What About Christians Celebrating Holidays?
“Is it wrong for Christians to ‘celebrate’ some of the holidays popular in our society – like giving gifts at Christmas time, allowing children to go ‘trick or treating’ at Halloween, or to hunt eggs at Easter?”
In considering this issue, several things should be kept in view.
1. A practice may have originated under certain circumstances but, eventually, have lost that significance — either in whole, or at least significantly. There is Bible precedent for dealing with this principle.
Consider the practice of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols previously — a very lively issue in the first century. Here is the background: A meat sacrifice would be made to an idol. After a certain portion was consumed in sacrificial flames (or by the priests), the balance would be sold as common food in the market. The controversy, therefore, arose: “Is this meat contaminated simply because it had some connection with an idol?”
Paul’s answer is, “No” (see 1 Cor. 8:1-13). If one has “knowledge,” i.e., that an idol is “nothing,” and his conscience is not offended, he may eat of that meat. It is not contaminated merely by its former association.
Yet, there is this caution. If one is in an environment wherein some “weak,” i.e., without mature knowledge, brother is liable to be damaged, then it would be best to refrain — in that instance — lest the weak brother’s conscience be wounded.
2. It would be wrong to partake religiously of a practice that compromises one’s fidelity to the truth. The apostle deals with such a matter in 1 Corinthians 10. If, in a service where sacrifices were being offered to “demons,” the Christian were to partake, i.e., have “communion” [koinonia - participation, fellowship] with those involved in the illicit worship, such clearly would be sinful (10:20-21).
To practice Christmas, Halloween, or Easter religiously would be unwarranted. To do so merely as a cultural custom would be a matter of personal judgment.
3. In Romans 14, Paul argues the general proposition that there will be different levels of knowledge among brethren, and that, to a certain extent, these must be accommodated for the sake of Christian unity. For example, some, out of conviction, choose not to eat meats; others see nothing wrong with such a practice.
The apostle instructs that neither individual is to “set at naught” the other. No man is to create a “law” in areas of expediency, and then demand that all others submit. If an overt act of transgression is not the issue, peace must prevail.
4. Most folks who are rather sensitive about these cultural practices are not consistent entirely in their own conduct. Consider, for example, the celebration of birthdays. In ancient Egypt, the birthdays of the Pharaohs were considered as “holy” days, with no work being done (McClintock & Strong, Cyclopedia, Vol. I, p. 817). Moreover, as John Lightfoot noted: “The Jewish schools esteem the keeping of birthdays a part of idolatrous worship...” (A Commentary on the New Testament From The Talmud And Hebraica, Vol. 2, p. 217).
Does this mean that if a man, in this era, gives his wife a birthday present, or if we have a birthday party for a child, we have compromised our faith? Surely no one will so allege.
What about the man who takes his wife out for dinner and gives her flowers on Valentine’s day? Has he yielded to the Romish dogma regarding “Saint Valentine”? When we place flowers on the graves of our loved ones, is this the same as the Hindu practice of putting food on the graves of one’s ancestors? Does having a wedding ceremony in a church building imply that we endorse the Catholic notion that marriage is a “church sacrament”? Surely these queries must be answered negatively.
Practices can change with time, and mean different things to different people. We must not compromise the truth, but neither are we permitted to make spiritual laws for others.
Question: "Should a Christian celebrate holidays?"
Answer: The Bible nowhere instructs us to celebrate Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. This leads some to refrain from observing these celebratory days. However, at the same time, the Bible does not speak against participating in holidays. The Bible mentions several “celebrations” that the Israelites observed; Passover, Pentecost, Purim, New Moon, etc. The difference between these Biblical holidays and the modern holidays celebrated today is that our modern holidays have pagan or even anti-Christian origins. Christmas and Easter began as attempts to redefine a pagan holiday with a Christian meaning, i.e., the Easter bunny, the Christmas tree, giving gifts, hunting for eggs, etc.
That leaves us with a difficult decision – should we continue a practice that was started as a pagan religious ritual? Here are a few things to consider: (A) Does the holiday in any way promote false doctrine or immorality (Galatians 5:19-23)? (B) Can we thank God for what we observe on a holiday (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). (C) Will celebrating the holiday detract from your Christian testimony / witness (Philippians 2:15). This is a decision a Christian family needs to make together. Pray to God, asking Him what He would have you to do (James 1:5).
Q. Does Easter, like other Christian holidays, have pagan roots?
A. Most of our holidays have "pagan origins." This was quite intentional as the leaders of the Church at various times wanted to transform pre-Christian holidays to a Christian purpose. Rather than trying to outlaw a "pagan" festival, why not simply change the meaning of the celebration? Seems sensible to me.
Easter is, of course, the celebration of Christ's resurrection. As is the case with most Christian holidays, it commemorates an event in the life of Christ -- this is its biblical foundation.
Why are Easter and Christmas for that matter not mentioned in the Bible? Simply because when the New Testament books were written these holidays were in a formative stage, just as was Christian worship and prayer life itself.
Why are customs that seem to have little to do with the central idea of Easter still so widely practiced, such as decorating Easter eggs, or consuming tons of chocolate candy? Simply because these are popular activities that people would continue to engage in even if the church made a major effort to "purify" the holiday. (Also, many businesses thrive through the manufacture and sale of holiday related products.)
When you think about it, almost everything we do in church or as part of our Christian life has "pagan" origins. Prayer, public worship, the reading of scripture, the building of churches, the election of church officers, taking up an offering, the appointing or ordination of clergy, preaching, missionary activity among the poor. You name it; it has pagan roots. If we were to abandon everything that has pagan roots, there would be nothing left.
Even the days of the week that we use are named after pagan gods or incorporate some part of astrology—Monday (Moon Day), Sunday (Sun Day), Tuesday (named after the god Tiw, associated with Mars), Wednesday (named after the god Odin, associated with Mercury), Thursday (named for the god of thunder, associated with Jupiter), Friday (named after the goddess Friggia), Saturday (named after Saturn).
Is It a Sin to Observe Easter?
Some Christian churches teach that Christians should not observe Easter because the holiday supposedly originated in paganism. We feel especially qualified to address this issue, for we once taught this but have come to understand that our objections were inadequate.
In its worst form, the idea is that people who assemble on Easter morning, who participate in such customs as decorating or hunting for eggs, are unwittingly worshipping an ancient pagan goddess. But this is based on misunderstandings, and the New Testament gives no grounds for limiting Christian fellowship and worship on Easter.
Let's examine a few objections that are sometimes made against Easter and see whether they have any merit. Let us start with the word "Easter" itself. (Of course, this objection is irrelevant in many nations, because the word for this holiday in other languages has no connection with the word "Easter.") Critics claim that the word "Easter" comes from the name of a Germanic goddess of spring, Eastre. Venerable Bede, an English monk who lived in the eighth century, taught this. Many English words, such as "cereal" and "Saturday" come from the names of pagan deities — but it is not a sin to use such words.
However, Bede may have been wrong, and the word "Easter" may not have come from the name of a goddess. The King James translators certainly did not understand the word "Easter" in this way when they used it to translate the Greek pascha, or Passover, in Acts 12:4! Another explanation is that "Easter" derives from an Old German root, ostern, for dawn or east, which is the time and place of the rising sun. This makes more sense as a reason why a day commemorating Jesus' resurrection would have been called "Easter." Jesus is thought to have risen around dawn on Sunday. Since he is called "the sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2), it would be appropriate to call a day in honor of his resurrection, "Easter" — the dawn of the Rising Son, Jesus.
In connection with the word "Easter," the concept of an Easter sunrise service is also labelled as pagan by detractors. They point to Ezekiel 8:14-17, which describes individuals with their faces toward the east, worshipping the sun. This practice in Ezekiel is called idolatry and an abomination in God's sight. Easter is said to be a replica of this vain worship in ancient Israel. However, in Ezekiel the individuals were forsaking the worship of the true God, as is evidenced by them turning their backs on the temple of the Lord (verse 16). They were purposely worshipping the sun. When Christians attend an Easter sunrise service they praise and worship God and Christ, remembering and rehearsing the meaning of Jesus' resurrection. That is quite different.
"Once pagan, always pagan" is the way some people reason. While they may admit the transforming power of Christ for people, they act as if it cannot transform days, customs and traditions. Yet many of the practices God approved for ancient Israel had previously existed in paganism. Sacrifices, prayers, temples, priests, harvest festivals, music in worship, circumcision and tithing all had ancient pagan counterparts. God can transform days and customs for his use. The fact that Christians use some of the same methods as pagans does not mean that we worship the same gods.
The annual festivals or holy days God gave Israel as part of the old covenant were based on the cycle of the moon. The festival of Trumpets came on the new moon of the seventh month. Israelites even had a new moon celebration with a blowing of trumpets (Psalm 81:3). Yet, the moon was regularly worshipped as a god or goddess. That's where we get our name for "Monday." It was the day of the moon's worship. Even though pagans worshipped the moon god on the day of the new moon, the Israelites could worship the true God on the same day.
God transformed many pagan customs into a form of worship devoted to him. Even the sun, universally worshipped as a god by pagan cultures, God used to symbolize an aspect of Jesus' glory. Luke called him "the rising sun" (Luke 1:78). Jesus is also called the "bright Morning Star" in Revelation 22:16. God can use symbols misappropriated by pagans and transform them for his own use, making them acceptable for worship.
The point is that even if there once was a pagan "Easter" festival, and even if the word had some pagan significance, it doesn't matter. No one takes the phrase "Easter sunrise service" to mean a pagan rite or thinks that he or she is worshipping the sun. As pointed out about Monday, all the names of the days of the week have a pagan significance on which different deities were worshipped. Sunday was the day of the sun; Monday was the moon's day; Tuesday was Tiw's day; Wednesday was Woden's day; Thursday was Thor's day and Friday was Frigga's day. The latter four were all Norse deities. But we don't worship pagan gods when we say or use these names for our days. We don't think of worshipping old gods when a new day comes. That's the way it is with the word "Easter." Whether or not it had a pagan connection in the past doesn't matter. We don't think of it in these terms anymore; the word does not mean that any more.
The same applies to worship services on Easter Sunday morning or during resurrection Sunday. If there were pagan "resurrection" celebrations to various gods on Sunday — and no doubt there were — it doesn't matter. God's people can use those days to worship Christ, and they are not stuck in some magical time warp that turns them into unwitting idolaters. The words and the days have no power of their own; they do not change adoration of God into secret veneration of an idol. In modern times, on Easter Sunday, Christians worship Christ. That's what is important. Christians who keep Easter are not pagans. They do not worship nor regard pagan gods. They honor Christ as Lord and Savior.
Unless we are to conclude that celebrating Christ's resurrection is in itself a detestable thing, its celebration on what was once a pagan holiday is irrelevant.
We should explain one other objection to Easter. What seems particularly offensive to some people is the use of colored eggs at Easter. A related objection has to do with references to rabbits, which are known for their prodigious reproductive capacities.
Of course, pagan people used eggs in rituals and ceremonies dedicated to their gods and in fertility rites. But let's first ask why eggs might have been used in religious activities. They are a symbol of new life, and thus would have been a ready metaphor of fertility. Since nature comes alive in the springtime, we shouldn't be surprised that eggs may have been associated with festivities at this time. It is also true that many of the pagan fertility rites were associated with abominable practices such as temple prostitution and other revelry.
On the other hand, let us look at fertility and eggs from another point of view. God created the egg in many different sizes and shapes. Since God is the giver of life, it would not be wrong to think of the egg as a symbol of the blessing of life that God gives to us. We don't confuse the egg with life. We know God created life and that it comes from him through the egg. Fertility is something God himself commanded. He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). Children are a blessing from the Lord. So is an abundance of livestock and fish. The ability of life to reproduce is a great and necessary gift of God.
The ancients were not wrong in understanding the key role of fertility in life, nor in knowing that sex and reproduction are gifts of God. What they erred in was worshipping the created rather than the Creator, and then worshipping in ways that were abominable to God — such as in fertility revelry.
But there is nothing inherently evil about eggs or rabbits. When associated with Easter, neither are used in the way pagans may have used them. In fact, eggs are hardly thought of in a religious way at all in modern times. The egg-rolling festivity is merely a secular time of fun for children, and nothing more. We put chocolate rabbits in Easter baskets, but they have no religious association. The pagan linkage simply no longer exists. Just as the word "cereal" is no longer pagan, the eggs and rabbits are no longer pagan. There is no need to look on eggs or bunnies as evil, for God created both.
Another objection to Easter observance made by some is that it is not mentioned in the Bible. These people feel we should not set apart any day for worship unless it is specifically mentioned in the Bible. Since there is no example of celebrating the resurrection, these people say we should not do it.
Of course, there is no command in the New Testament not to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. But that doesn't matter. If we could only have those religious worship times and activities that the New Testament specifically mentions, then we would be able to do very little in terms of worship and Christian ceremony. None of the apostles are shown to have performed a wedding ceremony or conducted a funeral, for example. But these are a part of our lives and Christian experience.
The central issue regarding Easter observance is this: How much freedom do Christians have in the new covenant, either individually or as a church, to express their faith, worship and thanks toward Christ in forms not found in the Bible? Are Christians ever free to do anything new in worship? May church leaders establish special days to celebrate the great acts of salvation?
True, the Bible nowhere tells us to celebrate Easter. But it also nowhere says not to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on this day. The fact is, the Bible gives examples where God permitted human beings to set up times of worship other than what he specifically commanded.
When Israel added Hanukkah and Purim to its religious calendar — events that celebrated God's saving acts in Jewish history — these were acceptable to God. So, too, was the addition of the synagogue and its traditions. In John 7:37 it is widely recognized that Jesus made reference to the Jewish water-drawing ceremony, which pictured the salvation they looked for. Jesus did not condemn this ceremony but used it as a convenient vehicle for explaining that he was the one who would bring true salvation.
Examples such as these have led many Christians to conclude that the church also has the freedom to add to its calendar festivals that celebrate God's intervention in human affairs. This would include the birth of Jesus at Christmas and his resurrection at Easter time.
It is the position of the Worldwide Church of God that it is not a sin to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter. After all, his resurrection is a cause of great rejoicing and celebration. It is our hope for eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:12-26).
Love, not command, is what motivates many Christians to celebrate Easter. To criticize those who choose to practice their faith in this spirit of devotion conflicts with many New Testament principles. The fact that non-Christians or even some Christians celebrate Easter as a secular holiday, or perhaps even in a profane way, is no reason to avoid Easter. That's not the problem of Easter but of the people who celebrate it in a wrong manner. The decision to observe Easter, and if so how to observe it, is a personal matter. The church hopes that Christians who celebrate Easter and those who do not are both seeking to honor Jesus Christ (Romans 14:5-6).