Christmas is coming and with it a special season for Christians. Or most Christians, anyway. As we get into the season and as so many people begin their month-long reflections on the birth of Jesus Christ, it’s probably a good time to consider our Christmas imperatives. What are Christians commanded to do in the Christmas season?
The Incarnation is nothing short of a miracle. As Christians, we believe that God took on flesh. Jesus Christ, who was and is and always will be God, became a man. The infinite and eternal God was, in the words of John Wesley, “contracted to a span” and “incomprehensibly made man.” An early theologian marveled, “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not.” He became what he was not so he could save the people he loved. Without the incarnation there could be no salvation. Little wonder, then, that God’s people celebrate it on this day and through this season we call “Christmas.”
But God’s people aren’t commanded to celebrate Christmas. In fact, God’s people aren’t commanded to celebrate any holidays (i.e., holy days). We most certainly have the freedom to do so, but we also have the freedom not to. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike,” says Paul. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). Throughout church history, Christians have stood in both camps. Mature Christians have treated Christmas as a Christian holiday; other mature Christians have treated it like any other day. The key is that both have been fully convinced before the Lord.
Despite this, it has long been my observation that we hear a lot of imperatives in this season—“shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” “musts” and “mustn’ts.” We especially hear a lot of commands about how to make the most of the season—and making the most of the season inevitably involves focusing on December 25 as a day of special religious significance. We hear a lot of people implying that treating Christmas as a holy day is a mark of spiritual maturity while treating it as any other day is a mark of spiritual apathy or even disobedience. We hear subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, critiques of those who do not celebrate Christmas at all, or who choose to mark it as a family day rather than religious day. The messaging is clear: Good Christians celebrate Christmas. The best Christians celebrate Christmas the most.
Yet the Bible is clear that we are under no obligation to celebrate Christmas or any other holy day. There are no biblical imperatives commanding us to specially remember the birth of Jesus on December 25. Instead, the Bible commands a yearlong posture of remembering Jesus’ coming and longing for his return (1 Corinthians 5:8, 1 Peter 1:13). The problem isn’t that we celebrate; the problem is that we pass judgment on Christians who fail to celebrate in a particular way on a particular day (Colossians 2:16).
In fact, the sure path to ruining Christmas is to make it an obligatory holiday or a mark of Christian maturity. Celebrating it because we believe we must or because we believe it merits some kind of favor with God is to replace gospel with law and freedom with captivity. We celebrate Christmas best when we celebrate it not because we have to, but because we freely choose to. This freedom, after all, is what Jesus gave us by his coming. Once we acknowledge there is no special command to be obeyed or grace to be earned, then we can celebrate in true gospel freedom.