Considering that the holiday wasn’t even developed until centuries after Jesus’s death—and has been protested by Christians as often as atheists—it’s difficult to know how J.C. would feel about his birthday bonanza.
The holidays wouldn’t be the same without a “war on Christmas.” The annual embittered pleas from evangelicals to “keep Christ in Christmas” have now become as much of a holiday tradition as caroling or “planning” to volunteer at a homeless shelter. Waiting all year to find out what fabricated moment of anti-Jesus discrimination has virally incensed Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh (Starbucks cups? Bet you didn’t see that one coming!) now fills me with the same narcotic anticipation as freshly wrapped presents did when I was a child.
While I admire their enduring tenacity and ceaseless creativity in keeping this up each year, I can’t help but wonder if at some point in their pursuit of a homogenous holiday if they ever stop to wonder: Would Jesus celebrate Christmas?
Considering that the holiday wasn’t even developed until centuries after Jesus’s death, and went through endless mutations, and has been protested by Christians as often as it has been protested by atheists, it’s difficult to know how J.C. would feel about his birthday bonanza.
The first challenge with answering this question is just determining which Christmas and which Jesus we are talking about. The gospels alone present us with four, sometimes conflicting, versions of Jesus. Then there are the gnostic gospels, which are also wildly different. And Christmas itself was an appropriation of several pagan holidays, many of which centered around debaucheries that incensed the Puritans, who eventually whitewashed and monetized it beyond recognition.
Culture warriors would likely phrase the question “does Jesus celebrate Christmas?” since they believe he’s alive and well in Heaven—yet in Heaven, time does not exist so perhaps the tense doesn’t matter. Anyway, for argument’s sake, let’s simply ask: Would the Jesus of the Bible endorse Christmas in 2015?
Former teen heartthrob and current evangelical icon Kurt Cameron believes Jesus would have no objection to the pagan imagery and commercialism of modern Christmas, an argument he laid out in his 2014 film, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. Rotten Tomatoes famously ranked it as the worst movie of all time (something Cameron ascribes to an atheist conspiracy), yet Saving Christmas still functions as an instructional tool for Christians in need of rebuttals to their Wiki-obsessed relatives who say that Christmas has more to do with Dionysian orgies than with Christ.
“I look at what Christmas is and I think: This can’t be what God wants,” says Christian White at the beginning of the film, as he pouts in the garage during his family’s Christmas dinner. Playing an uptight, bespectacled Woody Allen-type (read: Jewish), White is disgusted with the non-Biblical Santa Claus and Christmas trees that dominates what he thinks should be a Christian holiday. Playing his self-righteous brother-in-law, Kirk Cameron spends the film explaining to White how all of the supposedly “pagan” elements of Christmas all lead back to the bible. It’s a message to all Christians that ultimately says, “Relax, you won’t go to Hell for any of this.”
Cameron goes through some impressive mental gymnastics to connect Jesus to the Christmas tree—it’s a symbol of the Tree of Life from Eden, he says, and the cross Jesus was slain on—and Santa Claus—the original, 4th century Saint Nicholas literally fought for Jesus to be declared a deity, not a man, at the council of Nicea, Cameron claims. Despite there being no historical evidence of the former, and the latter is a historical footnote that only illuminates the barbaric politics involved when Christian beliefs were being established, these two are the strongest rebuttals that Cameron has for White. The rest is a lot of smug grinning and vaguely related historical facts that don’t really answer any questions.
At one point, the writers of the film seemingly gave up on constructing a fact-based rebuttal to White’s argument that Jesus wasn’t born in December (some astronomers believe it was probably in June, but no one is certain), and just had Cameron say “the early Christians had plenty of good reasons for celebrating Jesus birth on December 25—and none of them have anything to do with the Winter Solstice. Last time I checked, God made the Winter Solstice when he set the planets on their orbit around the sun.”
Well, that answers that, then.
Due to its lack of sound reasoning, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas provided little help in answering whether Jesus would celebrate Christmas. Wanting to ground myself in a more historically sound perspective, I called upon a resource that I can safely assume Kirk Cameron would not approve of: Religious studies professors from non-Christian universities.
“Would Jesus celebrate his birthday? There’s nothing in the gospels to indicate that he did that,” said Hector Avalos, a former child preacher who is now a religious studies professor at Iowa State University. “If you take the Gospels as representing Jesus’s views, he never said ‘celebrate my birthday,’ he said ‘remember my death.’ Nowhere in the New Testament is there a celebration of the birthday of Jesus, nor an instruction to celebrate it.”
The story of Jesus’s birth was only mentioned in two of the four gospels, Luke and Matthew. Atheists and historians are fond of pointing out that the details of this event—the virgin birth, the manger, the shepherds, the three wise men who followed a star and brought gifts to worship the infant king—were all familiar plot-points of mythology stories in the area that predated Jesus by hundreds of years. This theme of Christians merging other faith traditions into their own would continue with the invention of Christmas.
“Something to keep in mind is that for at least the first hundred years or so, Christianity was just another Jewish sect, so any traditions that developed were in that Jewish matrix, which was also influenced by Greco-Roman culture” said Samuel Boyd, associate professor of religious and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Boyd noted that there is some historical evidence that early Christians were observing Jesus birth in the third century, but that “Christmas doesn’t seem to take off as a holiday until the fifth or sixth century.”
By this time the Roman empire had stopped feeding Christians to lions and adopted the faith as the official state religion. In order to avoid a cultural whiplash, Christmas was molded after the pagan traditions each region celebrated around the Winter Solstice, all of which centered around communal feasts and drunkenness throughout the darkest time of the year.
“Around December 25th there were many cultures that celebrated the birth of the sun,” said Avalos, explaining that daylight increases following the solstice. “And in order to not compete with those celebrations, they thought you might as well start celebrating the birth of Jesus.”
So worshipping a sun god quickly transformed into worshiping the son of God.
While the theme of Jesus’s birth consumed the Winter Solstice holidays, the hedonistic traditions of booze, large meals, live music, and goodwill revelry continued unabated. For hundreds of years Christmas celebrations more closely resembled Mardi Gras or Halloween than the wholesome, family-friendly image of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas.
So much was the infamy of Christmas’s bacchanalian reputation that Puritan party-pooper Oliver Cromwell—attempting to rid England of all pagan influence—banned all practice of the holiday in 1652. Across the pond in Massachusetts, a similar prohibition of Christmas was implemented a few years later by the Puritans who settled the land.
But does any of this mean that Jesus would have opted out of Christmas?
“I find it difficult to see Jesus in Puritanism at all, or vice versa,” said Andrew McGowan, dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. “They didn’t want Christmas. They didn’t want parties. If you look at the gospels, Jesus is criticized for being a drunkard and a glutton—he was a bit of a party animal. He was criticized for going to parties that people think he should not have gone to.”
If you’re judging by today’s standards, there are plenty of tropes in 21st century Christmas that wouldn’t sit well with the Jesus of the bible—particularly the institution of high-price gifts that dominate the holiday season. Throughout the gospels Jesus is condemning materialism and the love of money that drives it.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” he says in Matthew 6:19, followed by the line “You cannot serve God and wealth,” a few verses later. So much was his distaste for riches that in two separate books of the bible Jesus ties eternal salvation to first abandoning all the money and possessions you have.
Another common theme of the Christian holiday today is the gathering together and communing with family members. Though as hard as it may be for Evangelicals to swallow, Jesus does not appear to have been much of a family man. Multiple times throughout the bible Jesus instructs his followers to abandon their families and follow him, and on more than one occasion, he is profoundly rude to his mother. Before pious reformers like Clement Clarke Moore (author of Twas The Night Before Christmas) retooled the holiday around children and presents, Christmas debaucheries were no place for wives or children.
Ironically, it could be argued that Jesus would sooner approve of the pagan Christmas than the Christian one.
Jesus’s miracle of turning water into wine so that a wedding celebration may continue would surely have been a welcome parlor trick at any Yuletide festival. A Germanic holiday of heavy drinking and feasting, Yule centered around a large fire and was often the first meat-based meal of the year for the people (who partied indoors while ghost-zombies roamed the countryside during the Wild Hunt). And judging by the last supper, the miracle of feeding thousands with two fish and a bread loaf, and the dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus was all about large dinners with a cross-section of people.
Though, again, the biggest factor that puts Jesus at the pagan party is the same thing that keeps him out of Mike Huckabee’s vision of Christmas: Class warfare.
Nearly every Winter Solstice celebration contains some version of role swapping the rich with the poor. During Saturnalia, slaves would rule over their masters for a day. In England, a beggar would be crowned “The Lord of Misrule” and would be put in charge of the festivities; and peasants would demand entry into the houses of the upper-class, whose owners would offer the best food and booze they had.
It’s difficult to imagine any Fox News conservative opening up their homes to a mob of drunken poor people demanding to be let inside and treated like guests. Though this was a central theme in Jesus’s teachings.
In addition to instructing the rich to give all they own to the poor, Jesus constantly prophesied that one day the economic classes would exchange places.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh,” Jesus said in the book of Luke. “But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”
“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last,” he adds in Matthew.
Then again, throughout both the pagan and Christian traditions of Christmas there is a general theme of living in the moment, of appreciating what you have, and who you are surrounded by. This is a worldview that Jesus most certainly did not share. Over and again he spoke of this life as an ephemeral right of passage, one whose sole purpose is to determine whether you will enter Heaven or Hell at the time of your death.
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands,” he says in Mark 9:43. “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.”
As Monty Python’s The Life of Brian teaches us, it is foolish to try and say with any certainty who Jesus was or what he was all about.
“Some people believe Jesus was a political and social revolutionary against Greco-Roman power,” said Boyd, citing a position that would make Jesus an adversary of pagan traditions. “Others say the gospels show him working within Greco-Roman society more accommodatingly. It’s difficult to pinpoint where Jesus fits as a historical person.”
Ultimately, Christmas is just like Christ himself: An idea whose message is historically vague and culturally incestuous enough that it can be molded into whatever you need it to be. A drunken orgy of masks and music? Sure. A period of sober reflection and pious worship? Why not. A family affair drenched in capitalism and gingerbread cookies? Have at it. The spirit of Christmas is in the public domain, free to use it however you please. And if Kirk Cameron says it’s Jesus-approved, what higher authority could you ask for?