Once Again: Christmas is NOT Jesus’ Birthday

(First posted last year [12/28/08], and now the subject of a skit in a local church [is there a movie in the offing?], this popular reflection seems timely once again. I am posting it before Christmas this year in the hope that some churches may do something with it.)

A growing number of churches have begun the practice of using Christmas as a time to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. They do this by singing Happy Birthday to Jesus (even in worship services) and having birthday parties for Jesus. Trouble is, Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday. It is the celebration of the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity; it is the celebration of the birth of the Son of God. But it is not Jesus’ birthday.

I think I grasp the motive behind this trend: including children in Christmas and making Jesus seem like one of us/them (children). But even from this perspective, is there any child who is not already spellbound by the Christmas story told in Scripture, with its array of interesting characters, its tension and intrigue, its sheer beauty?

The theological and spiritual dangers of trivializing and sentimentalizing the incarnation—and Jesus—are far greater than any supposed benefits of further including children and making them feel part of the celebration.

Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus would not seem to engender devotion to the One we are called to follow so fully that it might lead to death—yet the Church remembers Stephen, the first martyr, on December 26, the day after Christmas. Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus reflects an understanding of Jesus as a cute little baby or little boy who could cause no trouble and do no harm. But that is not what Herod thought, so the Church remembers his slaughter of the innocents on December 28. In other words, the shadow of the cross is present in the Scriptural Christmas narrative, and in the Church’s way of framing its celebration, but it is absent from the “Happy Birthday, Jesus” mindset.

We do not need any more Christmas customs that further divorce Christmas from discipleship. Let’s get rid of this theological error before it does more spiritual harm.

14 Responses to “Once Again: Christmas is NOT Jesus’ Birthday”

  1. LM says:

    I appreciate your comment about Christmas not being about the Lord Jesus’ birthday. I would like to extend an invitation for you to explore (by the Holy Spirit) that Jesus was not “incarnated” (mythological . He is a man that was born, as you and I, and died (as we will), and was raised by the living God and Father of us all (which if we hold to the truth we will be also). I’d also like you to consider that there is no “trinity” … as that came from Hindu myths and continues to deceive man. Seek the true God and Father of the man Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and men… and he’ll give thee understanding.

  2. MJG says:

    LM—

    Thank you for stopping by. For Christians, Incarnation and Trinity are not concepts to be debated but biblical truths to be celebrated. As a “doctor of the church” (so I was named upon receiving my Ph.D.—a vocation I take very seriously) I joyfully celebrate these truths and invite you to reconsider the reasons for your unfortunate and unnecessary misperceptions of the origins and significance of these Christian doctrines.

  3. Kyle Fever says:

    Michael,

    Thanks for this post. I understand your point, and I have attempted in the past couple of years to communicate this point to friends and family as I encounter this perspective on Jesus’ birth. The problem I have encountered is that some who celebrate Jesus’ birthday do not recognize as easily the theological and Biblical difficulties with the position. Celebrating Jesus’ ‘birthday’ works because he was a man whose birth we honor and celebrate, just as we do with your birthday or mine. That Jesus was ‘no ordinary human’ only makes celebrating HIS birthday more important.
    The problem, I have discovered, seems to be deeper than just short-changing what Jesus’ birth is about; it is a problem of not fully grappling with the magnitude of what God has done in Christ and what it might mean to be “in Christ.” It seems to me that until this deeper issue is dealt with, the point about Christmas not being Jesus’ birthday will be taken as a debatable opinion, rather than the theological issue you (and I) see it as. I am not yet sure how to deal with this other than trying to show/describe/communicate in new ways what Scripture says about the nature of faith and God’s work in Christ to a Christian culture that has largely (not completely!) lost sight of this. Any thoughts? Have you encountered this as well?

  4. MJG says:

    Kyle—

    You make a good point. I lay the blame here on the church,and especially on pastors, though perhaps not Lutheran pastors. :-) Because the church has generally moved away from doctrinal preaching—or even just plain faithful theological/biblical preaching—people in the pews have lost the sense of what a cosmic, world-changing event the Incarnation was/is. Ditto the Death and Resurrection. Couple that with the decreasing difference between Christians and non-Christians in Western culture and the rampant civil religion is this country (God as protector and promoter of the USA), and you have a crisis.

    I had hoped that the turn to narrative preaching would help. but because such preaching is often taken out of the grand narrative of the Bible and salvation, and is often deliberately anti-doctrinal/theological, it has not done what it should have/could have. Perhaps the recent reinvigoration of apocalyptic in NT theology, the broad recognition now that the Bible does not underwrite civil religion or empire, and the emergence of a missional approach to church and to biblical interpretation will change all that. Let’s hope.

    In the meantime, perhaps the best thing to say to family and friends is something like, “If God has really become human in Jesus, maybe we need to think of something with a bit more substance than ‘Happy Birthday’ to honor him—like ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’—singing all the verses!” (Take a look!)

  5. Steve Turnbull says:

    Michael,

    I remember this post from last year, and I certainly appreciate your intent to de-trivialize our Christmas celebrations. God knows we need it. Our church, in fact, used our Advent sermons this year to try to re-imagine Christmas through the Biblical stories of Christmas. Would that we would succeed in that endeavor!

    I’d like to suggest, though, that perhaps another, laudable motivation is at work in the birthday phenomenon, the desire to reclaim Christmas as being about Jesus instead of retail recklessness. At our best we celebrate birthdays, I think, as a way of saying to someone “We celebrate that you have been born into our lives.” “We would be impoverished had you not been born.” When we celebrate Christmas as Jesus’ birthday we are celebrating and giving thanks for the life that culminated in the events of Good Friday and Easter. Were it not for those events, of course, we’d all forget his birthday, but because of those events, His birth is worth celebrating.

    I might also quibble with the thesis of your first paragraph. I’d like to affirm what you affirm (Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of the second person of the trinity) without denying what you deny (Christmas is Jesus birthday, setting aside the historical problem of celebrating it on Dec. 25…). Of course we are celebrating the incarnation of the divine Son, and I believe (along with Paul, I think) in the pre-existence of the second person of the trinity. But unless we believe in the pre-existence of Jesus of Nazareth, then it seems that his birth is still an event worth celebrating.

    Finally, thanks for the suggestion of “O Come All Ye Faithful” as a better “happy birthday” song. That’s worth thinking about and possibly implementing in our church context.

  6. MJG says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment. And thanks for taking Advent seriously in your preaching!

    The additional laudable motivation you point out may in fact be at work, sort of like “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I generally tend to be a “both/and” rather than “either/or” person, so perhaps my sentence should say “not MERELY Jesus’ birthday”—but that has nearly no rhetorical or theological punch! More importantly, however, the similarity (human birthdays, Jesus’ “birthday”) is meager because the contrast between the two sorts of events is so profound. I do worry—seriously worry—that children, in particular, who sing “HB, Jesus” are going to grow up thinking that Christmas marks the birth of a great human being, a George Washington or MLK. These kinds of people may deserve honor, and their births should perhaps be celebrated, but Christmas is—or should be—something completely different for Christians.

    In any event, I think we are agreed that the church needs to move people beyond the HB, Jesus—quickly. The verses of “Hark the Herald…” aren’t bad either, but it’s not as singable in my view and a little less theologically direct.

  7. [...] Once Again: Christmas is NOT Jesus’ Birthday [...]

  8. Mike Cantley says:

    Thanks Dr. Gorman for inspiring our skit! Our crowd was gracious and enthusiastically welcomed your cautions about the “theological and spiritual dangers of trivializing and sentimentalizing the incarnation—and Jesus.”

    My only regret is not having the foresight to get the proper credit cited in the bulletin. Maybe I can make this up if I get the movie deal!

    Merry Christmas,
    Mike C.

  9. MJG says:

    Mike,

    Glad all went so well. No credit necessary! (But movie royalties we need to discuss.)

    I hope Steve T. lets us know how his celebration went.

    Our son Mark sang in the choir at Duke chapel’s Lessons and Carols at 11 pm Christmas Eve, and the choir processed out to “O Come All Ye Faithful,” finishing by arriving outside in the cold air at 12:04 am with the stanza, “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning”! Very cool.

  10. Colton says:

    Christmas has nothing to do with Christ, it is a pagan ritual and you are all sadly deceived.
    The Gospel accounts indicate that Jesus was born before the winter season:
    Luke 2:8 “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” {Sheep were never in the field by night in Palestine after the third week of October.}

    Inexplicable though it seems, the date of Christ’s birth is not known. The gospels indicate neither the day, the month, nor the year. (The Catholic Encyclopedia, p.656, vol. 3, 1967.)

    What history tells us:
    Despite the beliefs about Christ that the birth stories expressed, the church did not observe a festival for the celebration of the event until the 4th century. The date was chosen to counter the pagan festivities connected with the winter solstice; since 274, under the emperor Aurelian, Rome had celebrated the feast of the “Invincible Sun” [or Saturnalia] on December 25. (Christmas, The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

    Though the substitution of Christmas for the pagan festival cannot be proved with certainty, it remains the most plausible explanation for the dating of Christmas. (The Catholic Encyclopedia, p.656, vol. 3, 1967.)

    The decoration of the evergreen tree is of Pagan origin and predates Christ’s birth:
    Jer. 10:2-4 “Thus sayeth the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen … for the customs of the people are vain: for one cuteth the tree out of the forest … they deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”

    Man’s customs and traditions, even if heartfelt, are not recognized by God as true worship:
    Mark 7:6-7, Matthew 15:9 “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites…in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the traditions of men…thus making the word of God of none effect.”

    This is not an assault on anyone’s beliefs.
    The aim, is not to offend –
    But to enlighten.

  11. MJG says:

    Colton,

    f you wish to contend that the celebration of Christ’s birth in December, together with various aspects of celebrating that birth, is in essence the taking over and transformation of pagan festivities, say so. I won’t disagree. But “saying Christmas has nothing to do with Christ is simply false.” It is to confuse the origin of a celebration with its significance for those who celebrate it.

  12. AC says:

    Your comment was interesting, but I disagree with what you said at the end: “Man’s customs and traditions, even if heartfelt, are not recognized by God as true worship.” I think God recognizes and appreciates worship as long as the intention is pure.

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