Is Christmas a secular or religious holiday? Yes, it is.
As the church established its own identity among the polytheism of the Roman world, it had to deal with civil and community celebrations which were of pagan origin. At the beginning, the church leaders urged Christians not to participate in such events. This non-participation was often the cause of local persecution. Eventually, church leaders began to take the approach of overlaying pagan festivals with Christian feast days to allow for worship while abstaining from idolatry.
According to some sources, the festival of Saturnalia was the most popular holiday in the Roman Empire. It celebrated the agricultural god Saturn and was a mid-winter observance. It included offering gifts and sacrifices to ensure blessings on the planting season. The festival lasted for a week and culminated on December 25—winter solstice on the Julian calendar.
How could the church approach this celebration in a way that allowed Christians to participate in the community festivities while at the same time abstaining from idolatry and the worship of Saturn? The obvious answer was to hold a worship service or mass on December 25. But whose celebration should it be? John or Peter or Paul's? For the biggest festival in the Roman Empire nothing less than the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, should be celebrated. And thus, Christmas (that is, the mass of Christ) was born during a secular celebration.
My Christian faith is not threatened if sale clerks, food servers, and others do not specifically wish me a Merry Christmas. To me, such religious greetings is the realm of the faithful. Whether or not it is celebrated in the wider community, the celebration of the birth of Christ is our privilege and no further validation is needed.
David K. Popham Conference Minister