the time! Jeremiah is not foreseeing paganism 2000 years in the future (the first Christmas tree apparently was decorated in the 16th century AD), but denouncing rampant contemporary heathenism!
Jeremiah writes to Jews about to go into captivity in Babylon. The circumstance dictating his rebuke was the widespread idolatry in the land whither the captives were bound. The prophet’s purpose was to forewarn the Jews against apostatizing further in their new and idolatrous environment, and to give guidance how to avoid involvement in rites and orgies indulged in by their eventual neighbors.
A reading of the entire chapter gives a proper perspective for understanding the chapter. Verse 11 offers a formula pious Jews might use to decline the invitations of their neighbors to participate in the ceremonies: “Thus shall ye say unto them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under the heavens.”
But what about the tree in this chapter? Obviously the passage has nothing to do with decorating a tree. The warnings relate to the practice of carving idols! A man fells a tree and transports the trunk to a woodworker who carves an idol therefrom with his axe. While the rich could afford idols made of molten metals, the poor had to content themselves with gods of wood (cf. Isaiah 40:19, 20). In Jeremiah 10 we have a wooden idol plated with precious metals. The prophet outlines the steps in the “creation” of such gods: First, the log is felled–“one cutteth a tree out of the forest;” second, the trunk is carved–“the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe;” and third, the idol is plated–“then deck it with silver and with gold.”
Verses eight and nine corroborate that this decking refers to the covering: “…the stock is a doctrine of vanities. Silver spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the workman, and of the hands of the founder: blue and purple is their clothing: they are all the work of cunning men.” Thus not only is the idol plated, it is clothed with bright rainment– something true of no Christmas tree which I have ever seen.
But some might still be puzzled about why Jeremiah would refer to an idol as a tree. The prophet here uses a figure of speech called synecdoche by which the name of the material is used to denote the product made of it. Since the tree was used in making the idol, the finished product is by synecdoche called a tree. Likewise the Bible refers to Jesus’ cross as a tree because its materials came from such a source.
Is God against Christmas trees? The Bible certainly does not so reveal. But even if he were, that would hardly dictate abolition of the whole Christmas observance. Is there anything intrinsically immoral or unrighteous about a decorated tree? Are lights on a fir tree more evil than candles on a birthday cake? Is a tree in the house more improper than having plants and cut flowers indoors? If you think so, then by all means remove your tree. But don’t use a Christmas tree as a whipping boy to slander Christmas!
Which brings us to the final principal objection against the holiday. “December 25th is the wrong date.”
Probably it is. There is one chance in 365 (or 366 if Jesus was born, as some suppose, in a leap year) that the date is correct. But because we do not know the date, must we ignore Christ’s birth? We don’t know for sure in what year Jesus came. Yet we mark our calendars according to anno domini (AD). We do know for sure that Jesus was not born in the year one of the Christian era, for Herod the Great died in what we call 4 BC! Shall we junk our calendars and stop keeping track of dates just because the year marked AD is incorrect?
Jesus’ birth probably did not take place in December. But those who insist it could not have taken place in December go too far. They argue that shepherds could not have been in their fields as it was the height of the rainy season. However, weather is a variable quantity and the Palestinian climate is quite mild. The particular December–if it was December–could have been a warm, rather dry, month. But what if Jesus was born instead in January, March, April or October, as has been suggested? Would that make God object to the observance on December 25?
Secular events are sometimes observed on dates different from their occurrences. England’s late King George VI annually proclaimed a date in June for the celebration of his birthday, but he was born on December 14th. His people did not rebel, because they celebrated his birth and not just its date!
“But isn’t Christmas on December 25th a continuation of the pagan holiday of the same date?” ask opponents.
December 25th was indeed a pagan holiday. In ancient ages many new converts yielded to temptation to keep that feast. It seems that Christian leaders endeavored to counteract that practice by giving believers a Christian festival on the same day, celebrating the birth of Christ. Some churches in our day conduct special banquets or other attractions for their high school seniors on the night of the senior prom for much the same motive. Certainly the celebration of Christmas is not a continuation of the pagan holiday. It is a unique Christian observance hailing the birth of Jesus Christ.
Moreover, December 25 is especially fitting in that it comes four days after the winter solstice. As the days grow longer with more light, Christians rejoice in the hope of the world in the birth of him who called himself the Light of the World. G. H. Montgomery wrote, “Church leaders saw in the birth of Jesus a triumph of light over darkness, spring over winter and of life over death. What more appropriate time could have been selected to commemorate the birth of the Man whose life, teachings and vicarious death were to change the trends of history, cause light to shine out of darkness and offer light to those who dwell in the valley of death! It will be good to keep these things in mind as you observe Christmas.”
God isn’t against Christmas. God is in favor of Christmas–of the proper observance of the holiday, that is. God planned and executed the first Christmas. No matter how flagrantly men may abuse this holiday, they cannot rob devout believers of its wonder and glory as expressed by the angel of old, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10, 11).