At about this time every year, the question arises in various circles as to what role the celebration of the Christmas season should play in the experience of Seventh-day Adventist Christians. There are those who believe that because of the holiday’s pagan origin and commercial exploitation, Christians should have little or nothing to do with it. In my ministry I have occasionally encountered devout souls among us who piously—and no doubt sincerely—insist that they don’t “do Christmas” in their homes or families.
It cannot be stated often enough, as we say so frequently in articles on this site, that the supreme authority in all things spiritual for the faithful Seventh-day Adventist is the written counsel of God (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11). It is too easy for even well-intentioned reasoning and thought patterns to take on a life of their own, irrespective of what inspired counsel says on a given subject. This is always dangerous.
Years ago I remember a close friend who attended a church pastored by one who is no longer a Seventh-day Adventist minister, and whose preaching and overall ministry were often marred by extreme views and practices. This man went so far as to forbid the singing of Christmas carols in his church during the Christmas season. When church members confronted him with Ellen White statements which we will consider in a moment—which present a balanced, Christ-centered approach to the observance of Christmas—this man retorted, “I don’t care what Ellen White says.” (This from a man, I might add, who frequently touted his passionate belief in the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy.)
Back in the 1980s I remember one particular Union paper in the North American Division which featured an almost endless debate in the letters section over the rightness of celebrating Christmas—a precursor in some ways to the unending discussions regarding church issues seen on certain websites today. The results of these letters offered little if anything that was positive, and merely succeeded—at least in the present writer’s view—in making defenders of church standards look needlessly narrow.
The attack on Christmas by persons with this mentality underscores what can happen when humanly-crafted approaches to piety—such as the notion that “if it comes from paganism, it must be all bad”—take on a life of their own, heedless of restraint or correction even from inspired writings. It would be helpful for us to pause yet again and consider what the counsel of God’s modern prophet teaches regarding the observance of this holiday, and how this season of the year can be used for both the furthering of the church’s mission and the strengthening of families and friendships.
Few need reminding, to be sure, that Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25. The pagan origin of this tradition is a settled historical fact, whose details need no reciting here. (For one thing, shepherds in Palestine wouldn’t have been likely to be watching sheep in late December.) But then, the names commonly used for the days of the week and most of the months of the year also come from pagan sources. Many bear the names of pagan deities. Should Christians refrain from using these names? If so, what set of inspired commands could be cited for such a course of action? Ellen White and the Adventist pioneers, it should be noted, used these pagan names in all our early publications.
Representative government, be it a republic or a democracy, also traces its origin to pagan culture—that of ancient Greece and Rome. Would it have thus been proper for Christians in colonial America to support the British monarchy against the patriots because autocratic rule even in the faith community is more consistent with the Biblical narrative than government by the people?
But what should settle the issue of Christmas once and for all for the Seventh-day Adventist Christian are the following statements from the writings of Ellen White. (The observance of this holiday obviously didn’t exist in Bible times, so the only inspired documents which address the issue are those Seventh-day Adventists call the Spirit of Prophecy.) Such statements as the following provide a balanced, Christ-centered rationale for the observance of Christmas in Seventh-day Adventist churches and families:
Although we do not know the exact day of Christ’s birth, we would honor the sacred event. May the Lord forbid that any one should be so narrow-minded as to overlook the event because there is an uncertainty in regard to the exact time. Let us do what we can to fasten the minds of the children upon those things which are precious to every one who loves Jesus. Let us teach them how Jesus came into the world to bring hope, comfort, peace, and happiness to all. . . Then, children and youth, as you celebrate the coming Christmas, will you not count up the many things for which you are to be grateful, and will you not present a gratitude offering to Christ, and so reveal that you do appreciate the heavenly Gift? (1).
As the 25th day of December is observed to commemorate the birth of Christ, as the children have been instructed by precept and example that this was indeed a day of gladness and rejoicing, you will find it a difficult matter to pass over this period without giving it some attention. It can be made to serve a very good purpose. The youth should be treated very carefully. They should not be left on Christmas to find their own amusement in vanity and pleasure-seeking” (2).
Regarding the exchange of gifts, Ellen White states the following:
While urging upon all the duty of first bringing their offerings to God, I would not wholly condemn the practice of making Christmas and New Year’s gifts to friends. It is right to bestow upon one another tokens of love and remembrance if we do not in this forget God, our best Friend (3).
The holiday season is fast approaching with its interchange of gifts, and old and young are intensely studying what they can bestow upon their friends as a token of affectionate remembrance. It is pleasant to receive a gift, however small, from those we love. It is an assurance that we are not forgotten, and seems to bind us to them a little closer (4).
Some will remind us that Christmas trees are pagan symbols. Yet Ellen White tells us that the Lord is honored by the use of such trees in church, for the purpose of presenting offerings:
God would be well pleased if on Christmas each church would have a Christmas tree on which shall be hung offerings, great and small, for these houses of worship” (5).
Let not the parents take the position that an evergreen placed in the church for the amusement of the Sabbath School scholars is a sin, for it may be made a great blessing. Keep before their minds benevolent objects. In no case should mere amusement be the object of these gatherings. While there may be some who will turn these occasions into seasons of careless levity, and whose minds will not receive the divine impress, to other minds and characters these seasons will be highly beneficial. I am fully satisfied that innocent substitutes may be devised for many gatherings that demoralize (6).
Some may try to draw a contrast between using a Christmas tree for the purpose of bringing gifts to the Lord and using such a tree as a place to bring gifts for one another. But in either case, this symbol is being used for purposes the Lord explicitly honors in the above passages, irrespective of the symbol’s pagan origin.
For the Christian, as in all activities and at all points on the calendar, Christ is to be at the center of Christmas—no question about it. The extravagance and commercialism so often attached to this holiday and its celebration is clearly not pleasing to the Lord. Nor would the Wise Men who brought their gifts to the Savior likely be honored by such a perversion of their act of generosity. But the Christ-focused, love-motivated observance of this holiday—whether in remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation, through gifts to His cause, or in gifts for each other—is fully blessed by the above inspired admonitions.
Nobody, of course, has to have a Christmas tree. No one has to decorate their house with festive lights, though it certainly adds to a neighborhood’s beauty. No one has to exchange gifts with family or friends, though all Christians are certainly obligated to sustain the cause of their Lord, and not just at Christmas time. But those Seventh-day Adventists who are zealous for revival and reformation in the church through a recovery of Bible doctrine and godly standards, have no divine authority for faulting the observance of Christmas or seeking to discourage its commemoration within the church.
While still living in California, I remember one occasion when I went Christmas shopping with a couple friends at a local mall. As we entered one of the main department stores, the chorus of “God Rest You Merry Gentleman” came over the loudspeakers. One of my friends remarked that more than likely, the only “tidings of comfort and joy” that mattered to the establishment we had just entered were those taking place at the cash registers and credit card terminals busily ringing about us. Certainly Christians can do much to give the world a better example of what it means to place the focus of this holiday on Jesus, His earthly condescension, and the pardon and victory of which His first advent assures the striving faithful (Rom. 8:3-4). But the spiritual energies and vigilance of God’s saints should not be spent attacking observances upheld by inspired writings as a means whereby Christ can be exalted, gifts to the Lord’s cause facilitated, and love between family members and friends demonstrated by visible tokens.
Those seeking to be part of God’s final generation of believers have more important battles to fight.
1. Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, Dec. 17, 1888.
2. ----The Adventist Home, p. 478.
3. ----Review and Herald, Dec. 26, 1882.
4. ----The Adventist Home, pp. 478-479.
5. Ibid, p. 482.
6. Ibid, pp. 482-483.