Not in that poor lowly stable

So, you’re a blogger and you’re a Christian, aren’t you going to blog about the real meaning of Christmas and stuff? Aren’t you going to write and remind people to keep Christ in their Christmas celebrations, to remember what it’s all about, to… well, no, not exactly.

I have huge problems with the Christian celebration of Christmas, I’ve written about this before but I think it came out a bit too in-your-face and I’d like to try writing about it again, more lovingly this time. But before I carry on, I want to make one thing very very clear: I do absolutely believe in the biblical account of the birth of Christ. I do absolutely believe that in the town of Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, a baby was born to a virgin and was named Yeshua, which in Hebrew means “salvation”, because he was born to be the saviour of his people and of all mankind – to die on the cross as atonement for our sins, so that any who believe in him should receive forgiveness of their sins and the promise of eternal life. (The name Yeshua got to English through Greek and Latin and became Jesus, the name most of you are familiar with.)

And I used to be one of those Christians who grumble about people turning Christmas into something else, into a time of over-consumption, a time of spending too much and eating too much and drinking too much – because surely that’s not what it’s about, those things have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus! I remember one pre-Christmas shopping expedition when I stood in the middle of the greeting cards section in one of the big shops and muttered to myself about the non-nativity-related cards: penguins! polar bears! what have they got to do with the birth of the Son of God?

I take a very different view now. But it’s been a long process.

I’d been celebrating Christmas for about a decade before this process began. Yes, a decade – growing up Jewish in Israel, this festival was obviously not part of my upbringing. My first time celebrating it was in 1989, after I came to England. My introduction to it was by people I knew to be Christians, and they regarded it as a Christian festival. I was new to this whole thing – I was just beginning to discover Jesus – and I had no inkling that there were people who believed in Jesus who didn’t do Christmas. I accepted this festival wholeheartedly, happily embracing the traditions of going to the midnight service, decorating the tree, exchanging presents with loved ones (and with the cat) (well, not exactly exchanging with the cat – it was kind of one sided…) and eating festive food. And at work there’d be a special work do, which involved eating and drinking and making merry in a rather unholy fashion, but it took years before God got through to me about that stuff not being quite the way he wants people to behave…

So there I was, gradually letting God change me and my behaviour more and more, gradually (very gradually – he had so much patience with me over those years!) turning into this person I wouldn’t have recognised back in 1989… and eventually being the girl who boringly didn’t get drunk at the office party, and who one year wrote an evangelistic message to all her colleagues and attached a copy to each person’s Christmas card. (It was a message reminding them that he didn’t stay a baby in a manger, he grew up and became a man and died. for us. and that the greatest gift they can receive for Christmas is the gift that’s available to all of us through him. If I was writing it now, I’d probably write pretty much the same thing.)

A decade after I was introduced to Christmas, I heard for the first time that the date of the celebration is the wrong date. (No, that’s not the reason I don’t celebrate it. Bear with me, I’ll get there.) Up to that point, I had simply thought: no one knows when he was born, so this could be the right time. But I met someone knowledgeable who showed me from the Bible how we can work out when he was probably born – not down to the exact date, but a general idea of what time of year it was. And those calculations show that he was very very probably born around the time of Sukkot (known in English as the Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles), which falls in autumn – around September/October.

My reaction to that piece of information was to file it in my head under: interesting bits of trivia. I remember even doing the arithmetic and thinking: oh, so maybe we’re actually celebrating the time he was conceived! And later, when I heard others talk about not celebrating it and they said it’s the wrong date, I said: let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. (To which a friend eloquently replied: don’t you mean, “with the straw”?)

My point was that we’re celebrating a really significant event, so the date is immaterial. Let’s not quibble about such trivia, I was saying, and lose sight of the fact that we’re celebrating the Son of God made flesh and come to live among us.

That’s where I was at.

That’s where lots of Christians I know are at, and I can’t, and won’t, judge them for it.

But I’ve moved on.

At some stage I started to hear about the roots of some of the Christmas traditions. The more I heard about that, the more uncomfortable I began to feel.

But still – baby and bathwater…

And I heard about the way the date was chosen. I discovered that this wasn’t just a date plucked out of the calendar at random – it was a date in the idol-worshipping calendar, which some Pope or other decided to take over and give it a Christian meaning.

But still… I had very very mixed feelings. I blogged about my struggle with this, and had mixed reactions. Some accused me of legalism (thanks, that’s a term that is misused so much…), some tried to offer me a way out of my quandary – a way to somehow square this stuff with my conscience and make the niggles go away… but two people I knew and respected (one of whom I knew offline, a man who was well-respected in my own church fellowship) said, basically, yes, you’re right.

This struggle went on for a few years. It isn’t easy to let go of something that most people around you regard as nice and positive and good, and that you yourself have actually enjoyed.

It isn’t easy to swim against the tide.

It isn’t easy to come to a decision that you know is going to be hurtful to some of the people you love.

But the more I thought and prayed about this, the more it became impossible for me to carry on doing it, year after year.

The “everyone else is doing it” excuse just doesn’t work, when you think of facing God one day and being accountable for your own choices.

And I’m sorry to say this and hurt people’s feelings but I am convinced that God does not approve of this celebration.

So I can’t do it.

I know God does use it in amazing ways. I know people who have come to faith in Jesus as a result of attending a Christmas service – God doesn’t wait for us to get everything right, the whole point of Jesus being born and dying is about God not waiting for us to become perfect but reaching down to us and helping us despite our faults.

But looking at the principles I see in the Bible, I am convinced that God doesn’t approve of Christmas. Sure, there’s nothing there to say “thou shalt not celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December” – that custom didn’t exist at the time! (I’m not even sure if December had been invented yet or not.) But the principles I see in regard to idol worship – they are very much about having nothing whatsoever to do with it, not about embracing it and giving it new meaning. I see God telling my forefathers to smash the altars used for idol worship, not to change their purpose and dedicate them to him. They were even told not to use the gold after melting down the graven images – humanly, that sounds like a waste… What I see throughout the Bible is that God wants his people to keep well away from anything connected with idolatry. Instead of which the church has chosen to embrace something that is rooted in idolatry and to turn it into a celebration of the birth of Christ, and then Christians are surprised that the people around us are using this day for ungodly behaviour – well, they were doing it before the church attempted to take it over, so why is it surprising that they’re still doing it?

In Hanukkah, which often falls near Christmas, we celebrate something so totally opposite to this: the victory of a bunch of men who were willing to risk their lives to cleanse God’s Temple of idolatry. I would love to see the church cleansed of everything that has pagan roots, and rededicated to God. The Reformation was a good start, but the job isn’t finished.

I’ve heard people talk about God “redeeming” the day and I’m sorry but I see no biblical basis for that concept. I see God redeeming people – one by one as we turn away from our sin and put our faith in Jesus.

If you’re a Christian and you’re reading this and you find it challenging – please don’t try and change my mind, please accept that I have already put lots of thought into this and that coming to the final decision was not easy, it was agonising as I knew I’d be hurting the feelings of people I love. And I’m not trying to tell you what to do – we each have to behave according to what our conscience tells us.

If you are not a Christian and you’re reading this, I want to repeat to you what I said early on: I totally believe in the biblical account of the birth of Christ, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he was born as one of us so that he could die in our place, to take on the punishment for our sins. His birth isn’t the main thing – the main thing is his death and resurrection. He died for you, his death is God’s gift to you. All that you need to do is repent, believe and be baptised. If you want to know more about that, I’d be very happy to answer your questions to the best of my ability.

Many people have a favourite Christmas carol, but I think the closest I can get to that is the last verse of Once in Royal David’s City:

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high

Because the birth in the stable is really not the main thing. The main thing is this: Christ crucified and risen.