Category: (00) What is the true meaning of Christmas?


Luke 2:1-20

The first Christmas I remember was when I was perhaps three or four years old. I still recall the excitement the moment I awoke and leaped from my bed. I ran to the top of the stairs where I held a fabulous view of the tree and discovered that it was full of presents—and all of them were for mom, dad, my brother and I! I’m sure you, too, can recall memories from past Christmases, whether good or bad. There’s just something about that day that sticks in our minds.

You can be sure that all of the people who experienced the first Christmas never forgot it. Joseph remembered the weight of responsibility on his shoulders as he cared for Mary during their journey and searched for a place where she could give birth. And we can imagine that the shepherds often replayed in their minds the scene of glorious angels and the sight of the newborn Messiah. But Scripture mentions only one who “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (v. 19). Mary had carried this baby in her womb for nine months, but now she saw what no one else had ever seen—the face of God!

What was it like to see deity displayed in the body of a newborn baby? Though we can never see what Mary saw, we can each remember when we first recognized our Savior—the moment we realized He died for us.

This Christmas, take time to remember when you first met Jesus. What was going on in your life? How did you feel after accepting His offer of forgiveness? How has your life changed since that day? Now imagine what it will be like when you finally see Him face to face in heaven.

Every year, people sing songs like “The First Noel” at Christmas, and many wonder what a “noel” is. In French, joyeux noel means “Merry Christmas.” Our modern English word comes from the Middle English nowel, which Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined as “a shout of joy or Christmas song.” The roots of the word are the French noel (“Christmas season”), which may come from the Old French nael. This, in turn, is derived from the Latin natalis, meaning “birth.” Since Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, it was natural for people to refer to the celebration as the “nativity” or the “birth.”

Another possible root for noel, also from the French, is the word nouvelles, meaning “news.” As the popular carol says, “The first noel the angels did say / Was to certain poor shepherds. . . .” The meaning of “news” certainly makes sense in that context; however, the early usage and definition of noel seem to focus more on the idea of birth, and that is probably the more accurate meaning.

There are very few records giving the details of the earliest Christmas practices, but at least as early as the 4th century, some Christian groups were celebrating natus Christus on December 25. Since their almanac referred to the day as “the birth of Christ,” it would be natural to see derivative words like nael and noel used in the same way.

In the Middle Ages, several English carols began with nowell, and French carols similarly used noel. Since early songs often used the first word as the title, a “noel” came to refer to any song about the birth of Christ. Because of this, the word now carries the dual meaning of a Christmas song and the Christmas celebration itself.

Our English carol “The First Noel” was first published in a book titled Carols Ancient and Modern, edited by William Sandys in 1823. The message of the song is the joyous pronouncement that the King of Israel has been born. When we sing the song or wish someone a joyous noel, we are following the example of the angels, announcing the good news that Jesus Christ was born, not just for Israel, but for all mankind, so we could receive forgiveness of sins through Him.

Speculation as to the time of Jesus’ birth dates back to the 3rd century, when Hyppolytus (ca. 170-236) claimed that Jesus was born on December 25. The earliest mention of some sort of observance on that date is in the Philoclian Calendar, representing Roman practice, of the year 336. Later, John Chrysostom favored the same date of birth. Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) had access to the original Roman birth census, which also documented that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. The date eventually became the officially recognized date for Christmas in part because it coincided with the pagan festivals celebrating Saturnalia and the winter solstice. The church thereby offered people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities and eventually reinterpreted many of their symbols and actions in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice.

December 25 has become more and more acceptable as the birth date of Jesus. However, some argue that the birth occurred in some other season, such as in the fall. Followers of this theory claim that the Judean winters were too cold for shepherds to be watching their flocks by night. History proves otherwise, however, and we have historical evidence that unblemished lambs for the Temple sacrifice were in fact kept in the fields near Bethlehem during the winter months.

The truth is we simply don’t know the exact date of our Savior’s birth. In fact, we don’t even know for sure the year in which He was born. Scholars believe it was somewhere between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C. One thing is clear: if God felt it was important for us to know the exact date of the Savior’s birth, He certainly would have told us in His Word. The Gospel of Luke gives very specific details about the event, even down to what the baby was wearing – “swaddling clothes”—and where he slept—“in a manger” (Luke 2:12). These details are important because they speak of His nature and character, meek and lowly. But the exact date of His birth has no significance whatsoever, which may be why God chose not to mention it.

The fact is that He was born, that He came into the world to atone for our sins, that He was resurrected to eternal life, and that He’s alive today. This is what we should celebrate, as we are told in the Old Testament in such passages as Zechariah 2:10: “’Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,’ declares the LORD.” Further, the angel that announced the birth to the shepherds brought “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Surely here is the cause for celebration every day, not just once a year.

Christmas is a popular December holiday celebrated by large numbers of people all around the world. It has long been known as the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which occurred over 2,000 years ago. However, not all who celebrate the holiday do so with Jesus’ birth in mind. In fact, there are many traditions associated with Christmas that actually began as a part of pagan culture.

The exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, as the Bible does not give specifics as to the dates of either His birth or conception. But in the second century A.D., a Roman Christian historian named Sextus Julius Africanus calculated Jesus’ birthdate to be December 25 (nine months after Africanus believed Jesus was conceived). In spite of the assumptions made in Africanus’s line of thinking, the date was widely accepted.

At that time, Roman culture already celebrated a holiday on December 25: Saturnalia, the winter solstice. This tradition honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, and was celebrated with merriment, feasting, and gift giving. When Rome eventually instituted Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century, the Roman church converted Saturnalia to a Christian holiday in order to commemorate Jesus’ birth. Christians have celebrated it as such ever since.

The question then becomes, “Since Christmas has its origins in pagan traditions, is it acceptable for Christians to celebrate it?” The fact remains that, although Christmas has some associations with a secular holiday, Christians still celebrate it to remember the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It may be a matter of conscience for some, for as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 10:23: “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive.” There are many others who believe the holiday has been redeemed due to the deeper meaning it has been given. These individuals continue to celebrate Christmas based on Paul’s words further on in the passage: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (verse 31).

Muslims often experience the conflict between the families of Ishmael [Ismail] and Isaac. Since God gave the Torah and Savior to the Jews, is the Good News only for them? The following Bible passage clearly answers the question:

“And at the end of eight days [after Jesus’ birth], when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. . . .

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

“‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’

“And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’

“And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God. . . .

“And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:21-40, emphasis added).

So is Jesus the Messiah for the Jews only? God did send Jesus to a Jewish family and nation, but Christ is also “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” and God’s way of salvation for “all peoples” (Luke 2:31-32). God sent Jesus not only to a specific people group but also to believers from across the world.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Although the world was separated from God due to sin, God provided Jesus to reconcile believers to Himself. Believers are those who turn from sin and trust Jesus Who paid the punishment for sin by dying on the cross. God proved Jesus won victory over sin and death by raising Jesus from the dead.

Believers realize they cannot earn a home in heaven by good works. They must be purified by Jesus’ perfect righteousness and atoning death. After saving believers, God gives them the strength to do good works, not for their salvation but for God’s glory and their reward:

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:3-8).

Now you understand why Jesus was born! After discovering the Christmas story, you probably have more questions to ponder. Diligently keep reading the Bible and praying to find the truth. To learn more about how Jesus accomplished God’s plan of salvation, you may want to begin the Bible study “Who is Jesus?”

As God reveals His truth to you through His Word the Bible, may you respond like the villagers who encountered Jesus: “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world’” (John 4:42).

Many people perceive that there is a concerted effort to eliminate the word “Christmas” from public discourse—sort of a “war on Christmas.” The stories seem to be coming more frequently: a grade-school choir sings “We Wish You a Happy Holiday” instead of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for their “Winter Concert.” A library invites “holiday displays” from the community provided the displays have no religious connotation—the stable may have animals in it, but no people. It is possible to do all one’s Christmas shopping and never see or hear the word “Christmas” in the stores.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with saying “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” But if someone says “Happy Holidays” for the sole purpose of not saying “Merry Christmas,” then we are right to question what’s going on. “Why is the word Christmas censored?” we wonder as we wander through the malls. Why do some public schools celebrate everything from Kwanzaa to Labafana the Christmas witch, and ban the Nativity, all in the name of “inclusion” and “tolerance”?

One reason put forward by those seeking to avoid the word Christmas is that it would offend non-Christians. But, according to a recent Gallup poll, only 3 percent of adults in America say it bothers them when a store makes specific reference to Christmas. The exclusion of Christmas, then, is not really a way to “adapt” to a more diverse culture, but a way to engineer a more secular culture.

Many times, the arguments against Christmas programs and displays are couched in political terms, but the bias against Christmas goes much deeper than that. This is primarily a spiritual battle, not a political one.

How should Christians respond to the ubiquitous use of “Happy Holidays” and the exclusion of Christmas? Here are some suggestions:

1) Celebrate Christmas! Let the joy of the season show in your life. Teach your family the significance of Jesus’ birth and make the Christmas traditions meaningful in your home.

2) Wish others a Merry Christmas. When confronted with a “Happy Holidays,” get specific, and wish the greeter a “Merry Christmas!” You may be surprised at how many respond in kind. Even if you’re met with resistance, don’t let it dampen your cheer. Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew was rebuffed year after year, but it never stopped him from wishing his humbug of an uncle a Merry Christmas and inviting him to Christmas dinner.

3) Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). The Christmas season is a wonderful opportunity to share Christ’s love and the gospel message. He is the reason for the season!

4) Pray for those in positions of power (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Pray for wisdom. Pray for revival so that Christmas, instead of being “offensive,” would be honored by all.

The true meaning of Christmas is love. John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” The true meaning of Christmas is the celebration of this incredible act of love.

The real Christmas story is the story of God’s becoming a human being in the Person of Jesus Christ. Why did God do such a thing? Because He loves us! Why was Christmas necessary? Because we needed a Savior! Why does God love us so much? Because He is love itself (1 John 4:8). Why do we celebrate Christmas each year? Out of gratitude for what God did for us, we remember His birth by giving each other gifts, worshipping Him, and being especially conscious of the poor and less fortunate.

The true meaning of Christmas is love. God loved His own and provided a way—the only Way—for us to spend eternity with Him. He gave His only Son to take our punishment for our sins. He paid the price in full, and we are free from condemnation when we accept that free gift of love. “But God demonstrated His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).