It is true that prior to 336 A.D. Dec. 25 was the time when some polytheistic religions celebrated this day as the day of the rebirth of the sun. So, yes, in perhaps its roots, one may rightly claim that December 25 has its origins in non-Christian beliefs. If we were to stop there, we could perhaps make a good case for not recognizing the holiday as Christians. We could do that, but to do so would not be intellectually nor spiritually honest.
Historically the reason for establishing Dec. 25 as the day we celebrate Christ's birth is based in the common belief is that this day was chosen purposefully to correspond to the heathen festivals that took place around the time of the winter solstice. It is on this day, Dec. 25, when the days begin to lengthen and when these non-Christians celebrated the "rebirth of the sun."
Scholars feel that the early church made the birth of Christ, who is called the "The Light of the World" (see John 8:12) analogous to the rebirth of the Sun in order to make Christianity more meaningful to the heathen converts. It makes sense that the church would do this; after all we are in the transforming business.
The message of the Gospel is that God transforms us. Those of us who know Christ understand this on a personal level (i.e., individual salvation) but few understand it on the corporate level (i.e., the church in general and our celebrations in particular). The Bible says, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV). What a marvelous truth this is. It doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what you've done, God loves you and on the basis of Christ's willing sacrifice his justice is satisfied and you can receive a brand new start, if you will but trust him. That truth sums up the whole of the Bible.
I see no problem whatsoever in the practice of allowing the Christ who can transform lives to transform ceremonies or holidays as well. One of my professors used to describe God's work through history as "Elephant Theology." The name comes from the fact that elephants gathered at a watering hole will not force their way through the herd, but rather they rub buns up and down the line, a gentle way of letting the herd know they are there; then, when the herd opens a place for the new-comer to enter, that elephant will back in and only when he or she reaches the waters edge will he then turn around to drink. By referring to God's work in society as "elephant theology," my professor meant that God doesn't bull his way in and trample either our society or our rituals, rather he backs in and transforms it. That is what the church did in 336 A.D. with the holiday of the winter solstice.
Since that time, frankly I know very few who recognize Dec. 25 as anything other than the celebration of Christ's birth. Certainly in our day we have tried persistently to remove Christ from this holiday and there has been a resurgence of pagan worship which tends to focus on the naturalistic phenomenon of this day; that is, they have gone back to roots so to speak and celebrate the winter solstice rather than the birth of Christ. But that doesn't mean that we Christians should then abandon the holiday.
Whether you agree with my assessment in this article or not is certainly your prerogative. There are, after all, issues within Christianity which are not fully spelled out in Scripture and over which many have differing opinions. How do we deal with issues such as these? I think the answer is found in Romans 14. Simply put, where the Scripture does not give us clear-cut answers, we are free to follow our consciences on those issues. In this case, for me, I celebrate Christmas and I enjoy the celebration. I hope you will too.
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. He can be heard Thursdays on the radio on WMVV 90.7 (FM) at 8:30 p.m.