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“See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17).

Christians have been trying to redeem this thing called “Christmas” for about two thousand years now; because when Paul commanded us to be redeeming the time, he didn’t tell us exactly how. Likewise, when he called us to understand what the will of the Lord is, he didn’t tell us exactly what it was.

Nevertheless, every generation of Christians has tried to redeem the holidays and every generation has come up with a slightly different approach.  All I hope to accomplish here is to explain those various approaches. I will not tell you which one I think is best, but rather allow you to weigh the options and decide for yourself.

Before I explain these various approaches, let me say that each one of them (at least in my opinion and to some extent) was a sincere attempt at obeying this passage. Our fathers in the faith acknowledged that the days are evil – they wanted to understand the will of the Lord – they wanted to walk circumspectly – they wanted to redeem the time.

Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they were not (and again, I will leave all of that for you to decide). So here are the seven historic approaches to redeeming Christmas:

1st Redemption through Fear

The earliest Christians (i.e., those living in the first century) had no interest whatsoever in December 25th (or in any of its attendant celebrations), for back in those days, the Roman god Saturn was ‘the reason for the season’ — being celebrated as the god who established some “Golden Age” of peace and tranquility at the beginning of time.

In honor of their god Saturn, Roman citizens would have feasts, exchange gifts, and decorate their houses with boughs of holly and such.

Now – While the early Christians certainly did not participate in Saturnalia (as it was called), there were nevertheless some who decided to decorate the outside of their homes with boughs of holly. Why? Fear.

The Roman Empire had begun cracking down on Christians, and many were afraid of being found out, persecuted, or killed. This fear led many of them to forsake the faith by eventually acknowledging Caesar as Lord, but many stayed faithful — persevering to the end.

Now that does not mean they put a sign on their front door that said “Saturn is Dead & Jesus Lives”.  No, like I said, many of the faithful Christians simply hung boughs of holly on the outside of their homes (so that their Roman neighbors would not turn them in to the authorities).

I have to regard this as “Redemption through Fear” — For while they knew that there was no such thing as a god called Saturn and while they knew that these Roman idols were nothing, they didn’t want to lose their lives over it.  So they put up some silly decorations on the outside of their house and just went on worshipping Jesus on the inside of their home.

Some Christians regarded this as cowardice and compromise, but others regarded it as being wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

Main point: Sometimes fear can be the chief motivation in our observance of or participation in certain holidays.

While we can all thank God that we live in so free a society as ours (where we can celebrate whatever we want), let us also acknowledge that there are others sources of fear: Fear of offending our parents – Fear of upsetting our wife – Fear of disappointing our children – All of which are very real (and oftentimes the deciding factor of what we do and do not do during the holidays).

Again, you can decide for yourself whether this is a good motive and method of redeeming the time. Next option:

2nd  Redemption through Competition

After about three hundred years of Saturn worship, a Roman Emperor named Aurelian declared a new feast: Sol Invictus.

What that meant is this: Now there was a new sun on the block. And while Saturn may have been tough, this new sun was invincible!

Aurelian didn’t tell us exactly who this invincible sun was, but Pope Julius the 1st eventually did: Jesus. He even set the date of December 25th as the official day of observance.

So now there were two winter festivals: One for the Romans and one for the Christians (only a few days later).

Not all Christians were not excited about this (e.g., Origen of Alexandria), but many were quite excited (e.g., Bishops Cyprian and Chrysostom).

What they seem to have loved most about all this was the sweet irony of turning S-U-N worship into S-O-N worship.

At its essence, this was a ‘my God is bigger and better than your god’ approach to redeeming the holidays and there are many Christians today who continue to take this approach of redeeming the time.

They immediately go into ‘competition mode’ every time December rolls around and they even get a bit on edge. If someone says, “Happy Holidays!” They say, “No! Merry Christmas!” And so the contest continues: Redemption through competition.

Again, you can decide for yourself whether this is a good motive and method of redeeming the time. Next option:

3rd Redemption through Legislation

After a century of this kind of grass-roots competition, the most competitive Christians in the empire had all their prayers answered when the Emperor Constantine was converted.

What that meant to them is this: Now the competition was over. The Emperor was in charge – This Emperor was now a Christian – So, hah! Jesus wins!

To be sure – You could still be a pagan in Constantine’s empire, but now you had to at least be a Christianized pagan.

Even the battle lines which previously separated the two winter celebrations began to blur and soon enough, Christians and pagans were all celebrating together.

Some regarded this as good – others regarded as bad – but none of that really mattered, because, again, Constantine the Great had spoken!

Today, there are many Christians who look back on that whole ordeal with a critical eye (even questioning the genuineness of Constantine’s conversion).

However (and strangely enough), many modern Christians seem to be hoping (at least secretly) for another Constantine to come and take over our country.

Yes – It seems that many would like to see the proper observance of Christmas (whatever that may be) legislated and then enforced.

They want the manger scene put on public property – alone and well lit – without any competition from Stars of David, Pentagrams, or Crescent Moons. They want all the pagans to know (and that, beyond a shadow of a doubt) that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I want that too. More than that – God himself promises that it will indeed happen soon enough when the kingdoms of the world finally become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.

But how exactly does that happen?  What role does governmental legislation play in the establishment and advancement of the Kingdom of God?

Redemption through Legislation advocates would say, “A lot…”, but again, you can decide for yourself whether this is a good motive and method of redeeming the time. Next option:

4th Redemption through Purification

Thanks to Constantine, the entire world eventually became somewhat Christian. It did indeed have a form of godliness (but it denied the power thereof). It therefore then sank into a deep and dark pit (commonly-and-accurately called the Dark Ages).

During this era, everybody celebrated Christmas (by attending the Christ-Mass) but nobody knew what it was all about (since it was recited in a language only monks and priests understood and buried under a pile of ceremonial, sacramental, and sacerdotal junk).

A time of reformation then came. God raised up men to understand his Word, to translate his Word, to publish and distribute his Word, and to preach his Word (even as the Apostles did).

These men then tried to reform their church and purify their church according to the Word of God.

The Vulgate had to go – the Mass had to go – the Vicarious Priesthood had to go – the Sale of Indulgences had to go – the Veneration of Saints had to go – and all these man-made ‘Holy Days’… they too had to go (since they had no warrant in the Word of God).

So the Christ-mass (and all its attendant revelries and superstitions) was cancelled – even forbidden – so that people could worship God in Spirit and in Truth.

There are not many Christians living today who take this approach to redeeming the time, but there are still a few. They celebrate a weekly Holy-day called the Christian Sabbath and no other beside it.

They do this first of all out of honor for God (who, they say, alone has the right to define how we worship) and they do this secondly out of love for their neighbor (whose conscience, they say, should never be bound by the traditions of men).

Again, you can decide for yourself whether this is a good motive and method of redeeming the time. Next option:

5th Redemption through Moralism

After a few generations of this puritan approach, Christmas (as a religious observance) understandably fell by the wayside. People still had parties and such, but it was no longer considered to be some sacred and life-changing event.

It was during this decline in Christmas observance and appreciation that Charles Dickens wrote his still-famous book “A Christmas Carol”. I regard this story as a perfect example of redemption through moralism.

The “Christmas Carol” is not at all evangelical and it was not even intended to be so. But it did (as one poet said) give, “A new lease…” to “Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances…”

We all know the story and the main point was this: The stingy-old-Scrooge was ‘redeemed’ from his selfishness and ‘renewed’ in a sense of social responsibility by some ‘ghosts’.

A lot of people loved this story. I love this story. Karl Marx even loved this story! In fact, he said that Dickens (and his contemporaries) “…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together…”

That is why I call it Redemption through Moralism – Redeeming the time by emphasizing family, friends, social justice, and charitable giving (kind of like Saint Nickolas of old).

This is a very common approach to redeeming the time (especially among the vaguely Christian). Proponents of this approach are simply not interested in theological and religious debates over the matter. All they want is for everybody to act in accordance with ‘the spirit of the season’ (whomever or whatever that may be).

Again, you can decide for yourself whether this is a good motive and method of redeeming the time. Next option:

6th Redemption through Re-invention

This is not as historically an attested approach as the others, but I have observed it among certain American evangelicals.

Evangelicals love the Bible (and understandably so) and evangelicals therefore want to biblical (and this is very good goal in life). So what many evangelicals try to do is this: Redeem Christmas by reinventing it as biblical.

They do this by stripping away all its historical baggage and then infusing it with explicitly biblical meaning. Examples:

  • The tree represents the tree on which Jesus died
  • The ever-green represents ever-lasting life in Christ
  • The Lights remind us that Jesus is the Light of the World
  • The Star on top reminds us of the Nativity Star
  • The Gifts remind us God’s greatest gift to us
  • The Candy-cane reminds us of Jesus’ white purity and red blood

Even the day itself is transformed from a religious Holy-day to more of a birthday celebration for Jesus (complete with a cake, candles, and the singing of ‘Happy Birthday to You’).

Advocates of this view are so determined to “Keep Christ in Christmas” that they end up redefining every aspect of Christmas (until all of it sounds thoroughly biblical).

Again, you can decide for yourself whether this is a good motive and method of redeeming the time. Last option:

7th Redemption through Secularization

This not a very common approach to redeeming the time among Christians, but I will submit it for your consideration anyways:

What if Christ was never really in Christmas? What if all the historic attempts to redeem this holiday were well-meant, but mis-directed?

What if December 25th is nothing more than a day when the Sun just happens to be at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane (i.e., at least to the observer)?

Some Christians actually think of it all this way… and yet, still they still rejoice. After all, this is the time of year when the days start getting longer once again (which is what everybody wants in the middle of a bleak mid-winter).

Advocates of this view have chosen to redeem the time by simply acknowledging that this time is just like any other time.

Advocates of this view regard this season as no more special or holy than any of the other seasons (since all, they say, are equally beautiful in the plan and purpose of God).

Advocates of this view have decided (believe it or not), to leave the world and the church to all its innocent traditions and erroneous superstitions, thinking, “What does all that have to do with us?”

Again, you can decide for yourself whether this is a good motive and method of redeeming the time. But let me close with an important observation:

Conclusion

Whichever approach you choose, please remember that not one of them is in perfect accordance with the will of God (since God has not revealed these things to us specifically).

And what that means is this: Your way of redeeming the time and my way of redeeming the time may be completely different; yet both may be equally acceptable to God. For it is written (Romans 14:1-13):

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike.  Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it…Each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this: Not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.  Amen.