I vividly remember turning eighteen for one particular reason: it was my first birthday with Facebook. Like clockwork, people fell (without exception) into one of three categories: the classmates and acquaintances who wished me a happy birthday by writing on my wall, the dozen or two close friends who texted me, and my best friend/band-mate Marcus, who gave me a call. I wasn’t offended by the divides; rather, I was fairly amused when I recognized the pattern. It just made sense.
In a few days, much of the world will celebrate approximately the 2020th birthday of Jesus of Nazareth–the “Christ Mass” as accepted in the 6th century by the Catholic church as part of its liturgical calendar–but different cultures will celebrate the holiday (“holy day”) in a multitude of different ways. There will be family reunions and feasts. There will be gift giving and receiving. Santa Claus will fill stockings hung from fireplaces and St. Nick will fill shoes left outside front doors. There will be midnight masses and Sunday morning church services. But what do we know about the day Jesus was born, and why do we celebrate it?
To tackle the first question as simply as possible: not much. The most liberal count of verses in the Bible that actually describe the day of Jesus’s birth is a whopping sixteen. I personally counted fifteen verses in the Gospel of Luke and a single verse in the Gospel of Matthew, but like I said, that’s liberal: the chronology of these verses is vague enough that some of them could be describing the days following the birth. But let’s go with sixteen. There are 7,957 verses in the New Testament. That means, of all of the books of the Bible written in light of Jesus’s life, only 0.2% is dedicated to what we call “Christmas Day.” Compared to the 31,102 verses that comprise the entire Bible, that’s only 0.05%. (To be fair, the Old Testament does contain prophecies that look toward Jesus’s birth, but I’ll mention those later).
As for what those verses tell us, we get that Jesus was born in a manger, then visited by shepherds. Everything about Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem and finding shelter at an inn’s manger most likely happened in the days or weeks leading up to Jesus’s birth. Jesus wasn’t even named Jesus until eight days after he was born. The idea of three wise men appearing on Christmas with gifts is also faulty, the result (I assume) of squishing the general events surrounding the birth into the popular narrative of the holiday. From the biblical account, the Magi (literally “magicians”) came to Bethlehem after the birth, potentially months afterwards. What we don’t know is how many magicians there were or what quantity of gifts they brought, but there’s a high likelihood it was more than three men with far more than three trinket boxes’ worth of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
So, why do we celebrate Christmas Day? That changes from person to person. Those with no religious ties often take advantage of the days off from work to gather with family and exchange gifts with loved ones. These people presumably celebrate Christmas because it’s a fun, comforting winter tradition and a near-universally accepted aspect of our culture. Growing up, my family sought to find the balance between Santa Claus and Jesus, but as I’ve aged, I’ve met more families who aim to remove all aspects of celebration that don’t pertain directly to Christianity (e.g., no Santa Claus, using decorations that highlight the nativity instead of Frosty or Rudolph, etc.). If we place everyone’s traditions on a spectrum of Christ-less to Christ-only, I imagine most people fall somewhere in between. I mean, will even the most irreligious people be able to avoid “Silent Night”? Do the strictest of Christians realize which of their traditions might have pagan roots? Within all these mixed-up traditions, does it really matter how we celebrate? Is there a difference between leaving a “happy birthday” message on Jesus’s Facebook wall and giving him a phone call?
When I think of all of the birthday parties I’ve hosted or attended, it wasn’t always collections of close-friends-only. Most of us hang out with our close friends on a regular basis, so birthdays make great occasions for gathering up friends we don’t regularly see. So, sure, let’s invite all the phone-callers, all the text-messengers, and all the wall-posters. Whether you’re a faithful Christian or were raised vaguely religious or just like the holiday season, you’re invited. This might sound sarcastic or hyperbolic, but any look at church attendance would show this to be a reality: Christmas services see some of the highest attendance numbers for most churches nationwide, second only to Easter. However, I’ve never attended a party that didn’t exist. Do we really have any precedence for assuming that Jesus would want us celebrating his birthday, and with such significance? What do we assume is the spiritual purpose of Christmas for the church?
Supposedly, the Christian intention behind celebrating the birth of Christ every year is to remember and honor the incarnation: the mystery of God coming as man. However, the incarnation was not a single event but a 33 year long reality. The more I think about it, the more harmful I believe it is to make the birth of Christ the focus on the incarnation. I mentioned earlier that a number of verses in the Old Testament prophesied to the birth of Jesus. The greatest collection of these can be found in the seventh chapter of Isaiah. Verse 14 states, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The miracle of the incarnation started the very moment the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and conceived a child; the miracle of Christmas was not that a pregnant woman gave birth in a manger but that a virgin had become pregnant in the first place!
Another interesting example of the personhood and incarnation of Jesus in the womb comes from the simultaneous miraculous pregnancy of John the Baptist, whose mother Elizabeth was far too old to feasibly become pregnant. In the second chapter of Luke, Mary visits Elizabeth. Verse 41 states, “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” Mary was likely pregnant at this point, so when John–the prophet who would foretell of Jesus and baptize him at the start of his ministry–senses her presence, he reacts accordingly. The miracle of the incarnation was already set in motion, and the incarnation would continue to the cross.
I don’t make a big deal out of Christmas Day because neither does the Bible. As far as I know, (and feel free to prove me wrong), there isn’t a single New Testament epistle that makes mention of Jesus’s birth. There is no record of the early church fathers recognizing Jesus’s birthday, and most of the reformers (see: Protestant Reformation of 1517) were against celebrating Christmas as well. Is there anything wrong with having days off from work, or having feasts with your family and friends, or giving gifts to loved ones? By no means! Nor is it wrong to celebrate any of the events in Scripture. But we shouldn’t pretend that Christmas is mandatory when it is man-made. We shouldn’t make Christmas paramount when it is peripheral.
In my opinion, anyone should be allowed to celebrate the holiday called “Christmas” however they please: be that with or without lights, with or without evergreen trees, with or without marathons of A Christmas Story. In that same vein, though, anyone should be allowed not to celebrate Christmas, removing the pretense that Christians are “supposed” to celebrate it or that the day has any religious importance. Yuletide joy and the spirit of Christmas aren’t spiritual realities, they’re psychological fabrications. For the Christian, the only mandated holiday (again, a word which is literally derived from “holy day”) we have is the Sabbath; we have 52 holidays every year that are each more spiritually important than Christmas. That final point is particularly notable in 2016, when Christmas falls on a Sunday. If the goal of a Christian is to love and obey God through faith in Christ as revealed in Scripture, then we must know that the Sabbath is a more important holiday than Christmas. I would argue that we should believe it’s the better holiday, too! In fear of sounding legalistic, holier-than-thou, self-righteous, or whatever else, I must say: to prioritize Christmas over the Sabbath–to prioritize a man-made holy day over the God-given holy day–is wrong.
Don’t allow me to make the final word, though. Examine the Scriptures for yourself, and see where your conscience falls concerning if and how to celebrate Christmas. As for me, on December 25, 2016, I’ll be celebrating a holiday called the Sabbath, a day of worship and rest, where every week, the little portion of the universal church that I call home gathers for worship, teaching, feasting, and communion; where every week, we get to remember and honor and celebrate the incarnation, the birth, the life, the death, the resurrection, and the reign of Jesus Christ.