Christmas Is Coming: The Birthday of the Savior and the Birthday of America
Two of our biggest national holidays are July 4th and December 25th. The first is the birthday celebration of the United States of America and the second is the birthday celebration of Jesus Christ. Do they have anything more in common than that they both give federal employees a paid day off from work?
One could be forgiven for not thinking that they do given how much effort has been put into scouring Christianity’s impact from the mind of Americans and the public square. Besides, only a few although growing number of the most hardened Anti-American radicals and leftists have attacked the birth of America, at least so far.
But Christmas and Independence Day do have other things in common. Both essentially have incorrect dates for the amazing things that we celebrate on those days. Amazingly, July 4th is not really the birthday of America. Consider what patriot and later second US President, John Adams, wrote to his wife Abigail in early July 1776. He declared that forever thereafter fireworks, parades, parties and celebrations would be essential features of the American story to celebrate the birthday of the United States—on July 2nd! That made complete sense to Adams as July 2nd was the day of the Continental Congress’ vote for independence. But the press release date of their vote was dated July 4th. So the release of the Declaration of Independence stole the show and we’ve celebrated July 4th ever since.
Similarly, no one is sure of the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Christian celebration of the miracle of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity occurs on what was once the ancient pagan celebration of Saturnalia—the first day when it was clear that light was conquering darkness, evidenced by the lengthening of sunlight after the winter solstice on December 21st. The Gospel narrative in Luke speaks of shepherds being out in the fields at night—something that was unlikely during the long cold wintery nights of ancient Israel, making a December date uncertain. But then again, it could have been a warm December winter night in Bethlehem. At any rate, we can’t be sure of the precise date. Nor should we fault the early Christians for supplanting Saturnalia with the birthday celebration of the Savior, who did claim, after all, to be “the Light of the World”.
There have other similarities as well. We light up the nights surrounding both July 4th and December 25th. We gather together with families and friends as we celebrate and take our kids on trips and vacations during the time off. We tell the stories that surround the beginning of both celebrations and recount family traditions that have developed and that we have enjoyed and have shaped our lives. As varied as they are, their parades, re-enactments and feasts have punctuated our years and have entwined us and our kindred.
The question of why there is a similarity between July 4th and December 25th for Americans is not new. John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, an anti-slavery Congressman and America’s 6th President, once asked, “Why is it that, next to the birthday of the Savior of the world, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day (the 4th of July)?”
The younger Adams query was asked on July 4th in 1837 at a patriotic celebration in Newburyport, MA on the 61st anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He answered his question by four further questions: “Is it not that in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the Gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity?”
Adams expected his audience to affirm: (1) The inseparable link between Independence Day and Christmas. (2) That July 4th is part of the progressive impact of the Gospel on human history. (3) That the Declaration of Independence placed the American form of civil government on the life and teaching of the one born in Bethlehem who fulfilled his mission on earth as Redeemer. (4) That the cornerstone of human government established in America by the Declaration of Independence was based on the primary teachings of the Christian faith.
Wow! Those are gigantic claims, especially from our perspective in an America that seems hell-bent on rejecting everything bequeathed to our nation from Christian sources.
But maybe what Adams was affirming was not so far off the mark from what our Founders thought. For example, there are four references to Deity in the Declaration, including “Creator”, “laws of nature and nature’s God”, and “with a firm reliance on the Protection of divine Providence.” The one to emphasize in this context appears to be a direct reference to Christ, “for the rectitude of our intentions we appeal to the Supreme Judge of the World.” In the Gospels, Jesus Christ is the final Judge of all mankind.
Perhaps Adams had in mind the famous words of General George Washington who insisted that unless America imitated Christ, we could not be a happy nation. As he was retiring as the victorious General, Washington wrote on June 8, 1783 to each of the thirteen newly independent Governors of the United States:
I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, … and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.
Washington called on America’s leaders and their states to imitate Christ’s love (charity), humility, and peace (pacific temper of mind). These are attributes that profoundly reflect the child in the manger of Bethlehem. The Christ-child was sent because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). He left the glories of heaven and in humility was placed in a feeding stall designed for animals. He was declared “the Prince of Peace” by the heavenly chorus as they sang, “Peace on earth. Good will toward men!” I think Washington was on to something. Our generally unhappy American political scene begun on July 4th certainly could use these days a large dose of love, humility and peace! Washington was right, we need Christmas in July.
So, as we celebrate Christmas, let us remember that the Scriptures declare that Christ came to free the captives, to free his people from their sins and the curse of death. His incarnation was intended to free from the bonds of the ancient laws of sacrifice. He declared that if the Son makes one free, he will be free indeed (John 8:36). No wonder St. Paul declared, “Stand fast in the freedom wherein Christ has made us free.” (Gal. 5:1). In light of this biblical call for liberty, it was only a small logical step for our Founders to connect political liberty with the spirit of freedom found in Christ. In fact, the Apostle Paul urged in 1 Corinthians 7:21, “if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.”
So In the mind of John Quincy Adams, at least, when one wishes “Merry Christmas” he should also be thinking, “God bless America”. So as this Christmas comes, remember to enjoy July 4th as well. And this Christmas, don’t forget that Christmas in America also comes in July. May it ever be so in the land of the free and the home of the Brave!