There exists a controversy among Christians as to whether Christmas is sinful or not. The camp that believes Christmas is sinful cites Galatians 4:8 as evidence that God disapproves of the observation of days, months, seasons and years. Those that observe Christmas as a Christian holiday cite the liberty in Romans 14:5 to keep whatever Christian holiday one wishes. The way proponents use the texts, they are arrayed in contradiction against each other. Let us look at these texts and see if they are a contradiction.
Galatians 4:8 However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.
9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?
10 You observe days and months and seasons and years.
11 I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.
Galatians 4:8-11 prohibits keeping certain days, months, seasons and years to honor weak and worthless elemental things. There exists, however, another scripture that clearly teaches Christians have liberty to celebrate whatever day they want:
Romans 14:5 One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
6 He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.
Reconciling the verses
How can one reconcile Paul’s rebuke of the Galatians for keeping holidays with Paul’s admonition in his Roman epistle to not judge brethren for their observance or non-observance of holidays (Rom 14:13)? Let’s analyze the context of Galatians 4:8-11. First we note that Galatians 4:8 references the previous idolatry of the Galatians. Then Paul said they were going back to their pagan practices of worshipping the “weak and worthless elements” (v8) and Paul was concerned lest he had bestowed labor in the gospel on the Galatians “in vain” (v11).
What are “the weak and beggarly elements” (KJV)? The NASU translates the phrase like this: “the weak and worthless elemental things”. It is clear in both translations that something in the context is weak and worthless, but what are the elements/elemental things? “Elements” is translated from stoicheion. Thayer recognizes meanings for stoicheion such as “alphabet”, “the material causes of the universe”, “fundamental principles”, and “the heavenly bodies”. Of these four things, only the heavenly bodies would be something the Galatians had once done “service unto them which by nature are no gods”, i.e. the sun, moon, and stars. The service of the heavenly bodies was practically universal among the non-Hebrew ancients from the days of Moses onward, as this passage from Deuteronomy 4:19 shows:
Deuteronomy 4:19 And beware not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
20 But Jehovah hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as at this day.
The Galatians had once been part of those heathen that from the days of Abraham God had given up to the worship of the host of heaven and other created things (Rom 1:25). The worship of the stoichieon, the heavenly bodies, involved observing the first of the month when Juno (Jupiter’s wife) was worshipped at the time of the new moon. The nones were celebrated on the 5th or 7th of the month in celebration of the half moon. The ides on the 13th or 15th celebrated the day of the full moon. In ancient Rome December 25th was Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”). There were other festivals in honor of the celestial gods of the heavenly hosts.
If we understand Paul’s statement of the Galatians turning again “to the weak and beggarly elements” “which by nature are no gods” as meaning the Galatians were turning back to idolatry and the worship of the host of heaven, then admonition about observing days and months and times and years takes on new significance. The Galatians were honoring these “elements” by observing the times of the celestial bodies they worshipped such as the new moon, quarter moon, full moon, and rebirth of the sun after the winter solstice.
Taken in the light of a rebuke against a return to the worship of the host of heaven and honoring those created things that are by nature no gods, Paul’s statements about not observing holidays and having the liberty to observe holidays do not contradict each other. Paul’s rebuke in Galatians 4:11 springs from his concern over the Galatians return to keeping holidays that honored the heavenly host. Paul’s admonition in Romans 14:10 to not judge a brother with regard to whether he keeps a holiday to God or not is in accord with the liberty we have in Christ Jesus. Christians that honor the birth of Christ at Christmas do not contradict Paul’s warning against keeping pagan festivals. Christians that keep a festival to honor the birth of Christ should not criticize those that do not keep the festival and those that do not keep the festival should not criticize those that do. Keeping this holiday or not is a matter of Christian liberty.
I also notice the fact that the date of Christmas is the same as the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. December 25th is also the anniversary of murders, fornication, drunkenness, and war, but that does not mean we celebrate these evils by honoring Christ on that day. While it is more likely that Jesus was born in August after the summer harvest ended, since the best Bible clue as to the time of His birth is the fact the shepherds were then keeping watch over their flocks in the field by night, we cannot be certain. In the winter (e.g. December 25th) the sheep would more likely be kept in a sheepfold near the house rather than in the open field. Though it is likely the date of the celebration of the birth of Christ was influenced by paganism, the fact of His birth is biblical (Lk 2:7).
The Example of God Celebrating the Birth of Christ
It is also factual that the Lord God considered the event of Jesus’ birth significant enough that “when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him” (Heb 1:6). At the command of God angels celebrated Jesus’ birth with a proclamation of His birth to shepherds near Bethlehem (Lk 2:8-12). Following the proclamation of Jesus’ birth, angels celebrated God blessing the world with the birth of His Son and pronounced blessings of peace on the earth (Lk 2:14). If God celebrated Jesus’ birth and commanded the angels to celebrate it, it is certainly appropriate under Christian liberty that Christians could do so. Since Christmas is not commanded, Christians are at liberty to not celebrate it. There should be no chastisement of others whatever one decides to do about the day.