A single tradition can mean very different things across religious and spiritual backgrounds. No traditions are more controversial than those surrounding the Christmas season. What we know as "Christmas" today did not have its start in the Bible, although Christians associate biblical meaning to our contemporary Christmas celebrations.
While there's quite a bit of debate as to when Jesus was actually born, no one can know 100% for sure when that date was. Some believe the Christian Church landed on December 25 as the "official" date of Christ's birth in order to piggyback on the pagan celebrations during winter solstice (December 21; the shortest day of the year). While early Christians did separate themselves from pagans (i.e. anyone not professing Christianity), they also looked for ways to use the ideology and traditions of the pagans around them to more clearly communicate biblical truths of the gospel (Acts 17:16-34). Simply put, they would analyze the context of pagan beliefs, then see how the hope of Jesus would be best understood in that context—sort of like using a native language to be better understood by the natives.
Yes, some traditions that are practiced at Christmas DO have their roots in pagan spirituality. The ringing of bells was thought to drive out evil spirits. Mistletoe was a sign of peace between Druids. Evergreen trees were a tradition of bringing greenery inside at winter and celebrating life. The winter solstice was generally intended to be a celebration looking forward to longer days, more light, and more warmth.
NO! Traditions change and adapt throughout history, altering their meaning for the current generation. Just as symbols and words change their meaning over time, so do traditions. Some words we use every day now were, at one time, considered vulgar. Symbols we associate with one thing, such as the pentagram, have been used throughout history by multiple cultures and for multiple reasons. (Spoiler alert: Pentagrams haven't always been a witchcraft thing; they were used in Christian symbology before the cross became the dominant symbol.)
While God doesn't change (Malachi 3:6), traditions and their meanings do. Candles can be used for simple light during a blackout, to assist in witchcraft, or to concentrate a more reverent atmosphere during a church service. Bells can be rung with the intent to drive out spirits, signal incoming danger, or to "sing to the Lord" (Psalm 95:1). Neither the lighting of candles nor the ringing of bells is inherently good or evil—what matters is the heart of the person participating in the activity.
Personal convictions function as our moral compass and help us when we come to a decision where the answer may not be totally clear in the Bible. Establishing our own convictions will help us make beneficial, godly choices (1 Corinthians 10:23). Different Christians will have different convictions, and that's OK. Romans 14 talks about how Christians may differ on various traditions or practices, but to withhold judgement because what each of us does is between the individual and God alone.
"Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand." —Romans 14:4
A Christian's observation of Christmas is not inherently evil or sinful, despite the roots of some traditions. As you consider Christmas traditions and practices, examine your own motivations and intentions behind what you do or do not choose to observe. Do any of these practices cause you to sin personally? Would they cause someone else to sin?
Why do you decorate a Christmas tree? Out of obligation, celebration, family tradition, or some other reason? Do you give a gift to a friend because you love them? Or is there guilt-ridden obligation involved in your gift-giving?
When you light a candle, are you reminded of hope and of Jesus, "the light of men" (John 1:4)? Do you light the candle as a reminder of life's importance and beauty? Do you light the candle simply for ambiance or do you light a candle and think of witchcraft and darkness? Do you ring bells and delight in the beautiful sound or are you reminded of spirits you fear? Some believers are convicted against having a Christmas tree or giving gifts. A new believer may have converted to Christianity from a religion like Druidism, Wicca, or Satanism and now struggles to see beauty and purity in the candle.
Philippians 4:8 reminds us to think on beautiful and good things. If you are convicted against a tradition or a certain practice is causing a stumbling block for you in dwelling on goodness, then there is no shame in not practicing it. On the other hand, if you are "fully convinced in [your] own mind" (Romans 14:5) that there is nothing wrong with these traditions for you personally and/or these traditions help you experience the beauty of Jesus' birth and early life, then there is no shame in celebrating.
If you choose not to practice certain (or any) Christmas traditions, that is OK, but kindly respect others who do not share your conviction. If you choose to celebrate Christmas, that is OK, but kindly respect those who have a different conviction than you. For either believer in these situations, to boast that their conviction is the "right" one would be sinful pride (Romans 12:16; Proverbs 16:5).
Light the candle. Ring the bell. Give the gift. Or don't. Either way, we can still agree to rejoice over the "good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).
The celebration of Christmas is not inherently "bad." Some theories claim that Christian Christmas traditions were born of pagan celebrations. While early Christians did separate themselves from pagan practices, they also looked for ways to use the ideology and traditions of the pagans around them to more clearly communicate biblical truths of the gospel (Acts 17:16-34). Traditions can change meaning across cultures and over time, but God doesn't change (Malachi 3:6). Determine your own personal convictions about Christmas traditions and respect that others may choose differently. Be "fully convinced in [your] own mind" (Romans 14:5) about how you may rejoice over the "good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.