Holiday Observances

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

            It is that time of year again when one holiday after another is observed: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then New Years. As usual for this time of year, the question arises as to how Christians are to treat these events. Should we celebrate them, or should we ignore them? Though ignoring them is quite difficult; besides the numerous advertisements by stores hoping to meet their sales goals this year, we find many denominations capitalizing on these same events. Bulletins run articles on being thankful in November, giving in December, and making resolutions in January. Even Halloween gets attention by being denounced as a celebration of witchcraft. Sometimes a denominational group makes the paper in their attempts to change horror houses into places that show the horrors of an immoral world.

            Christmas is the big event in the denominational world. Lobbies are decorated, special events are held, concerts, musicals; it must be difficult for members to find a spare moment. A few years back one group in my area advertised a decorated slide that would deliver presents to your little ones ($15 admission fee). Few resist the opportunities to profit from the season.

How It All Started

            The calendar of “Christian” events arose as a result of apostasy from the simple forms of worship used in the first century. “The Christian church year, however, developed itself spontaneously from the demands of the Christian worship and public life, after the precedent of the Old Testament cults, with no positive direction from Christ or the apostles.” [Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Third Period, AD 311-590, The Church Year]. Mr. Schaff further states that it was the strong desire to imitate the feasts found in the Old Testament that spurred Christians to create their own celebrations. Many had left Judaism and missed the numerous festivals authorized by God for the Jews to celebrate. In their eagerness to have their own fun, they forgot that Christ’s Law is greater than Moses’ Law (Hebrews 8:6).

            Our authority for worship does not come man’s spontaneity. The Christian’s duty is to seek God and serve His desires. “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10, NKJV).

            Mr. Schaff goes on to explain, “The New Testament contains no traces of annual festivals; but so early as the second century we meet with the general observance of Easter and Pentecost, founded on the Jewish Passover and feasts of harvest.” Imagine that! After all the arguments Paul made against returning to the observance of the Old Law, early Christians did so any way. “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using – according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:14-23).

            The feasts found in Moses’ Law were mere shadows of the reality found in Christ. Yet people ran back to the shadows to find entertainment. Their justification for doing this had the appearance of wisdom, but the truth is that what they created was a useless man-made religion.

            Mr. Schaff continues to explain that in the fourth century the Christmas festival was added to the two former feasts (Easter and Pentecost), and, in particular, replaced the earlier feast of Epiphany (a celebration of the birth and baptism of Jesus). That festival then evolved into a celebration of the manifestation of Christ among the Gentiles. Bit by bit, the early Christians found new things to celebrate and new ways to conduct their celebrations. Bit by bit they changed the laws of God to suit their desires, despite the warnings:

            For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18).

            Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:6).

            But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9).

            To put it bluntly, these men created feasts to satisfy their own desires for annual festivities. They originated from the will of men and not of God. The people so doing saw it as a way to glorify God, but such could not bring glory to God because God did not ask for these feasts. How can God be glorified when men choose to disobey His commands? Is it any different from the Jews of Jesus’ day? They thought that by giving money to the Temple, they were justified in not taking care of their parents in their old age. Shouldn’t it be enough that the money went to better use? Hear what Jesus said about this innovation: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9).

            After glowingly describing the rich symbolism of the Christmas celebration, Mr Schaff states, “Notwithstanding this deep significance and wide popularity, the festival of the birth of the Lord is of comparatively late institution.” In other words, despite his enjoyment of the holiday, Mr. Schaff admits that Christmas was not a part of the New Testament church as revealed by the apostles and prophets in the first century. In adding festivals, the church had left its foundational teaching (Ephesians 2:19-22).

            The comparatively late institution “may doubtless be accounted for in the following manner: In the first place, no corresponding festival was presented by the Old Testament, as in the case of Easter and Pentecost,” Mr. Schaff writes. Once again notice that Easter and Pentecost originated in man’s desire to copy the Old Covenant in order to provide annual feasts for the people. “In the second place, the day and month of the birth of Christ are nowhere stated in the gospel history and cannot be certainly determined.” As Adam Clarke, a Methodist minister and noted commentator said, the birth of Christ “has been placed by sects and learned men in every month of the year.” Thus the delay in developing a celebration of Christ’s birth was caused by a lack of information from God. So what God did not state, man took upon himself to determine. Man, not God, set the date for a feast that man, not God, wanted celebrated.

The Impact

            Have you noticed how many of the so-called religious holidays distort the teachings found in the Bible?

            The fables that have arisen around Christmas are perhaps the worse offenders. Ask yourself, your friends, and your neighbors the following questions: See how many you answer correctly:

Christmas Quiz

  1. Where did the wise men visit Jesus?
  2. How many wise men visited Jesus?
  3. Where did the star appear which the wise men saw and followed?
  4. What instrument did the little boy play for the Lord at His birth?
  5. What miracle, involving the animals in the stable, occurred at Jesus’ birth?
  6. When was Jesus born?

See the box at the end of this article for the answers.

            Why have so many errors have arisen in a story documented by God? It is because man has a tendency to embellish the storyline. Simple truth is too plain.

            Perhaps you are wondering, “What does it matter? We know they are tales, but they hold the children’s imagination.” That is precisely the problem. By mixing fables with truth, children no longer have a basis to distinguish fact from fiction. Children are told about the birth of Jesus and that Santa brings toys to good little girls and boys. As they grow older, they discover that Santa is not real – he is just a myth. So what do they do with Jesus who was connected to the same tale? The same problem occurs when the story of Jesus’ resurrection is combined with the Easter bunny. Is it a wonder that so many grow up skeptical about the truth in God’s Holy Word?

Should Christians Observe Holidays?

            The question of observing holidays is addressed in God’s word. After all, many early Christians had recently departed their Jewish faith. What were they to do with the many holidays that their friends and family still observed? Some chose to make a complete separation from their past traditions, others put those customs to use. “Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's” (Romans 14:4-8).

            Paul’s words are puzzling to those who know how forcefully Paul argued against bringing Jewish customs into the church. However, recall that Paul observed Jewish customs at times. In Acts 21:20-26 you can read were Paul complied with the ordinances for purification even though the law of Moses was no longer in effect. Paul explains this in I Corinthians 9:19-22, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” Paul’s goal was to teach people about Christ, yet the people he approached all have personal biases and expectations of what constitutes religious practice. So long as those practices did not violate what a Christian must do, Paul was willing to personally conform himself to those expectations in order to have opportunity to teach people. He strongly stated that it was wrong to bind these foreign practices on the church, but as an individual he had some liberty.

            In other words, if a Jew came out of Judaism and desired to continue to celebrate Passover with his family, such was not wrong as an individual. As a Christian he knows that the requirement for observing Passover had ended when Jesus died on the cross (Colossians 2:14). Thus to him it is not a religious feast, but a secular one. Yet, by keeping it he is accepted in the Jewish community and has opportunities to teach about Christ. The actual keeping of the feast does not violate any command of Christ.

            Another Jew coming into Christianity enjoys the freedom that it provides and decides to make a complete break from Judaism. He chooses to not to follow any of the past customs. Should he look down at his fellow Christian who is still observing some of the Jewish customs? “But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: "As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God." So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10-12).

            I’m sure that some ex-Jews had a difficult time eating pork after a lifetime of avoiding it. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter if a person, as an individual, decides not eat ham. “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14). Should then, the person who chooses to follow his old customs look down on his fellow Christian who does not do so? “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

            It is a two-way street. “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him” (Romans 14:3). The key is the fact that neither person is violating the laws of God. “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves” (Romans 14:22).

            But such liberty in individual choice does not translate into new laws for the church. While an ex-Jew might choose not eat pork, he cannot bind on all Christians a ban from pork. “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving” (I Timothy 4:4). A person who decides to enter a synagogue and join in the Sabbath observance cannot tell other Christians that they must observe the Sabbath as well.

            Therefore, we reach the point where we need to ask, can Christians observe secular holidays? Many brethren observe the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Mother’s Day without a second thought as to whether they are right or wrong. These days are merely days set aside to enjoy special occasions. But like the old Jewish customs, it would be wrong to bring these secular holidays into the church. For example, Mother’s Day is slowly being pulled into the denominations and becoming a part of their religious practices. If I chose to remember my mother on a particular day of the year, that is my business, but I cannot create a special day for the church to remember mothers because God did not authorize it.

            But what about Christmas? It began in idolatry and false religious practice, so how can a Christian participate in it? The question is: does it continue to be viewed as idolatry? As an example, the days of our week are named after false gods. Should Christians not use those names because of their connection to idolatry? No, because no one makes the connection these days. To make an appointment on Tuesday doesn’t cause anyone to assume that you are a pagan.

            The fact that Christmas originated in pagan and false religious practice ought to make us pause and consider. But the same question needs to be asked: does my participating in the celebration cause others to make the wrong conclusion about my beliefs? I doubt anyone today would conclude that those celebrating Christmas are pagan idolaters. However, since Christmas and Easter are recognized as religious holidays, some observing us may think we are also keeping these holidays as a religious requirement. This could be a cause of concern.

            So, consider this: when you see decorative lights on a house, do you assume the owners are celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday? I think most would honestly say, “No.” I know atheist and Jews who put up decorated trees and give out gifts. Thus Christmas is no longer strongly associated with Christianity. In fact, those in denominations are complaining that Christmas has lost its religious significance. That is why so many are chanting slogans, such as “Put Christ back into Christmas.”

            When people ask me what I’m doing to celebrate Easter at the congregation, I say, “The same thing we do every Sunday.” The puzzled looks give me an opportunity to show them the passages proving that Christ’s death is to be remembered every Sunday. Yet, we still decorate our home with pastel items and hide brightly colored eggs for the children. Nothing religious is connected with Easter in our home, but as a social custom we enjoy the holiday.

            We are able to enjoy Christmas as well without turning it into a religious holiday. I don’t have stars on my tree or a nativity scene in my yard. I can sing carols, but I skip the ones that speak of Bethlehem, angels, mangers, wise men, holy nights, and shepherds. I leave religion out of my holidays because God did not authorize them, but it doesn’t mean I must cross the holidays off my calendar.

            What about my brothers who strongly object to certain holiday observances? “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way” (Romans 14:13). I’m going to try my best not to cause offense. If I know someone objects to Christmas, I’m not going to invite them over for a turkey dinner on December 25th. There are plenty of other occasions to get together without my making things awkward for them.

            The instructions found in Romans 14 are often misapplied to situations they were never intended. But we mustn’t forget to learn and use those laws in their proper context.

Answers to the Christmas Quiz questions:

  1. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him” (Matthew 2:11).
  2. The Bible doesn’t say. It only specifies that three types of gifts were given. We only know that there was more than one giver of gifts.
  3. For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). The wise men saw the star while they, not the star, was in the east. Since they were in the east and followed it to Jerusalem, it would imply that they star was in the western part of the sky from their location.
  4. There is no mention of a boy or a drum in the Bible.
  5. There is no mention of a miracle involving the animals mentioned in the Bible.
  6. As stated in the article, the Bible doesn’t say. However, Luke 2:8 mentions that the shepherds were in their fields that night. This implies that the event took place during the warmer months of the year when the sheep were left out all night to graze.