Wise Men HeaderA Biblical basis for celebrating Christmas

By Rev. Phil Greetham. © Copyright 2003.  This version 2012

Leaving aside those churches who believe that all aspects Christianity should be celebrated every day and that to break up various aspects of Christianity into days and festivals is wrong, most groups of Christian do celebrate special days. For instance a Sabbath day, and special days like Easter or Pentecost. Some churches go further and have a full year of festivals, marking the Trinity, the conception of Christ, the ascension, Palm Sunday, etc. If a particular aspect of the Christian faith is important to merit a special day, then it is given one. In which case the birth of Christ is obviously going to be one of them. However it does concern some Christians that they only celebrate Christian festivals which are specifically mentioned in the Bible as being celebrated by the early church. In which case it has been pointed out to me that Christmas is not mentioned in the Bible.

Obviously what we believe about the the nature of the Bible is important here. If it is believed that if God wanted us to celebrate the birth of Christ then He would have clearly mentioned it in the Bible then the argument falls straight away, since Christmas is not mentioned and neither is there an account of Christians celebrating the birth of Christ. For some people that is enough and what follows is irrelevant. However if you want to look for indirect evidence for the early church celebrating the coming of Christ in the world - - - - read on.

The early church was of course by nature Jewish. The Jewish practices and festivals were all seen in the light of Christ and were adapted by the Christians to reflect this. It is generally accepted therefore that the usual Sunday Sabbath has as its origin the Jewish Saturday Sabbath. In the same way the Passover is reflected in the Eucharist/Communion. Easter reflects the first-fruits celebration, Pentecost, the feast of weeks, etc. Every major Jewish festival was therefore given a new aspect by the new Christian experience. It was Dr Gary Ong, who some years ago pointed out to me via email, that there is a glaring exception to this, and that is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, or festival of lights or dedication. Dr Ong, tried to see if there was any evidence in the Bible of a Christian version of Hanukkah. What he found was very interesting. Now I cannot here go into detail about the origins and Jewish belief and practice of Hanukkah, but the essential elements of Hanukkah are.

  • celebrating restitution of the faith,
  • the weak overthrowing the strong
  • the cleansing of the temple.
  • the establishment of miraculous light in the darkness

  • Dr Ong pointed out that the idea of Jesus reflecting temple ritual by his death and resurrection is a major feature of the Book to the Hebrews. (see Heb 9:18, 10,20 especially.) He suggested that the focus of the Book to the Hebrews could have been a Christian version of Hanukkah. We looked for further evidence and he found John 10:22, where John is linking Hanukkah to the debate about the the divine nature of Christ. This led naturally to the beginning of John's gospel and those first 14 verses of poetry and deep theology about Christ being the true light and indeed Christ being the same as God in his very nature. The connection between the divine origin of Christ, the light in the darkness, and the temple imagery might have come from an established Christian Hanukkah type festival. Indeed the first 14 verses might have been adapted by John from an existing liturgy used at the Christian Hanukkah.
    I am convinced that the early church did have a Hanukkah type celebration. Hanukkah takes place in December, and I am sure it is no co-incidence that by the 4th century the church was celebrating Christmas at the same time. Christmas may in popular terms be the celebrating of the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it, but much deeper is the celebrating of the incarnation - God coming to our word as the human Jesus, which is precisely what is being celebrated in John 1: 1- 14.

    By the 4th century Christianity was the official religion in Rome and it is likely that Christmas was moved slightly to the 25th December to replace a pagan festival.
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