Martin found Brad quite intimidating. Brad seemed to know so much about the Bible and he had strong opinions. Whatever the conversation, Brad let you know what he thought and what the Bible said about it.
Martin, on the other hand, didn’t know so much. He was learning. He was reading his Bible most days, listening carefully to the sermons and taking notes, but he still felt like he was just skimming the surface. There was so much he didn’t seem to know. It was when he talked to Brad that he felt most ignorant. Brad swamped him with his knowledge. Martin truly admired Brad’s depth of understanding but, with every conversation, he felt more and more useless.
Never mind; one day he too would know as much as Brad.
When he had become a Christian, Brad had invited him to meet once a week to chat and to do some Bible study together. Martin felt really privileged that Brad was willing to give up so much time to help him grow spiritually. Martin was hungry to learn; Brad was eager to teach. Perfect.
It hadn’t turned out to be quite so perfect though. Martin had questions that had cropped up during the week but Brad seemed to have an agenda of his own. He seldom listened to Martin. He was more intent on describing the latest theological argument that he had been in (and, according to him, always seemed to win.) Or explain the latest academic article he had read. Most of it went straight over Martin’s head, and he left their meetings slightly resentful that he had wasted his time – again.
Martin wanted to know how to pray and how to resist temptation. Brad talked about the fourth century bishop, Gregory of Nyssa, and whether or not his theology had been influenced by Neoplatonism. Or the latest trends in the study of Pauline eschatology.
Brad had lots of theories that he talked about as if they were incontrovertible facts. And Martin was always the ignorant student. Brad was a King-James-only, Calvinistic, pre-tribulationist. And he could defend it from the Bible.
Martin didn’t have the courage to say he didn’t want to meet any more.
One day, Brad said “Martin, mate, tell me please that you do not celebrate Christmas.”
“No… no, of course not! As if I would!” Martin replied, knowing that he was lying. Why would he not celebrate Christmas?
Brad was determined to pursue the subject anyway. “It’s not Christian, you know. It’s a pagan festival.”
Martin was already struggling. How could celebrating the birth of the Christ not be Christian?
“Jesus wasn’t born on 25 December”, Brad chortled contemptuously. “We don’t know when Jesus was born but it almost certainly wasn’t in the winter. Shepherds wouldn’t have been out in the fields in the middle of winter. So, where do you think the 25 December date came from? It’s pagan. It was an ancient Roman celebration of the birth of the god Mithra. How can Christians possibly adopt pagan events and false gods? The Bible says we are to have no other gods than the real God. People who celebrate Christmas are directly disobeying the Bible and will burn in hell.”
“Wow! This looks serious,” Martin thought. Brad certainly knows his stuff. He’s done his research. Martin didn’t have a clue how to respond.
“Christmas is never mentioned in the Bible,” Brad continued. “We should do only what God has told us to do. He has told us to celebrate Jesus’ death, for example, in Communion, but we are never told to celebrate His birth.”
“I thought Christmas was mentioned in the Bible,” Martin objected.
“Well, we have the stories of Jesus’ birth. Where are they? In Matthew and Luke. We know about Mary and Joseph and their journey to Bethlehem and the shepherds and the wise men. That’s in the Bible.”
Brad snorted. “We know about His birth but there is no annual celebration called “Christmas”. We’re not meant to celebrate it.”
Martin knew he was on dangerous ground trying to debate with Brad but he was getting a bit resentful. Brad seemed like the ultimate Scrooge trying to take all the joy out of Christmas. It seemed to Martin that the angels had celebrated Jesus’ birth with a huge choir and the shepherds had worshipped and the wise men had acknowledged His birth and worshipped and given gifts. How come it was OK for them to celebrate it but not OK for Christians?
Brad had made other points though that Martin had no idea how to answer. In fact, maybe Brad was right. Maybe it was simply a pagan festival and not appropriate for Christians. The overwhelmingly materialistic and commercial nature of modern Christmases certainly looked pagan. Maybe that did reveal the true character of Christmas and Christians had been sucked into something evil. Maybe he really would burn in hell for celebrating Christmas. It seemed strange. He couldn’t quite understand it but maybe going to church on Christmas Day and giving thanks for the birth of the Saviour condemned a person to hell.
“Where do all our Christmas traditions come from,” Brad asked. “They’re pagan too. Worshipping decorated trees and hanging mistletoe and burning yule logs. It’s all pagan. It has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. And what about Santa Claus? What has he got to do with Jesus and yet he is the hero of Christmas.”
It was looking pretty compelling, Martin thought. All this evidence was mounting up against celebrating Christmas. Mind you, he didn’t remember actually worshipping the tree.
It seemed that Brad had read his thoughts. “Don’t you bow down when you put the present under it? You bow down to the tree! That’s worship, man! And the Bible specifically condemns Christmas trees. Listen to Jeremiah 10:2-4. 2 This is what the Lord says: ‘Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. 3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. 4 They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not totter. Do not learn the ways of the nations. Do not adopt pagan practices. And Colossians 2:16-17 say that religious festivals and special days are a shadow of the things that were to come. The reality is found in Christ.”
One thing Martin knew was that he wanted to live a holy and God-pleasing life. He didn’t understand all of this but it did seem that there were multiple reasons for not celebrating Christmas. And he knew that obedience had to come before his love for his family. He rang his Mum and said he wouldn’t be coming to the house this Christmas. He’d catch up with his brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces maybe the day before or the day after but he couldn’t be there on Christmas Day. His mother was very disappointed but Martin stuck to his principles. Christian disciples must put Jesus ahead of family.
His absence that day only made his family even more dubious about what had happened to him when he had become a Christian. And Martin sat at home alone watching TV. He wasn’t quite sure how that was godlier than going to church and remembering Jesus, giving thanks for His coming into the world to save sinners, and being with family. However, Brad had said so and Brad always knew best. Fortunately, and typically, there was nothing on TV even remotely Christmas-related so Martin wasn’t even tempted to think of Jesus’ birth and thereby sin. He was sure he was being very holy but it was actually the worst Christmas ever.
It was so bad that he decided to do some research. That Jeremiah reading that so clearly condemned Christmas trees. When he looked it up, he discovered that it wasn’t about trees at all. It was about idols carved out of wood. The next verse made it clear. What about the Colossians one about religious festivals and Sabbath days being worthless – only Christ is real? He saw that that was talking about Old Testament festivals that had been rendered obsolete when Jesus came. Observing them could not save; they were simply pointing to Christ. “But,” he thought, “I wasn’t trying to be saved by celebrating Christmas. On the contrary, I wanted to rejoice in the gift of the Saviour.”
His suspicions had been aroused and his appetite whetted. He dug deeper into the research. Christmas trees, he discovered, were not pagan; they were Christian! In Germany, the main prop for a medieval play about Adam and Eve was a fir tree hung with apples, representing the Garden of Eden. German Christians set them up in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it representing the bread of Communion – the body of Christ; redemption – and they hung candles on it representing Jesus. Over the years this became the Christmas tree.
Santa Claus and the commercialism were still a bit of a problem but Martin discovered that it actually is possible that shepherds were in the fields in December and Christians have believed that 25 December was the date of Christ’s birth of Christ’s birth since the second or third century. But, even if Jesus wasn’t born on that day, is it not still a good thing to celebrate His coming at some point? Martin wasn’t sure if it was relevant but he noted that Queen’s Birthday is not actually on the Queen’s birthday either.
He felt a bit peeved. He had missed Christmas and all because of Brad’s penchant for splitting hairs and making up rules based on not even being careful about how he read the Bible. Martin decided he was going to do something about it!
He rang his family and apologised for having been an idiot. His day had been miserable and he had damped theirs because he had been a bit sort-of super-holy. He had acted as if he was a bit superior. His family weren’t Christians but they laughed and said that he was forgiven and they invited him to join them for the evening. Martin thought their forgiveness was maybe close to the real meaning of Christmas.
He had a great time with them but he said he wanted to make it up to them. He wanted to do more. He wanted to really celebrate Christmas. And so he proposed that they get together again 2 weeks later. He would organise it. He would pay for it but they would have a top-notch celebration.
He told them about the journey he had been on and how silly Christians could be sometimes. But he also added that there were still some things that troubled him. The materialism and commercialism were, he suggested, totally contrary to the real message of Christmas. “Let’s have no presents. We don’t need another round of presents. And let’s not spend mega-bucks. Can we have a really good day? Can we love each other and have a lot of fun, but can we remember that it is about God giving us His Son?”
They were OK with that. Why not make it the real thing? “Actually,” they said, “we’d quite like to know what it really does mean. We know about the spending, and the over-eating and over-drinking, and Santa but we have little idea about Jesus and no idea why He is such a big deal to you. Why not tell us?”
And so it was that on January 7th Martin and his family celebrated Christmas. He didn’t know it but so did maybe 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians as well. Martin got to tell his family the story of Jesus and all of them said it had been better than their other Christmas.
READ Col 3:15-17
 3. The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Micropaedia, Vol. II (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1981)