How to Teach the True Meaning of Christmas to Your Kids

The rear seating in our 2004 Yukon must have some kind of magnetic field that provokes good questions from kids. This week it was, “Why do we decorate trees at Christmas? What does that have to do with Jesus being born?” I don’t remember asking such sophisticated questions at age 7.

But at age 37, I have an answer. I told our precocious progeny, “Not everything we do to celebrate Christmas has to be Christian, as long as we keep Christ at the center of our celebration. Some of what we do can be merely cultural.”

But I remember there being a respectable, gracious military family in my church in high school who gave a different answer: Decorated evergreen trees have nothing to do with Christ, they said. Christmas is a pagan holiday, and we won’t celebrate it.

I’ve heard this argument go back and forth over the years. Christmas was stolen from the pagans; or no, it’s been stolen from the Christians. I predict that both arguments will enjoy a long life on social media (if “life” is what you call something on social media).

But I think there’s a better view: Christmas means what we mean by it.

If I have concerns about the celebration of Christmas, it’s what we modern Westerners (my intended audience in this article) have done with it. Not all of it is bad, but some of it is. If I want to teach my kids discernment, I’ve got to make some distinctions among the various things people mean by Christmas.

Christmas means what we mean by it

It’s helpful to view cultural artifacts such as holidays through linguistic lenses. Just as words don’t always mean what they used to mean (take, for example, a charged word like gay or a prosaic one like prevent), holidays can and do grow away from their origins. And just as a dictionary’s job is to tell us what gay and prevent mean today, not what they meant in 1899, a theologian’s job is to observe what Christmas has become, not necessarily to tell us what it was.

That’s because a theologian is supposed to apply the unchanging truth of Scripture to the changing world of circumstances.

So let me give this a shot: what do I think we Westerners mean by Christmas nowadays?

Three Christmases

I follow the analysis of a respected teacher of mine who distinguishes three holidays: the commercial Christmas, the cultural one, and the Christian one.

Commercial Christmas

The commercial Christmas is about buying stuff, which isn’t necessarily wrong: I surely hope people will take advantage of my own company’s Christmas sales, because I believe our product is truly good for people and for the church. And we’re not the only company on the planet selling good things worth having. Hey, I’ve got a wishlist; and I’m excited about the things I’ve purchased for my own family.

But of course the Bible warns about greed, and a faithful student of Scripture has to apply that command to commercial Christmas. A man’s life doesn’t consist in the size of his storage units. Christians therefore ought to have a wary relationship with commercial Christmas. It’s a very powerful force.

Cultural Christmas

As is cultural Christmas. Christmas trees, candy canes, stockings hung by the chimney with care, family visits, poinsettias, green and red, holly berries, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus, bowls full of jelly—the symbols of cultural Christmas are numerous, and they’re ubiquitous. I am literally surrounded by them as I write.

What does it all mean? In other words, what do people mean by these symbols of cultural Christmas? I think Westerners, Americans in particular, mean nostalgia. The iconography and customs of this second Christmas are “cultural liturgies” whose job is to connect people to the past in an otherwise unstable world.

I think such things can be harmless and even beneficial fun—and the great majority of Christians seem to agree with me. There aren’t a lot of holdouts from cultural Christmas, and there haven’t been for a long time. Traditions bind cultures together, and in this fractious era that’s not so bad. Plus, the Christian symbols that are used in cultural Christmas—manger scenes, say, and Christmas carols—are evidences of God’s common grace preserving a testimony to his Son in an unbelieving world.

Christian Christmas

The commercial and cultural Christmases can be viewed through Christian lenses and practiced with Christian faithfulness (it’s a good thing to buy gifts for others; it’s a good thing to enjoy one’s benign cultural traditions). These two Christmases don’t have to run counter to the third. But neither are they doing much to help it.

Only Christians will and should be interested in promoting Christian Christmas. The Bible doesn’t tell us to turn Christ’s birth into a holiday, but it is one, and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to form our own Christian cultural liturgies.

Now, we haven’t missed it. We have beautiful carols celebrating Christ’s birth (many of them performed and even written by  unbelievers—what a world we live in), we have Christmas plays and cantatas at church, we have readings of Luke 2 on Christmas Eve.

I wonder if one of the healthy things we can do to preserve and promote this third and most important Christmas among our kids is simply to carefully distinguish it from the others. Let our kids know that there are three different celebrations going on at the same time, with some overlaps and some tensions among the three. This is not strange: it will always be the case when multiple people celebrate the same occasion. Point at a given symbol and quiz your kids; make them do some analysis: which of the three Christmases is that?

I think they’ll quickly pick up on the distinctions and start shouting them out every time you pass a different Christmas symbol while driving down the road. There’s cultural Christmas, Dad!


Your kids will pick up on not just what you say but what you love. It takes the grace of God for even adults to love Christ more than swag, to be more thankful for the incarnation than for a new gadget. God has given grace to our culture by preserving Christmas as a holiday; surely he will give believers even more grace at this time of year.

Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).


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  1. “I’ve heard this argument go back and forth over the years. Christmas was stolen from the pagans; or no, it’s been stolen from the Christians.”

    The devil, was very smart, wasn’t he!! He some how got pagans and christians to believe they were right, is there a faster way to spread something new?

    Does the scripture give any commands for something like this? Maybe not to add to or rake away from what YHWH has told us!!!

    Now a days, most christians know Yahusha was not born on Dec. 25, if we know that, who do you think is correct?? We know we are wrong!!!!!

    But then we say, what can it hurt, do it for the kids!!

    I found this video a couple days ago, it has a different view.

    Don’t worry about who did this, pay close attention to there references, I would say they have a very good point!!!!


    Are we to follow the world, or be set apart??

  2. We have ‘pretty-fied’ Christmas almost out of existence Jesus has come unto His own and they knew Him not. He came in poverty, borrowed stable, harried from His home at birth, first by Romans, then by Herodians, hounded out of His country. After living an anonymous childhood He grew into a rebellious man, challenging authority and power until finally ‘they’ executed Him painfully as a criminal amongst criminals. Before this He said that we could expect the same kind of treatment if we followed Him. So, Good Morning anyone christian following Him this (Christmas) day. But,are you really following Him or someone else a bit like Him with the same name?

  3. Pastor Chima says:

    I really don’t want to get into this debate. Mark has done a good job splitting the way different people view Christmas. But I wonder if it is wrong to remember such a momentous event as the birth of the Saviour of the World! Why did the Church choose December 25th? Does paganism ever come into the mind of any Christian celebrating Christmas? Does it not indelibly mark the event in the minds of people, even the unbelieving? Would it help our evangelism to discontinue Christmas because Christ wasn’t born on December the 25th?
    I feel that remembering the Saviour’s birth every year is a form of witness to the unbelieving world. Now, weather they believe it or not, they are told that the world’s Savour was born. I believe that is witness.

  4. ….goodwill towards men And women) with whom He is well pleased. but where is the goodwill, the peace we speak of, since His Coming? It would be the falsest of prophecies , the worst of jokes, to interpret peace and goodwill to have arrived when all our history has shown the falsehood of such thinking when we look at reality around us (just before I wrote this piece I was reading the account of the fall of Mosul). So it is not today, it is not anywhere in this life and if that is all it means, the scoffers are right. But they are not right, they are wrong and always were. We – christians will interpret the word say what it means, not the scoffers, and inherit the peace. this is the message we need to be teaching our children, not warm, fuzzy lies born of wishful thinking of benevolent (or malignant) super heroes with supernatural powers so prevalent that we can scarcely tell the difference between news and the fantasy of fake news.

  5. All emotional attachment aside, when it comes to the concrete truth regarding Christmas this we know for sure:

    1. Jesus’ parents didn’t celebrate his birth.
    2. As far as we are told, Jesus never celebrated his birth.
    3. The disciples never celebrated Jesus’ birth.
    4. Jesus never taught his followers to celebrate his birth.
    5. The Apostles never celebrated, nor taught new converts to celebrate Messiah’s birth.
    6. The early church never celebrated Jesus’ birth.
    7. The 1st Century believers never celebrated Jesus’ birth.
    8. Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th.

    • Loving Christmas says:

      The angels did celebrate His birth.

      [Luk 2:13-14, 20 KJV] 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. … 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

      ooh and the shepherds did also praise God for they had seen the baby Jesus.

      …ooh and then the hills were covered with camels from kings who came to worship Him….[Isa 60:6 KJV] 6 The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.

      No emotions attached just scripture.

  6. Those who would distort Christmas are just as likely to distort any aspect of Christianity (marriage, for example) so backing off celebration will never be the answer. I can see why Christians need to celebrate the Saviour’s birth as good news and why we have a”liturgical” year to remind us of all the pointers to The Good News throughout the year. But do let’s have it based on the reality of the Good News and let us teach these landmark events to our children.

    Christ was not born on December 25 but He certainly WAS born and certainly that should become part of our lives just as His resurrection should also., perhaps even becom our raison d’etre in an age of existential unbelief.

  7. Felmar Roel Rap. Singco says:

    Thanks again, Dr. Ward, for bringing us back home to these issues of our time regarding the celebration of Christmas, an originally Christian feast that has now attained global secular popularity and tradition.

    My thought on the matter is that families should institute with in them Christmas traditions that are truely Christian that they can repeat year after year after year.

    By doing this, children with in families be come accustomed to the yearly traditions of their families, and will all ways wait with happy expectation to relive and renew again those Christmas traditions every year in December, and will also have good memories of these every year when the Christmas Season is all ready past.

    By institutionalising these Christian Christmas traditions in their families, father, mothers, and children, and their extended family members, will be come even more united in love and appreciation for the LORD Jesus Christ and His Holy Family, and will be come stronger in bond and familial love to each other.

    This is also just a form of obedience to the commandments of the LORD Jesus Christ in the Old Testament, when He commanded Moses to remember and celebrate every year, on fixed periods of the months, certain feasts and remembrances that commemorate the various stories of their salvation.

    It was true and good then, it is true and good still now.

  8. If we Truly Believe that the Word of God [YHVH] is Infallible; regardless of how we twist it to make it fit our own belief system; as “true” Christians we are not supposed to celebrate the Celebrations of Men. It is a Biblical Truth that the King of Glory Yahshua (Jesus) was not even born in December; He was born on Yom Kippur or Feast of Atonement which happened on Sept 25th of September, over two thousand years ago; which the Early Church Fathers tell us in their Writings. If you take it one step further and “if” you truly believe the Word of God; you wont Celebrate Christmas with Christmas Trees, etc… because the Word itself [Yahshua (Jesus)] tells us not to in Jeremiah 10:2-4; he tells us not to go the way of the Heathens…. and not to cut down a tree from the forest and decorate it with gold and silver… Christmas was created by the Catholic Church; and was never kept by anyone in the True Church of Christ before Catholicism [before 325 A.D.] since it is a Pagan Tradition as a matter of Fact the Early Church Fathers Warn against the Celebration of Christmas because it is Idolatry;
    ** “The Saturnalia [Roman festival to honor the deity Saturn held in the Middle of December] and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented – ‘presents’ [giving gifts] come and go – New-year’s gifts – games join their noise – banquets join their din! Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the Christians for itself! Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even if they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians. We are not apprehensive lest we seem to be heathens! If any indulgence is to be granted to the flesh, you have it.”
    On Idolatry Ch. XIV, Vol. 3
    ** “Now-a-days find more doors of heathens without lamps and laurel-wreaths than of Christians.”
    ~ Tertullian [On Idolatry Ch. XlV, Vol. 3]
    These quotes by Tertullian is just the tip of the Ice berg on their teachings against such things… so I am not sure why everyone feels it Is Ok to Celebrate the Traditions of Men when the Bible itself says not to do such:
    ** Col 2:8 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to “the tradition” of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
    — So Anyone can say; well that isn’t what it means to me, etc… but it doesn’t matter what it means to you; but it does matter what it means by the Holy Spirit who gave the utterance to the Prophets and Apostles of God [Yahshua] who wrote down what they were given from the Spirit of the Eternal Father…. hopefully someone is having their eyes opened; there is a reason why Scripture says “You Shall know the Truth” and the Truth Shall Set you Free…