Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why It's OK to Have a Christmas Tree

At least three times in the last year, I have heard from Christians who are concerned that they shouldn't have a Christmas tree, or maybe shouldn't celebrate Christmas, because many Christmas customs are adopted from pagan customs. Some Christians worry that the date of Christmas was picked to replace pagan holidays such as Saturnalia (likely true), that the Christmas tree came from pagan rituals (uncertain, but possible), or that the star on the tree comes from star worship (not too likely, in my opinion).

To answer this concern, let me ask a very different question: is it OK for Christians to use the names for the days of the week and the months? The days of the week honor Norse gods: Sun day, Moon day, Tiw's day, Odin's day, Thor's day, Freya's day, Saturn day. Some of the months honor Greek and Roman gods (Janus, Mars, Aphrodite, Maia, Juno) while others honor deified Roman emperors (Julius, Augustus). But no one seems to have a problem with this, for a very good reason: when Christians say "Thursday," they are not worshipping Thor, and no one else thinks they are, either. The Bible prohibits idolatry, but idolatry consists of worshipping other gods. Worship is not something that one does unintentionally; it's a matter of the heart.

This is why it's OK to have a Christmas tree, give gifts, put a star on your tree, and celebrate Jesus' birth on December 25 (even if he wasn't born then). When I erect a Christmas tree, none of my neighbors thinks I am worshipping some old druid god, and I certainly have no intent to worship anything. In fact, to genuine pagans, my devout observance of Christmas in honor of Jesus is a testimony to my faith in Christ, not my worship of any other god.

Symbols and words are not permanently tainted merely because they are used by another religion ("I know and am convinced in the Lord that nothing is unclean in itself..." says Paul in Rom 14:14, referring to meat sacrificed to idols). Cults misuse baptism and the Lord's Supper, but that does not mean we should no longer baptize or share in communion. When Solomon built the first temple for God in the Old Testament, there had already been pagan temples for at least two thousand years. The design of Solomon's temple even had some similarities to Egyptian temples. The fact that temples were used by other religions did not make it wrong to build a temple to God or to use the temple as a metaphor for God's people. There are lots of other examples in the Bible of using (or redeeming) terms and symbols from the pagan world. Paul quotes the poem "A Hymn to Zeus" in Acts 17:28. While astrology and the worship of stars is condemned in the Bible, stars are repeatedly used as symbols of Jesus, Israel, and the church - so it is OK for you to put a star on your Christmas tree.

Finally, celebrating Christmas is allowable because the Scripture gives us personal freedom in such matters. In 1 Cor 8-10, Paul tells Christians not to participate in idol feasts, because idol feasts involved acts of worship to other gods, and everyone knew such feasts were designed to honor other gods. But in 1 Cor 10:25-33, Paul says that Christians can eat meat that was sold in an idol market, because it is not an act of worship, and the meat is not permanently tainted. Paul also says that Christians have freedom to celebrate religious holidays or not according to their own conscience, and even warns us not to condemn others for their decisions in these areas of freedom (Rom 14:1-14, Col 2:16-17). The Bible forbids worship of other gods - but celebrating Christmas by putting up a Christmas tree does not constitute worship, especially when we do it in honor of Jesus.

"Do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil, for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking [or celebrating Christmas or not!], but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:16-17). The Christian life is primarily about living out the virtues of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. If Christmas is a good thing for you that leads you to think about Jesus, then enjoy it - but more importantly, make sure that your Christian life is primarily about things that really matter, not minor quibbles about Christmas.

The picture: The Nativity, by an unknown Ottonian, ca. 1025-1050.

12 comments:

  1. Hello Gary,

    Hope you had a great weekend. I recently sent you this video and wanted your opinion:

    http://tellingthetruth.50webs.com/4-4.html

    So I suppose I am one of the three individuals that have brought this up. (at least)

    It appears that an increasing number of Christmas celebrants are becoming aware of its pagan origins as can be seen from the video. .

    The only way to justify continuing to celebrate this event is to argue that it has been sanitized and sanctified with Jesus being injected into it. It rests on the premise that we can copy cat a pagan celebration if we have excised the false gods and goddesses.

    A scripture that specifically states that Jehovah objects to copy cat celebrations is found at Deuteronomy 12:28-32. Here the Israelites were warned not to take note of "HOW" the pagans worshipped their God and decided to worship Jehovah 'in the same way." Jehovah warned the Israelites not to copy-cat, not to imitate, not to integrate into their worship the worship styles and ceremonies of pagans.

    Interestingly the same text mentions that even if the Israelites had exterminated the pagan celebrants, so that they did not represent a living human influence, they still should not copy cat there celebrations. That addresses the objection: "Well, the worshippers of Saturn, Ostara, Mithra et al are not around these days. So what is the problem?."

    Christmas and Easter are obvious examples of copy-cat celebrations. Jehovah says he does not accept copy-cat celebrations.

    I find the account in the 32nd chapter of Exodus helpful when discussing this topic. A couple of points can be made about Aaron's proclamation in verse 5: "When Aaron saw this [the golden calf] he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD (Jehovah)."(Exodus 32:5; NIV)

    1. Attempting to make a detestable pagan festival acceptable by dedicating it to Jehovah (even attaching the divine name to it) was woefully misguided. And most 'Christians' would agree that Jehovah viewed this as a justifiable reason to destroy, consume, or exterminate them...had he chosen to do so (verse 10).

    2. However, let's say we begin to add the element of time to the account. 50 yrs, 500 yrs, 1000 years, etc. If the Israelites decided to celebrate this particular 'festival to Jehovah' at some time in the distant future...at what point does God's view of the matter change? At what point does his 'blazing anger' (verse 10) become a mere flicker?

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  2. ...continuing

    For those that readily acknowledge the ancient pagan origins of Christmas but chose to celebrate anyway, it is the element of time that seems to absolve or exculpate them from accountability.

    But since 2 Peter 3:8 tells us that "...with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day", our view of time is not God's. From His perspective, a pagan festival that began 1000 years ago...happened yesterday. The passing of time doesn't affect or diminish his righteous standards.

    The truth is that when we see the falseness and objectionable aspects of this and other pagan holidays, our trained Christian consciences should recognize this holiday (as well as others Easter, Halloween, etc.) for what they really are, ploys of Satan to get people involved in practices that are offensive to God and Christ, and therefore they interfere with our "exclusive devotion" to Jehovah.

    Unitedly we should choose not to celebrate and join the world in falsehood that is offensive to God. Just as the Israelites in Deuteronomy 12:28-31 were admonished not to practice the things of the nations that are detestible to Jehovah, so to the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses find it repugnant to do so.

    Catholics often say something similar to what you expostulate concerning their NOT worshipping idols the way pagans did. Yet, really, what is the difference? Deuteronomy 7:25,26 states: "The graven images of their gods you should burn in the fire. You must not desire the silver and the gold upon them, nor indeed take it for yourself, for fear you may be ensnared by it, for it is a thing detestable to Jehovah your God. And you must not bring a detestable thing into your house and actually become a thing devoted to destruction like it."

    One wonders if you feel the same way about idols? Would you, aaccording to what you said regarding Christmas, take the Catholic position and say: "Oh, well, we really aren't worshipping these images. They are just reminders of God, of Christ, of the saints, etc." Jehovah's thoughts are made known clear respecting idols as well as in "pagan practices" such as Christmas, even if they are now sprinkled with holy water and dressed up in "Christian attire".

    It would be good to remember that Satan "appears as an angel of light". Should we be deceived into joining the world? How then would we be "no part of the world"?
    While Jeremiah 10:1-4 may or may not be referring to the Christmas practice of decorating trees, the surrounding words are enough for Christians to keep from any pagan/heathen practice which offends Jehovah. (KJV): "...Learn not the way of the heathen...for the customs of the people are vain." That, coupled with Paul's words at 1 Corinthians 10:20-22 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-17, we have God's thinking on this, or any other practice with pagan roots.

    "No, but I say that the things which the nations sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers with the demons. You cannot be drinking the cup of Jehovah and the cup of demons; you cannot be partaking of the table of Jehovah and the table of demons. Or 'are we inciting Jehovah to jealousy'?"

    2 Corinthians 6:14-17 shows there is no harmony between Christ and Satan. "...'Therefore get out from among them and separate yourselves', says Jehovah, 'and quit touching the unclean thing.'"

    It's all about about obedience. And obedience is one way we show our love for Jehovah and Christ. True, everyone should make their own decision but it should be a choice based on whether we want to please God or not.

    Respectfully,

    Nick Batchelor
    nickhawaii@gmail.com

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  3. Hi Nick,

    Good to hear from you! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I don't think that the passage in Exodus is a parallel situation. Exodus 32 forbids worship of an image intended to represent God. The text tells us that they were worshipping the image, and it describes their worship actions. Certainly someone might wrongly use a Christmas tree as an image and worship it (or worship God through it), but I don't know any Christians who do. It's a celebratory activity, and it's a stretch to call it worshipping a tree or even through a tree.

    Regarding the issue of everyone making their own choice: my point in citing passages in Romans 14 and 1 Cor is that Paul clearly says that in certain matters, Christians can choose differently and both please God. So, for example, the one with a clear conscience can eat meat from the idol marketplace and he is not doing wrong. Likewise, one person can celebrate a holy day and another can abstain, and both can do it for Christ (Rom 14:5-6)

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  4. To the anonymous poster at the end of December: I decided not to post your comment because it consisted only of name-calling, did not contribute to the discussion, and was off-topic.

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  5. Hello Gary,

    I have been giving more thought to some of your rationale to justify Christmas and you brought up the “pagan calendar.” I believe you are confusing “recognition” with “celebration”. I can recognize that a certain day is named “Thursday” named after the Norse God Thor, but this recognition is not a CELEBRATION that it is Thor’s Day with associated worship of Thor which the worshippers of Thor completed on Thors Day.

    By celebrating a day with non-Christian cultic customs that have been “Christianized” one should ask oneself whether God approves of Christianization of pagan customs without his approval. (or as the dragnet announcer would say “the customs you are about to celebrate are Pagan, the names have been changed to protect their depravity” :)

    In my last post we saw how Jehovah is insulted and looks with displeasure on the practice of commandeering false religious customs and sanctifying them without His approval. I wonder how you feel about the Catholic practice of "Christianizing" voodoo and Mayan religious customs in South America?

    I appreciate you bringing up Acts 17:28 where Paul does quote from a poem dedicated to Zeus. I’m not sure though how borrowing a snippet of a phrase from secular sources is somehow tantamount to CELEBRATING false religious practice. This is obviously a ludicrous non-sequitur.

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  6. ...continuing

    However this example of Paul’s rhetorical modus operandi when using both sacred and secular literature is enlightening. It is obvious that Paul applied only the verbal thought content of the partial quote NOT the personality to God. Paul was obviously not equating Zeus as being Jehovah. Thus we have a another concrete example that Paul would apply snippets of verbal content from a variety of sources to apply to Jehovah or to his Son without equating the original referent.

    So really can this text from the Apostle Paul be used to justify pagan celebrations? You referred to Romans 14:4-5.

    “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:4-5)

    Some were trying to revert back to the Law’s requirements of the observances of certain days, such as the Sabbath. Since the Law was no longer charged to Christians as a requirement for pleasing Jehovah in matters of worship, such observances were not required. However, if a Christian wished to set aside a day for matters concerning prayer, study, meditation, and sacred service in the preaching of the good news, in imitation only of the Law, then any day fitting his situation was fine. No one could regulate that for him. It was a personal choice. What sacrifice each Christian was to give was to be according to circumstance and choice.

    But matters having to do with Christian worship, as taught by Jesus and the Apostles, recorded for us in the Greek Scriptures, and the derived principles of the Hebrew Scriptures, is not a matter of conscience. Again, God is speaking about "His" days as appointed in the Law He gave to his people. God never made Christmas a "special day." The whole thing is man-made and the principle" you cite does not even apply here.

    I will sign off by saying being a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ brings responsibility. Many people are not ready for that responsibility. Often it's as simple as that. It is interesting how humans can justify the things they want in their lives, even when they know some of these things are wrong in God's eyes.

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  7. Being scholarly in the bible is fine but without the Spirit of God all one has is the letter. The problem is Bible Students are now students of the letter instead of Students of the Spirit. The Spirit of God that dwells in me makes it clear that Christmas worship is worldly, rooted in paganism and not at all Christian except as outwardly/worldly Christian. Like the Scribes and Pharisees followed the letter and not the Spirit - so it is today.
    Many things in the Bible are not exactly answered and these things are revealed by the Spirit - however that Spirit of Truth must be in one before they can follow and obey it.
    God called fisherman and tax collectors - ignorant and unlearned -- but educated by God's Spirit.

    Heb 5:13 For every one that useth milk is unskillfull in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.
    Heb 5:14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

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  8. Hi Nick,

    Just a few brief responses:
    -My point in citing a few examples in the Bible of re-use of pagan items was not to show that they were directly about holidays (you can re-read my original post to see), but rather to show that ideas and even practices are not permanently tainted by their use in paganism.
    - I agree with you that Paul's first referent in Rom 14 is to the freedom to celebrate Jewish holidays or not. However, he also talks about meat sacrificed to idols in the same passage. My primary point here was that Rom 14 informs us that there are a category of behaviors that Christians can avoid or embrace (traditionally called adiaphora), and either is pleasing to God if pursued in faith.
    - I don't think that it is "as simple as that" or that we "know some of thes things are wrong." I, and most Christian I know, would avoid Christmas if we found the biblical arguments against it persuasive. For comparison: if you and I were interacting with a devout Catholic, he would be convinced that contraceptives are wrong and that the Bible teaches so. We would not listen to him, not because we are justifying our disobedience, but because we do not find his arguments persuasive. Your view on Christmas may seem very obvious to you, but it is simply not persuasive to many other Christians, including those who are very committed and obedient.

    Gary

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  9. Hello Gary,

    I believe many in Christendom are committed and obedient in some things but then sadly turn a blind eye on other things. Christmas, Easter, and Halloween are good examples.

    True Christianity does not accept syncretism. I suppose Constantine was successful in achieving his objective.

    I do thank you for your respected expressions.

    Kind regards,

    Nick

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  10. leon chingcuangcoMarch 23, 2011 at 4:37 AM

    Hey Dr. Manning,
    Just read this post and all of the comments. We had a similar conversation in our community group tonight. In the same vein, what do you think of Christians using Hula as worship and Yoga as exercise. Love to hear your thoughts. I'm trying to lead my group in this. Most of the conversation centered on the same Romans and Corinthians passages. Thanks! Hope all is well in Cali. We miss you out here. Antioch school has started. Maybe come by and do a guest lecture?

    Leon

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  11. Hey Leon! Good to hear from you. I think uhla is in the same category. It is a medium of communication, like language. So it should be evaluated on the basis of its content or message. I am less familiar with yoga; I know that some say that it is primarily practiced as a strictly physical workout, without the religious component (much like some martial arts).

    I didn't know you were still in Hawaii! I would love to spend time with the Antioch guys next time I am in Hawaii. I'm hoping to be there in Summer 2012, if not earlier.

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  12. what about jermiah chapter 10 it appears to me its talking about a Christmas tree to not have one. but I’m not sure maybe you can shine some light.

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