What do Christmas traditions have to do with Jesus? And if they really do originate outside of Christianity, does it really make a difference? The Bible not only answers those questions, it sheds light on a different path for those brave enough to look for it. Read on…
THE REASON FOR THE SEASON?
by Douglas S. Winnail
At year's end, busy shoppers and party-goers turn their attention to annual Christmas celebrations. But how often do they stop to ask: Why?
What do trimming a tree, decorating the house with lights, stockings, pine boughs and flying reindeer, hanging mistletoe and taking the children to see Santa Claus have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ—the supposed "reason" for the season? Why do sleigh bells and carols about "peace on earth, good will toward men" ring hollow as headlines report increasingly violent crimes, international terrorism, spreading droughts and famines, continuing wars and declining morals? Why do so-called Christian nations perpetuate anti-Christian customs that make life an endless round of momentarily pleasurable, but largely meaningless, social activities?
Though credible scholars and historians universally recognize the fact, the average professing Christian has no idea that the customs surrounding Christmas originally had nothing to do with Jesus Christ!
Even the widely held idea that Jesus was born on December 25 is known to be a fabrication! Contrary to the common tradition, Jesus was probably born in the fall, because Scripture recounts that sheep were in the fields (Luke 2:8)—a situation that would not exist in December. Jesus was also six months younger (Luke 1:24–27, 36) than John the Baptist, who was conceived in late June (after his father had served the eighth course of Abijah—see Luke 1:5; 1 Chronicles 24:1–19). Josephus, the Jewish historian, explains that 24 courses of priests served in the temple for week-long periods twice a year, beginning in the month of Nisan (in the spring, about April). John, conceived in June, would have been born in March, meaning that the six-months-younger Jesus would have been born in September—not on December 25!
So, why do people celebrate Christ's birth on December 25—even though Scripture nowhere gives that date, and does not even teach that Christians should celebrate Christ's birthday at all? Late December is the time of the winter solstice, one of the major festival periods in the ancient world. Historians note "the birth of many solar saviors and dying gods is celebrated at this time, usually on December 25th" and that "Christmas is a wonderful amalgamation of many religious traditions, ancient and modern, pagan, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Mithraic, and Christian" (The Pagan Book of Days, pp. 132–133). Modern Christmas is a composite of several year-end festivals celebrated in pagan Rome. The Saturnalia, (December 17–21) was a time of "extravagant decadence" when slaves and masters traded places for a few days. It was a season of revelry where the common greeting was "bona Saturnalia." Next came the Sigillaria—the feast of dolls—on the 22nd when toys were purchased and given to children. The Brumalia (December 25) was celebrated as the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, when the days began to lengthen after the solstice" (Christmas and Christmas Lore, Crippen, p. 7). These were times of feasting, drinking and debauchery. The Egyptians also celebrated the rebirth of the sun in the form of an infant several thousand years before the Romans (see The Golden Bough, St. Martin's ed., pp. 471–472).
By contrast, the early Christian Church did not celebrate Jesus' birthday as long as the teachings of the Apostles remained intact. In fact, as late as 245ad, the church scholar, Origen "repudiated as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Christ" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed.). However, in an effort to gain converts, "the church at Rome definitely fixed on the 25th of December as the birthday of the Lord" in the 4th century (Crippen, p. 6). The choice of the winter solstice festival and the birthday of the sun-god were deliberate. New "converts" could continue their popular pagan customs uninterrupted—but under a new "Christian" name! People follow the same fabricated practice today—largely ignorant of what is hiding behind the "Christian" façade.
But have you ever wondered if there is more to life than this? Have pagan customs adopted by mainstream Christianity replaced more meaningful biblical practices?
The Hidden Dimension
It may come as a surprise, but the Bible outlines a specific series of festivals or feast days that the people of God are commanded to observe. While many have been taught that these festivals were Old Testament practices and are no longer relevant to Christians, nothing could be further from the truth! The festivals outlined in Scripture (see Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16) are extremely significant and packed with meaning. They outline God's plan of salvation for humanity, and reveal the major steps or events in that plan. The sequence of the festivals reveals the true purpose of human life! That purpose is exciting, inspiring—and humbling—yet it has been obscured by pagan holiday traditions professing Christian churches have absorbed! Church services—commanded assemblies—on each of the Holy Days review the meaning of the festivals. Notice what historian W. D. Davies wrote about early Christian practices:
"Everywhere, especially in the East of the Roman Empire, there would be Jewish Christians whose outward way of life would not be markedly different from that of the Jews. They took for granted that the gospel was continuous with [the religion of Moses]; for them the New Covenant, which Jesus had set up at the Last Supper with His disciples… did not mean that the covenant made between God and Israel was no longer in force. They still observed the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles; they also continued to be circumcised, to keep the weekly Sabbath and the Mosaic regulations concerning food." (Judeo-christianisme, "Paul and Jewish Christianity," 1972, p. 72, quoted by Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 151).
Historian Edward Gibbon made a similar observation: "The first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were all circumcised Jews; and the congregation over which they presided united the law of Moses with the doctrine of Christ. It was natural that the primitive tradition of a church which was founded only forty days after the death of Christ, and was governed almost as many years under the immediate inspection of his apostle, should be received as the standard of orthodoxy. The distant churches very frequently appealed to the authority of their venerable Parent" (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 15, section 1, p. 389).
What is this sequence of biblically ordained festivals? The annual sequence begins in March-April, with the Passover, followed by the Days of Unleavened Bread. The Passover is an annual reminder of our need for a Savior and forgiveness of sin. The Passover lamb offered in the Old Testament (Exodus 12:3–6) foreshadowed the coming of Jesus Christ to die for the sins of mankind (John 3:16). Even after Jesus fulfilled the symbolism of the sacrificial lamb (Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29), the Apostles and the early Church observed the New Testament Passover (Luke 22:14–16; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26) as an annual memorial of Christ's sacrifice. During the seven Days of Unleavened Bread, leaven is removed from dwellings, conveying the lesson that to obey God we must put sin (symbolized by leaven) out of our lives. This is what Christian growth—repenting, changing, growing and overcoming—is all about. The Apostles and the early Church kept the Days of Unleavened Bread to perpetuate the meaning of those days (Acts 2:38; 20:6; 1 Corinthians 5:7–8).
The next New Testament Church festival, Pentecost, comes in late May or early June, commemorating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples (Acts 2). The Feast of Pentecost ("pentecost" comes from the Greek for "count 50") is also called the Feast of Harvest or Firstfruits because it came at the beginning of the summer harvest. This harvest was small, picturing God's plan to call just a small group of people to salvation in this present age (Matthew 13:10–17; John 6:44–66; 1 Corinthians 1:26–28), before He begins working with all mankind. The annual observance of Pentecost is a constant reminder that God has a special purpose for those called to be firstfruits (Revelation 14:1–5), and of the special understanding that comes by receiving and nourishing the Holy Spirit (John 14:15–16, 26; 16:13; 2 Timothy 1:6–7).
These first three annual festivals picture events in God's plan of salvation that have already happened. Jesus Christ's death and resurrection fulfilled the meaning of the Passover nearly 2,000 years ago, so we no longer sacrifice a lamb—but we continue to observe the Passover at His command as a memorial of that important event (Luke 22:19). The Days of Unleavened Bread picture Christians' ongoing process of putting out sin from our lives. The events of the Day of Pentecost—the giving of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the New Testament Church—inaugurated the Christian era in 31ad.
The next four festivals in God's sequence are still prophetic, picturing major events that have yet to occur! When we observe these festivals, we can better understand the future, and we can have hope. These festivals outline the remaining steps that will culminate in God's plan of salvation for humanity—a plan that has largely been hidden from the world by false man-made holidays such as Christmas!
Revealing The Future
The Feast of Trumpets pictures a soon-coming event that will change the course of human history forever—the return of Jesus Christ. Bible prophecies associate the Second Coming of Christ with the blowing of the seventh trumpet (Revelation 11:15). Trumpets are used to make announcements, mark the feasts and sound alarm during times of war (Numbers 10:1–10). Cataclysmic events will precede the Second Coming of Christ (Matthew 24; Revelation 6; 8; 9). Jesus will return to a planet torn by war and tribulation to save mankind from utter self-destruction (Matthew 24:3–7, 21–22). He will conquer human armies that will resist His return (Revelation 19:11–19). At His return the saints (the "firstfruits") will receive immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51–54) and reign with Christ on this earth (Daniel 7:26–27; Revelation 5:10). The annual observance of the Feast of Trumpets keeps us mindful of these incredible events. It supplies real hope in a world filled with bad news.
The Day of Atonement pictures the fact that Satan—the real instigator of the evils and troubles in this world—will be bound for a thousand years when Christ returns (Revelation 20:1–2). This future event was foreshadowed in the Old Testament observance of this festival when the priests sent a goat into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel. Though modern translations of the Bible refer to this animal as the "scapegoat," suggesting it was without guilt, Jewish traditions correctly identify this goat as symbolic of the prince of fallen angels—Satan (Leviticus 16:8–10). The other goat used in this ceremony, killed for the sins of the nation, foreshadowed Jesus Christ's sacrifice. God's command that we fast on the Day of Atonement teaches us the need for humility and reminds us of our need to become at-one with God (see Leviticus 23:27; Psalm 35:13; John 17:11).
The Feast of Tabernacles pictures the coming of the Kingdom of God to this earth. This seven-day festival offers an annual foretaste of the thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ and the saints (Revelation 20:4–6). During this period, also called the "Millennium," the government of God will bring peace and justice to this earth and restore all things (Isaiah 9:6–7; Acts 3:19–21). It will be a time of harmony (Isaiah 11:6–9), health and abundance (Isaiah 35; Amos 9:13). The government of God will proclaim the laws of God from Jerusalem to the whole world (Isaiah 2:2–4). Unlike our present age, when only a very few receive the knowledge of God's Way, during the Millennium all will be taught to obey God and experience the wonderful blessings that come as a result!
The Last Great Day is the final festival on God's annual calendar. It pictures the Great White Throne Judgment period, described by the Apostle John (Revelation 20:11–12), when the Holy Spirit will be made available to those who had never before had their minds opened to God's way (John 7:37–39; Ezekiel 36:24–27). They will be resurrected and have their first opportunity to accept Jesus Christ and obey Him through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the message of the Last Great Day is that those who died without hearing the Gospel are not lost! They are not burning right now in hell. They are waiting in the grave for this great resurrection. Those who then choose to live according to God's way will receive immortality, but those who reject God's way will be consumed in a lake of fire (Revelation 20:14–15).
Warnings And Hope
"That sounds interesting," you may be thinking, "but what does it matter if I observe Christmas instead of those Old Testament festivals?" You may feel that you "love the Lord" and that you are honoring Jesus by celebrating His birth. "I'm just 'baptizing' those old pagan customs by offering them to the Lord," you may think. Well, what does the Bible say about this approach?
God told the nation of Israel to follow His commandments and not alter them (Deuteronomy 4:1–2). Through Moses, God repeatedly warned the Israelites not to forget His commandments (Deuteronomy 8:10–14) and to avoid being captivated by the false religious practices of pagan nations. God specifically warned, "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" (Deuteronomy 12:30–31). Again, in this context, God states: "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:32).
These clear warnings are repeated in the Old and New Testaments. The prophet Jeremiah pointedly told the Israelites, "Learn not the way of the heathen.… For the customs of the people are vain" (Jeremiah 10:2–3, KJV). Jesus even said, of religious people, that "in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:8–9, KJV). The Apostle Paul gave similar admonitions (1 Corinthians 10:6–7; 2 Corinthians 6:14–17). However, in spite of these clear warnings, the history of the Israelites—and of the modern professing Christian churches—has been to ignore and reason around God's very clear instructions. Rebellious human beings have substituted customs that God says are evil, for festivals God designed to keep them mindful of His great plan of salvation and the true purpose of life. People professing to be Christian have listened to false teachers "who call evil good, and good evil" (Isaiah 5:20). They have been deceived by religious leaders, "who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18). They have "exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature [pagan customs] rather than the Creator" (Romans 1:25).
But you, personally, can make a different choice. When you start observing the biblical festivals God has ordained, you will begin to understand what life is all about. The Bible and the world around you will begin to make sense as never before. The excitement and fulfillment you will experience will make the frivolities and falsehoods of pagan holiday practices seem empty by comparison. Then you will truly begin to understand the reason for the season!
Adapted from “The Reason for the Season?” from www.TomorrowsWorld.org.