The celebration of Christmas has become engulfed again this year in the "culture wars" between liberal and conservative, secular and religious.
In America especially, some want to eliminate Christmas as an official holiday or ban all symbols and references to it in public places; others are content with diluting it to a more inclusive, secular "holiday season" to be shared with Hanukka, Kwanza and other religious observances. In reaction, many conservative Christians are campaigning to preserve Christmas in the public domain, while lamenting its ever-increasing commercialization.
Even the US House of Representatives got into the act recently, passing a resolution by a wide margin expressing its sense "that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected." The resolution "strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas; and expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions, for those who celebrate Christmas."
It may surprise those outside the faith, but there is an equally heated debate within Christianity itself over Christmas. Do a Google search on the "origins of Christmas" and you will see what I mean.
This battle centers around "traditionalists" who desire to keep time-honored Christmas observances versus "purists" who contend the holiday has Roman pagan origins and must be abandoned. One crucial aspect of this dispute is the lack of certainty that Christ was born on December 25 and how that date was eventually chosen. Another point of departure revolves around the Christmas tree, introduced by Martin Luther some 400 years ago as representing the "tree of life."
THIS DISCORD is not new. Under Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans banned Christmas in 1652 in England. The Pilgrims, a strand of Puritanism, also disapproved of Christmas in New England, actually outlawing it from 1659 to 1681 in Boston. Other colonies, on the other hand, celebrated the occasion freely and it has been an official US federal holiday since 1870.
Today, however, the internal differences over Christmas have resurfaced and can be particularly acute in Christian Zionist circles, as many among us seek to rediscover the Hebraic roots of our faith and give priority to Jewish or biblical feasts. Thus Evangelicals living in Israel can face the anomalous situation where some fellow believers might take offense if we have a Christmas tree in our home, while many of our Jewish friends are actually curious to drop by and see the tree all decked out for the holidays. With the general absence of Christmas scenery here, the traditionalists can really start pining for home.
So should Christians mark this holiday, and if so, how? Even Catholic scholars admit that Christmas - meaning "Christ mass" - falls near an ancient Roman festival honoring a false deity around the time of the winter solstice. After Christianity was legalized in 313 AD and gained popularity, some sources explain that Church leaders believed it would reduce the isolation felt by some new converts if they were allowed to celebrate the birth of the Son when others still marked the rebirth of the Sun.
In the judgment of those Christian leaders, this did not compromise the essential doctrines of the faith and actually reflected their belief that Christ had triumphed over the powers of darkness. The Bible did not say on which day Jesus was born and there was no dogma that would be affected by one day rather than another. Thus Christmas may have fallen near a pagan festival, but did not originate from it. And in fact, some of the earliest believers had already started marking the birth of Jesus around the first day of Hanukka.
Still, it is difficult to establish the actual date of Christ's birth - alternative theories place it in spring, summer and fall - and celebrating birthdays was not a part of biblical culture back then. Birthday parties were only for pagan kings, while biblical figures were honored on the anniversaries of their deaths for their legacies in life.
Yet for Christians, the Nativity changed all this. According to Luke's account, a "great company" of the angelic hosts turned out to herald the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. So if God emptied out heaven to come rejoice over His gift to the world, there must be reason for us to celebrate as well. In fact, this event has inspired some of the most powerful and theologically sound worship hymns in the entire Christian repertoire.
We are rejoicing in the incredible gift of light that came down from above, knowing that the world does not always comprehend that light the way we have come to.
In this light is freedom, the Apostle Paul teaches, adding, "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day." (Colossians 2:16; see also Romans 14:6)
How to mark Christmas, therefore, comes down to a matter of conscience within each family. We have preferred a manger scene to a tree in my family for many years now, for example, but I cannot impose that standard on another Christian household. I should understand that - just as Jews are not worshiping the unique menora of Hanukka - they are not worshipping their Christmas tree. Rather, they are using it to kindle reflection upon the Babe's birth and thereby celebrate the true meaning of the holiday.
The writer is public relations officer for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. www.icej.org