No not the results of the government's latest drink driving offensive but a look at one man's personal convictions about celebrating Christmas
I am sometimes involved in interviews at a theological college. We ask most of the questions but at the end they can ask what they want. I remember an occasion when one student asked about celebrating Christmas and Easter. He had come to the conviction this is something he did not want to be involved in and knowing that not all Christians take the same view he wanted to flag up his viewpoint. We assured him it would be no problem.
He is not alone in his convictions. I know of a minister with similar convictions who regularly goes on holiday at this time of year knowing that most of the church take a different approach to the season. The late Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, apparently used to really enjoy having the place to himself each December 25, which was for him an ordinary working day.
At the other extreme are Christians who keep Christmas as enthusiastically as anyone. Some will have a crib in their front room, pipe endless Christmas carols through the house and send cards with nativity scenes and texts. Some even talk of celebrating Christ's birthday and the idea of not being in church on Christmas day of all days make them rather nervous.
What about you? Did you tut a little when you saw that the magazine theme was a Christmas one? Or were you pleased that the subject has been raised again? Whatever your reaction you need to hold firm convictions on this vexed subject but you need to hold them with grace recognising that not all will hold the same convictions as you.
What I want to do here is to set out my own convictions so that if you are undecided on the issue it may help you to come to firm convictions, which we all need, and if you are decided you will have a good opportunity to test your convictions and consider whether there might be need for change.
Conviction 1 The New Testament does not require believers to keep any particular festival
Talking about Jewish customs in Colossians 2:16 Paul says 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. In Romans 14 he says (6, 7a) One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.
Obviously the Lord's Day is to be kept special as it is part of the moral law but with everything else it is up to the individual. If you wish to celebrate Passover or Israeli independence or your birthday or Christmas or (to a limited extent) Ramadan for that matter, you are free to do so.
Conviction 2 Christmas or the midwinter festival as some want us to call it is a pagan festival
It is certainly possible that Jesus was born on December 25 or thereabouts but the truth is that we do not know, we cannot know and we do not need to know if that is so. It is true that large numbers of people celebrate his birthday at this time of the year but that is undeniably tied into the pre-Christian traditions that existed in communities in the northern hemisphere long before they heard the gospel.
Wherever Christians have gone they have attempted to transform pagan customs into something more Christian. There is some evidence, for example, that Boniface the sixth century missionary to the Germans tried to stop pagan tree worship but still encouraged the custom of cutting down a fir tree and bringing it into the house in winter.
We may feel that pagan customs are better abandoned rather than adapted but the fact is that year by year we are confronted by pagan traditions, often with but increasingly without a Christian veneer, and we need to decide how to react. To do so we must try not to confuse what is allowable for a Christian to do with what it is necessary for him to do. It is allowable for a Christian to put a tree in his house and decorate it or eat plum pudding or wear a paper hat and blow a party puffer. It is allowable for him to celebrate Christ's birth with songs and readings and sermons any day of the year. None of these things are necessary for him to do.
Conviction 3 Christmas or the midwinter festival is a good idea for many
If you live in the northern hemisphere winter is long and dreary. Splitting it up with a celebration in the middle makes good sense psychologically. If at the same time lots of people want to say it is a time to celebrate Christ's birth then rather than complaining about it take advantage of the opportunity to talk about his birth, his life and his death too and how to come to him.
Having said that it is a pagan festival, if we are going to celebrate it then we must nevertheless be careful to celebrate it in a Christian way. Can we justify the amount we are spending albeit on other members of the family? Is slumping in front of the TV for more than a few hours a good idea? What about all that food and drink – is it right to so indulge? Are we just being swept along with it all and not thinking about how to glorify God? These are the sorts of questions to ask.
More positively, many will want to go further and not simply seek to shun the commercialised and pagan Christmas that is so common but really celebrate the fact of our Saviour's birth. When he saw Christmas trees Luther would famously speak about how Jesus the Light of the World has come into this dark world. That fact beats anything the world has to offer.
Conviction 4 No celebration should be allowed to unduly interfere with the Lord's Day
I do not know how you celebrate Christmas Day. For many people it includes a number of things that they would not normally do on the Lord's Day. It is important not to let anything interfere with keeping the Lord's Day as far as possible and so when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, as it will this year, it is wise for those who mark it to think ahead and consider how best they can handle possible conflicts. For many of us it will be wisest if, this year at least, we do many of the things that we normally do on December 25 the day before or the day after.