Christmas Reconsidered

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Christmas Reconsidered

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Does the Bible permit a believer to observe religious festivals that are not established by God? Does He allow us to use forms of worship that originated in pagan ceremonies, adapting them to worship Him? Is the New Testament more flexible than the Old, allowing us to disregard God's prior instructions on how to worship Him? More to the point, can we justify the observance of Christmas by Christians?

Let's examine this subject and review what the Bible and history say regarding Christmas observance and its customs.

When the apostle Paul addressed the issue of how flexible Christians should be in their fellowship, he stated: "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.' Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you'" (2 Corinthians 6:14-17).

No new days of worship

Regarding pagan beliefs and customs, the New Testament is as emphatic in rejecting them as the Old. There is not a single example in the New Testament of a new religious feast day being established in Christ's honor. Following Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, the New Testament was written over a period of 60 to 70 years-yet nowhere in that written record is there evidence of or instructions for institution of new days of worship in His honor.

Instead, the New Testament records that Christians continued to keep the Old Testament Holy Days listed in Leviticus 23 without interruption, but with greater spiritual understanding than before. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: "The sanctity of special times was an idea absent from the minds of the first Christians . . . [who] continued to observe the Jewish Festivals though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events which those festivals had foreshadowed" (Vol. 8, p. 828, 11th edition).

It was natural for the early Christians to continue keeping the biblical Holy Days, which now centered on celebrating Christ's successive interventions on behalf of mankind in the past, present and in future.

The Bible gives clear instructions regarding the use of pagan practices to worship the true God.

God was clear when He told His people: "Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them...and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.' You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:30-32).

The New Testament Church clearly understood this, and there is no hint during that time of new days of worship being established. It was well into the second century before new man-made feasts to honor Jesus Christ began to appear in Rome.

The first was the Easter Sunday celebration, which history records was kept in Rome about A.D. 135. Christmas appears to have first been observed around A.D. 230 and became definitely established on Dec. 25 by the year A.D. 435. Meanwhile, the biblical Holy Days commanded in the Old Testament and continued in apostolic times were systematically abandoned.

History of Christmas

If Christmas was not observed in the time of the apostles, how did it come to be observed? The pre-Christian origins of Christmas can be found in almost any book about the day. The briefest research will show that its roots extend into many different religions and pagan beliefs.

"Saturnalia and the kalends were the celebrations most familiar to early Christians, December 17-24 and January 1-3, but the tradition of celebrating December 25 as Christ's birthday came to the Romans from Persia. Mithra, the Persian God of light and sacred contracts, was born out of a rock on December 25. Rome was famous for its flirtations with strange gods and cults, and in the third century the emperor Aurelian established the festival of Dies Invicti Solis, the Day of the Invincible Sun, on December 25.

"Mithra was an embodiment of the sun, so this period of its rebirth was a major day in Mithraism, which had become Rome's latest official religion with the patronage of Aurelian. It is believed that the emperor Constantine adhered to Mithraism up to the time of his conversion to Christianity. He was probably instrumental in seeing that the major feast of his old religion was carried over to his new faith" (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, The Christmas Almanac, p. 17).

"As ancient as civilization itself is the custom of celebrating a festival at the time of the winter solstice, at the turning of the year, when days begin to lengthen and the sun to return. In Egypt January 6 was honored as the birthday of Osiris; in Rome December 25 was the birthday of Mithra and the feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. Both dates became identified with Christ's appearance on earth.

"In the East January 6, which had also been a pagan water festival, was fixed as the date of his baptism and marked by the blessing of baptismal waters. In the West it commemorated the adoration of the Magi, the three wise men who came to worship Christ as representatives of the people of the world. Almost everywhere December 25 came to be accepted as the day of the Nativity. The joyous celebrations of the pagan mid-winter festivals were continued by Christians" (Roland H. Bainton, The Horizon History of Christianity, p. 368).

Additional beliefs merged

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, additional beliefs were merged into it, resulting in the mixture of customs observed today. "There are indications...that as Christians went on from year to year and century to century developing the rites of Christmas, they borrowed, adopted, or simply carried over elements of other midwinter celebrations" (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, The Christmas Almanac, p. 15).

Many pagan customs were imported directly into the church with little or no change. "Certainly the official Church inspired its missionaries to make the winter feast a Christian festival. In 601, Pope Gregory instructed Augustine of Canterbury to follow the custom of decking temples with greenery by decking churches in the same manner, and to solemnise the time by Christian feasting.

"'Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but to the praise of God kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the Giver of all for their abundance...For from obdurate minds it is impossible to cut off everything at once...'" Pope Gregory said (William Sansom, A Book of Christmas, p. 30).

Does man have the authority of the Bible to innovate and adopt other days of worship? Notice what Jesus Christ told His apostles when He gave them the great commission: "'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age'" (Matthew 28:18-20).

Christ never even hinted that His followers would have the authority to establish new days of worship. He told the apostles to teach His followers "to observe all things" He had commanded them. Throughout His earthly ministry He had diligently kept God's Sabbath and Holy Days, which now were filled with new meaning. The early Church continued in their observance, following Christ's own example.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology states: "In the early Christian church the propriety of celebrating the festivals together with the whole of the Jewish people was never questioned, so that it needed no special mention" (Vol. 1, p. 628).

Does the new covenant render all prior biblical forms of worship obsolete, giving Christians freedom to express their faith and gratitude in any way they wish? How much freedom do Christians have to innovate in their worship? They are given only as much freedom as was authorized in the New Testament.

Added traditions rejected

For instance, notice the Pharisees' approach to the Scriptures. They argued with Christ that they could innovate and add to God's laws new traditions, reasoning that they could better express their faith by doing so. They asked Christ, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?" (Mark 7:5).

How did Christ answer? Did He explain that their practices were perfectly acceptable since He came so they could add even more traditions? He certainly did not!

Here is His answer: "'...In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men...All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition" (Mark 7:7-9).

Just as the Pharisees added their traditions to the law of God, so do many churches today. But Christ's answer directly condemns this practice.

What happens when God's feasts are no longer considered holy and their observance is viewed as optional? A vacuum results. Since the biblical feasts are the only ones authorized in Scripture, historically mankind has had to innovate. Religious leaders have looked to popular religious festivals outside the Bible that can be "Christianized," such as the pre-Christian festivals and celebrations that came to be renamed Christmas.

Unlike the biblical Feasts, which picture the steps in God's plan that offer salvation to all mankind, Christmas is a shallow man-made substitute.

Christ did not consider His birth of prime importance. Instead He instructed His followers to observe the Passover, commemorating the sacrifice of His life for the sins of the world. After instituting new symbols representing the importance of His life and sacrifice for us, He told the disciples "Do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24).

The whole concept of celebrating Christ's birth would have been foreign to His disciples and the writers of the New Testament. "To the early Christians the idea of celebrating the birthday of a religious figure would have seemed at best peculiar, at worst blasphemous. Being born into this world was nothing to celebrate. What mattered was leaving this world and entering the next in a condition pleasing to God...

"No, if you wanted to search the New Testament world for peoples who attached significance to birthdays, your search would quickly narrow to pagans. The Romans celebrated the birthdays of the Caesars, and most non-Christian Mediterranean religions attached importance to the natal feasts of a pantheon of supernatural figures" (Tom Flynn, The Trouble With Christmas, p. 42)

Origin of biblical festivals

Some go so far in advocating new forms of worship as to propose that the biblical feast days commanded by God in Leviticus 23 are ultimately derived from pagan celebrations. Certainly there is no biblical basis for such a claim. Such opinions are based in liberal theology. Conservative scholars on the whole discard such theories.

Reflecting the conservative point of view, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states: "The sacred seasons of Israel stem directly from divine revelation and were designed to illustrate significant aspects of the eternal redemption that God had already ordained for His own under the OT. The Hebrew calendar of convocations is therefore not to be explained on the basis of natural phenomena, such as the phases of the moon or the Palestinian agricultural cycle.

"Neither may it be attributed to pre-Mosaic custom, whether Canaanite or nomadic. Israel's feasts served rather as divinely revealed expressions of the moral obligations of His people, as memorials of God's saving acts in the past, as sacraments of His sanctifying power in the present, and as types of His anticipated victory over sin in the forthcoming first and second advents of Jesus Christ" (Vol. 2, pp. 292, 293).

In fact, according to the biblical history of Genesis 1-11, it was not God's way that came out of paganism, but paganism that came out of God's way, when man left His guidance and laws. Mankind then established corrupted systems with only glimpses of God's truths. Dr. Stephen Langdon, one of the great archaeologists and Assyriologists of this century, said: "In my opinion, the history of man's most ancient religion reveals a rapid tendency from pure monotheism to extreme polytheism and its focus on evil spirits. In its most absolute sense, it is the account of the fall of Man" (Sir Charles Marston, The Bible Spoke the Truth, p. 72).

Other feasts added

Some believe that since the Jews added the feasts of Hanukkah and Purim in biblical times, we are free today to add religious holidays and celebrations of our own choosing. Does their observance sanction the institution of additional religious holidays?

There is a major difference in background and intent. Nowhere did Hanukkah and Purim incorporate pagan forms of worship into a celebration honoring the true God. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple after its defilement by the Syrian king Antiochus, and Purim commemorates the defeat of the Jews' enemies in the time of Queen Esther. As such, they are celebrations of thanks and honor to God, similar to Thanksgiving Day as observed in the U.S.

Christmas, however, is very different. It is a syncretism of numerous pagan beliefs and customs into a celebration supposedly honoring the Son of God, a practice soundly condemned in the Bible (Deuteronomy 4:2, Deuteronomy 12:1-4, Deuteronomy 30-32; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17).

"...Though it celebrates the mightiest event in the history of Christendom, it was overlaid upon heathen festivals, and many of its observances are only adaptations of pagan to Christian ceremonial. This was no mere accident. It was a necessary measure at a time when the new religion was forcing itself upon a deeply superstitious people. In order to reconcile fresh converts to the new faith, and to make the breaking of old ties as painless as possible, these relics of paganism were retained under modified forms, in the same way that antique columns, transferred from pagan temples, became parts of the new churches built by Christians in honor of their God and his saints" (The Story of Santa Klaus, p. 58, 59).

Regarding the background of Christmas, Tom Flynn wrote: "In my research, I found only one Christmas custom that seems to belong exclusively to Christianity. Christians appear to have invented the Midnight Mass out of whole cloth. Celebrated in Rome as early as the fifth century, it alone appears not to have significant pagan antecedents" (The Trouble With Christmas, p. 70).

Worship in spirit and truth

Since Christmas is not authorized by God nor by the Bible, it can never be holy. Jesus Christ Himself said that "true worshippers...must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24). Christmas celebration is not sanctioned by the Scriptures. Such idolatrous practices are at best futile, foolish and worthless (Jeremiah 10:1-8).

At worst, since such practices break the First and Second Commandments, they are sin. When God said: "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3), He condemns forms of worship that celebrated the supposed birth the sun or false gods. When God states: "You shall not make for yourself an idol...You shall not bow down to them or worship them..." (Exodus 20:4, New International Version), He also condemns inventing religious feasts and celebrations to replace those God ordained.

Why not just keep the Holy Days that come directly from God and picture His plan to offer salvation to humankind?

Paul's warnings to Timothy about what would happen in the church should also be a warning to us: "I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables." (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

Christmas is one of those fables.