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Holidays

by Randall Watters

Biblical Overview

There are a number of religious groups claiming to be Christian that deny the celebration of holidays to their members, including Christmas, Easter, birthdays, Mother's Day, etc. This is especially the case with Jehovah's Witnesses. While there are some Witnesses who celebrate these holidays secretly for fear of being caught, most take pride in this prohibition. Parents are willing to allow their children to suffer much peer pressure and isolation, and are perfectly willing to isolate themselves from their families during holiday times, even taking the opportunity to go door-to-door during these seasons of celebration. What are the reasons given for this stand against holidays? Is it wrong to celebrate holidays?

Let's consider the reasons given by the Watchtower for their stand. They give three basic reasons:

1. Holidays usually have a pagan, non-Christian origin and are often accompanied by licentious practices, such as drunkenness, fornication, etc. (Make Sure of All Things, p. 241)

2. Holidays are not mentioned in the Bible except under negative circumstances, such as birthday parties where someone was killed. Also, we are not commanded to celebrate anything but the Lord's Evening Meal (Lord's Supper). (ibid., p. 235, 236)

3. Holidays idolize something or someone other than God, and the Bible says to "Flee from idolatry" and "We are no part of the world." (ibid., p. 241, 242)

Additionally, as in the case of Christmas, a further argument is set forth, that Christ was not born on Dec. 25, so why celebrate it on a date that coincides with the winter solstice, which was celebrated in the past by sun worshipers? (ibid., p. 237)

Before considering these objections, let's review some principles first that both JWs and Christians agree upon as basic and not open to argumentation. Then we will examine the INTERPRETATION of these principles with a view to revealing the inconsistency of the WT and their failure to understand Christianity.

The Bible is plain in saying that:

* We are to be "no part of the world" (John 17:16).

* We should "abstain from the appearance of evil" (1 Thes. 5:22).

* We should "quit sharing in the unfruitful deeds of the darkness" (Eph. 5:11; Rom. 13:12).

* There is "no fellowship between light and darkness" (2 Cor. 6:14).

* We should separate ourselves from idolatry (2 Cor. 6:17).

All who claim to be Christian should indeed believe and live by the above. The controversies begin when these principles are interpreted into everyday life. Furthermore, the whole approach of making rules in this regard must be questioned. Since a consideration of the above passages would require a book in itself, the discussion will be limited to the three main WT objections.

Refuting Jehovah's Witnesses

OBJECTION #1: Holidays usually have a pagan, non-Christian origin and are often accompanied by licentious practices, such as drunkenness, fornication, etc.

It is true that many holidays have their origins in idolatry or pagan practices. It is also true that other things we utilize have their origin in paganism, such as our calendar (days of the week and months are named after pagan gods). The celebration of wedding anniversaries and the giving of rings in marriage also has pagan roots. Symbols used in the modern business world, and artwork on stationary, wallpaper, etc. are often borrowed from pagan sources. Are we to separate ourselves into some kind of monastery or private community where all vestiges of paganism have been carefully screened from our presence?

Such an attitude calls to mind the Pharisees, who spent long hours discussing what was "clean" and "unclean," and making rules for the people to follow, as if such rules would make them clean. Anyone who takes the time to examine their traditions (such as later contained in their Talmud) will note how absurd it is to search out every little detail of what is "right" or "wrong." On the other hand, if we really believe that God intended us to scrupulously observe these matters (as if failure to do so would damn us), then like the Pharisees, we should engage in a continual screening of all traces of paganism from our lives. To stop short of eliminating any traces of it would be hypocritical, would it not?

Not so, sayeth the Watchtower. They claim to have a balance in this matter of what is pagan and what isn't. Note these statements from a 1976 Awake! article regarding the use of pagan symbols, such as the heart, the swastika, and the cross:

What should be a Christian's attitude toward shapes and designs that have at some time or place been connected with false religion? . . .

. . . just because idol worshipers at some time or place might use a certain design, that does not automatically mean that true worshipers must always shun it. For instance, figures of palm trees, pomegranates and bulls were incorporated in the design of Jehovah's temple in Jerusalem. The fact that other religions might take these natural things that God created and use them as symbols in idol worship did not make it wrong for true worshipers to use them decoratively. Anyone visiting the temple could tell that God's people were not worshiping these decorations or venerating them as sacred symbols.

So the Christian needs to be primarily concerned about what? Not what a certain symbol or design possibly meant thousands of years ago or how it might be thought of on the other side of the world, but what it means now to most people where he lives.

With so many different designs having been used in false worship, if a person went to the trouble and took the time he might find an undesirable connection with almost every design he sees around him. But why do that? Would it not be needlessly upsetting? And is that the best use of one's time and attention? (Awake!, Dec. 22, 1976, pgs. 12-15)

We concur with them that it certainly is a waste of time looking for pagan connections in every object. Note similar statements in the WT of May 15, 1972 (p. 295):

Whether an object is an idol or not primarily depends on how it is viewed. . . . the fact that various creatures, plants and heavenly bodies - all parts of God's creative works have been and still are being given veneration would not in itself make them unacceptable for decorative or ornamental purposes. Many things that were at one time worshiped by the ancients have lost their idolatrous significance and are generally regarded as being merely ornamental.

The Watchtower is emphasizing that (1) Designs or symbols in themselves are not necessarily wrong to use, even if once used by pagans in false worship. (2) It is a waste of time and needlessly upsetting to concern ourselves with what an object may have meant in times past, or even elsewhere on the earth in our day.

The inconsistency of the WT now becomes manifest, for most all the holidays celebrated in the Western world have lost their original pagan significance. Take Christmas for example. Long before the time of Christ pagans worshiped the sun on December 25, the time of the winter solstice (where the sun is farthest from the earth). As with all pagan holidays, it was a time for generosity and licentiousness. When the Catholic Church instituted the celebration of the birth of Christ as December 25 around the year 336 A.D., it was to replace the Sol Invictus festival introduced by the emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century. It was considered the victory of Christianity over paganism. The later canonizing of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) and the giving of gifts was tied in with church history.

According to the Watchtower's reasoning, the question we should ask is: Does Christmas mean to us what it did to the pagans? Do people in our part of the world still worship the sun on December 25? The answer is NO. Though it is a time of year that is abused and exploited by many, that cannot be used as a case against the Christian concept of Christmas. Though the WT complaint that Christ was not born on December 25 is true, a celebration need not take place on the actual day of its memorial. Most of us get holidays off from work on different days than the historical date, and we don't consider such a practice wrong!

Easter has a more church-related history. Originally, the early church celebrated the modern equivalent of Easter (the resurrection of Christ) on every Sunday, in expectation of the return of the Lord. Later, in linking the Passion and the Resurrection story, this memorial was scheduled on Passover, the Jewish feast celebrating the Exodus from Egypt. The date for the celebration was finally set by the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. as the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the spring equinox. As early as the eighth century the name "Easter" was transferred by the Anglo-Saxons to the Christian festival. The name itself was borrowed from a celebration to Astarte, goddess of fertility. Also borrowed from the celebration to Astarte was the use of rabbits and eggs, common symbols of fertility in the pagan culture. (For more information on Christmas and Easter, see Encyclopedia Britannica (1982 Ed.), Vol. 4, page 501.)

While the trappings of both church history and the pagan holiday are still with us, their significance has changed. As with the original observance of the resurrection, today we do not connect rabbits and eggs with fertility rites, and neither do most people consider Easter as a time for greater licentiousness. Even the television programs during this time are geared to obviously Christian themes.

Other holidays can be examined individually to ascertain what is the modern significance of their meaning in the Western World.

OBJECTION #2: Holidays are not mentioned in the Bible, except in perhaps a negative sense. Also, we are not commanded to celebrate anything but the Lord's Evening Meal.

Though the WT only admits to two birthdays being mentioned in the Bible, there are actually three that were celebrated. There was the birthday of Pharaoh (Gen. 40:20), Herod (Matt. 14:6), and also the birth of Christ, celebrated by the angels in song and much glory:

And the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord". . . . And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on the earth peace among men with whom he is pleased." (Luke 2:10,11,13,14)

It was convenient to the WT to leave this very positive and important birthday out of their consideration, for it destroys their point in saying that all birthdays in the Bible were negative.

The WT also claims that since the Bible does not tell us to celebrate certain holidays, we should not have anything to do with them. This is a wrong assumption from at least two standpoints. First of all, Jesus nor the apostles mention modern holidays as we know them, for they simply did not exist then. All the Jewish holidays were national religious holidays, which they were allowed to observe EVEN AFTER THE COMING OF CHRIST AND THE ABOLITION OF THE LAW! (Col. 2:16,17) The WT should consider Paul an apostate, for he said that observing or not observing special days was up to the individual (Rom. 14:5,6), and even CONTINUED in certain practices of the Law though it had passed away! (Acts 13:14,15; 21:20-26)

Jehovah's Witnesses practice many things that the Bible does not tell them to do, such as counting time spent in their magazine and book work and book studies, setting aside certain days on the calendar to go spreading WT doctrine, singing Kingdom songs, having District and Circuit Assemblies, answering specified questions for baptism, etc. None of these do they consider wrong, yet such practices have become traditional for them.

OBJECTION #3: Holidays idolize something or someone other than God, and the Bible says to "Flee from idolatry" and "We are no part of the world."

Worshiping Christ is proper according to the NT. Not only did the angels worship him (Heb. 1:6), but so are all creatures to worship him both in heaven and earth (Rev. 5:13,14). Furthermore, we are to give him equal honor with the Father (John 5:23). To worship Christ on any day is proper, including December 25 and Easter.

As far as birthdays are concerned, people do not generally worship their friends or children on their birthdays. What is wrong with doing something special for somebody on a certain day, or even in considering someone as special for a day? There is quite a difference between considering someone special and worshiping or idolizing them. Witnesses usually celebrate their wedding anniversaries, which is a celebration of the birth of their marriage. Perhaps they should not consider each other special at all, whether on their anniversary or on any day. Perhaps marriage is unwise for them by the same reasoning, as a mate could risk being considered "special"!

Few people in modern society are "stumbled" by celebrating the birth of Christ, except for JWs and some others that are legalistic by their very nature. The apostle Paul did not apply his own counsel regarding the stumbling of others (Rom. 14:21) to legalistic sects of Christianity, for their legalism invoked God's wrath (Gal. 5:14).

THE REAL ISSUE REGARDING IDOLATRY

The Law of Moses was a stepping stone to greater understanding of God's nature and how he relates to man in his fallen condition (Gal. 3:24). This same principle must also be understood in the area of idolatry and regarding objects used in false worship. Idolatry is a heart problem - there is nothing inherently evil in an object, such as rosary beads, pentagrams, pictures of Mary, etc. It is what humans DO with such objects and how they VIEW such objects that makes them idolatrous (Deut. 11:16; Job 31:26-28). In the OT, the Israelites were generally too dull of heart to understand this truth. They were forbidden to make images of anything in heaven or earth, to have social intercourse with the pagans around them, to cut their side locks, to eat with Gentiles, etc.

Why, then, are Christians liberated from such laws? Simply because they have the laws of God (actually, the root principles of the Law) inscribed in their hearts (Jer. 31:33; 2 Cor. 3:3; Heb.10:16). They recognize what true idolatry is, a problem with the heart. As such, abstaining from contact with physical objects really doesn't solve the problem. Rather, Christ must go to work to renew their heart internally, so that all forms of idolatry (including love for status, wealth, power, popularity, etc.) will be overcome, even what is not mentioned in the Law of Moses.

If Christians approach idolatry from a different angle, objects or symbols in themselves will have no power over us. We are not to fear any object, or even the devil himself, as if he had power over us. We are to fear God alone (2 Kings 17:35-41).

The apostle Paul makes it very clear that an idol is nothing (1 Cor. 8:4). It has no power except what you grant it from your own fears and superstitions. If you fear an object, then it has power over you, and the devil will use it, you can be sure (Deut. 7:16). The Bible says that through fear of death, man has been subject to slavery all his life. But now that Christ has died for us, he rendered the devil and his objects of fear powerless to Christians (Heb. 2:14,15).

This really delivers the death blow to the WT. Rather than seeing Christ as gaining a victory over fear and death, they are actually afraid of crosses, Ouija boards, spiritists, doctors, ex-JWs, and anything that might remind them of the devil. Rather than viewing such as mere physical objects or the individuals as "misled" people, they will go out of their way to avoid any contact with them. This reminds us of certain religious leaders who feared contamination from supposedly "evil" or idolatrous things (Mark 7:1-23).

Similarly, Jesus said that what you eat will not affect your spirituality. Paul went so far as to say that he could go into the temple of an idol and eat the meat offered to the idol, and it would not affect his health or his spirituality one bit. But he mentions some, because of being weak in faith, would eat such meat and view it as if there really was a god that it was offered to, and their consciences would be defiled (1 Cor. 8:7). If Paul would have viewed objects and idolatrous rituals as the Pharisees did and as the JWs do now, he would never have come near an idol temple, let alone eat the actual meat that was offered up on its altar. This was more serious than going "trick-or-treat" on Halloween! It would be like going to a banquet of Satan worshipers and having a bite to eat before you give a witness! For Paul, it was simply nothing to fear or be concerned over, unless it stumbled the weaker ones in the church (1 Cor. 8:9-13). If the whole church was strong in their faith, they could have gone out to the local idol temple restaurant and had a feast together! This illustrates the supreme victory of Christianity over the devil and his world (Luke 10:18-20; Acts 26:18).

It is unfortunate that JWs are blind to our freedom in Christ. Like the Pharisees, they are bound up in rules and fears regarding holidays, objects and certain people. Would that they understand the root principles in Paul's letter to the Colossians, where he says:

Since you died, as it were, with Christ and this has set you free from following the world's ideas of how to be saved by doing good and obeying various rules why do you keep right on following them anyway, still bound by such rules as not eating, tasting, or even touching certain foods? Such rules are mere human teachings, for food was made to be eaten and used up. These rules may seem good, for rules of this kind require strong devotion and are humiliating and hard on the body, but they have no effect when it comes to conquering a person's evil thoughts and desires. They only make him proud. (Col. 2:20-23; [LB])

Whether you choose to celebrate traditional holidays or not, do not feel that it matters to God one way or the other. What matters to him is whether you love him with all your heart, and love your fellow man as yourself. To fall into religious bondage over these issues will result in spiritual regression and pride, as Paul said above. To grow up into Christ means a freedom to live in this sinful world, and yet not be affected by its idolatry.



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