Our Christmas Traditions: Are They Fact or Myth?

It’s almost Christmas, and at my house we’ve unpacked the boxes in the attic full of special decorations we only use this time of year.

My wife and I have loads of stuff. The Christmas tree decorations are my particular favorites—everything from the first bauble we bought as a newly married couple over thirty years ago to the set of loopy ceramic penguins that presides over our home from the most visible position on the tree.

Then there are the manger scenes (maybe a half dozen), lights, seasonal candles, table runners, china and so many knick-knacks I lose count. At Christmas we pull out all the stops and make our home as festive as the holiday itself—all green and red and smelling of evergreen.

For those who pay attention to such things, though, the traditions and symbols that we love so much pose so large a problem that some Christians refuse to participate in the modern holiday at all. The fact is that many of the ways we celebrate Christmas in our modern world actually come from pagan sources.

Christmas trees? Forget about finding any biblical origin to them. They originated in either ancient Rome as a symbol of a god’s victorious return from battle or with Germanic tribes in pre-Christian Europe as a sign of divine favor.

Santa Claus tracks back to a 4th-century Orthodox bishop, St. Nicolas, with the habit of giving gifts to needy people in his parish. His current incarnation bears more resemblance to American consumerism than to any Christian ideal–the real St. Nicolas wouldn’t have been caught dead in a mall entertaining children on his lap.

The day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, December 25, is nowhere attested in Scripture and in fact has an unsettling proximity to the winter solstice, a sacred holiday for many nature religions.

What about the practice of exchanging gifts? While it’s hard to nail down a specific source, it’s clear that some ancient Roman religious rites included the practice. Some would say that when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in the fourth century, he simply adopted many such Roman practices into the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

I don’t want to go all Ebenezer Scrooge on you, but the facts don’t lie. We celebrate our Lord’s birthday in some ways that are, well, suspect. The secular world could care less, but for those within the faith we should at least consider the question: Are we doing the right thing in observing Christmas the way we do?

One particular event from the biblical account of Jesus’ birth sheds light on our problem. It provides a broader way of understanding modern Christmas symbols and traditions as well as a deeper appreciation for the ways the Christian faith transcends and fulfills all spiritual yearnings of the heart, ancient as well as modern.

Around the time of Jesus’ birth, according to Matthew 2:1, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” These were the famous wise men that always show up in Christmas pageants. Actually, though, they weren’t just wealthy visitors from Persia. “Magi” was the title of priests in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, a faith that predates Christianity and was even around when the Jews were putting their religion into its modern form during the Babylonian exile.

The gospel of Matthew reports that the priests followed a great star from their homeland all the way to Israel. When the star led them to Bethlehem they found the baby Jesus, “…they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasuries and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

In presenting Jesus with such extravagant gifts, the pagan priests not only were showing a heart for God’s truth, they were also making a theological statement. They were demonstrating the superiority of Jesus to their old religion. I know that’s not the politically correct way of describing the scene, but there’s no other way to understand it. Whatever insights and partial truths their old beliefs might have held were fulfilled and transcended by the Christ child. The old world of paganism was finished. God’s full revelation had arrived.

What all this means is that the stuff we do to celebrate Christ’s birth—the symbols, traditions, ornaments, decorations and practices—serve a higher purpose than we realize. They’re not the corruption of Christian truth by secular mythology. Instead, they demonstrate a crucial connection between what theologians call “general revelation” and “special revelation.”

Here’s what I mean. Much of our modern Christmas practices fall into the category of “general revelation”—the broad way God reveals himself through nature, events, non-biblical religion and human conscience. “Special revelation,” on the other hand, describes the specific details of God’s redemptive plan. The difference between the two is as clear as it is indispensable—general revelation can’t save you; only the special revelation of the crucified and risen Jesus can do that.

Like the wooden feeding trough in which the Christ child lay, the varied ways we celebrate Jesus’ birth provide a conceptual framework in which we can better grasp the true meaning of this blessed season.

When I decorate a Christmas tree, that doesn’t mean I’m worshiping a nature god. It means the beauty of the tree points my heart to the greater beauty of Jesus. When I give a Christmas gift to someone I love, I’m not invoking an ancient Roman deity; I’m recreating in a small way the gift God gave me in Jesus. When I hang in my hallway the portrait of Santa Claus my son painted in the third grade, I’m not worshiping an idol, I’m honoring the Father who was generous to send his Son into the world to save it

These traditions don’t distract me in the slightest from the real meaning of the season. If anything, they help keep it in the forefront of my life.

This is an edited version of a previous blog.