Let's Not Get Strange About Christmas, Shall We?

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This post comes as a brief interruption of our current discussion of intermarriage to address an issue which has some traction in the Messianic Jewish movement, and which drives me a little crazy, which in my case, is a short drive. Please indulge me, and if this post doesn’t touch on issues you care about, wait for the next one, coming up in two days, back to the subject of intermarriage. 

When I was a kid, and there were still knights in shining armor,  Maid Marian was kid Marian, Robin hadn’t gotten his hood, and the Sheriff of Nottingham was just learning to think scurrilous thoughts, no one ever said, “It’s just not biblical to celebrate Christmas, and Jesus wasn’t born in December anyway! He was born on Sukkot!”  At that time, pretty much everyone realized that December 25 was just a time when it was traditional for many to celebrate the birth of Jesus, although the Eastern Church does so on January 6.

Nowadays, though, I occasionally run into people for whom this is a BIG deal. Not only is celebrating His birth on “the right day” considered important, and not only are arguments about Sukkot being for sure the right time zealously championed, but celebrating  Christmas according to the church calendar is rejected as if rooted in the Whore of Babylon, something from which we must all come out.

This kind of discussion appeals to some people, and is even of interest academically. That is fine. The problem is when we find people for whom a pet date for Yeshua’s birth is a non-negotiable article of faith, obliging the enlightened to correct or reject those who don’t hold to that date, while judging them to be, if not simply misinformed, then surely deceived, and indifferent to the contaminating effects of grieving God with their unbiblical calendar.

To which I say, HOLD IT!

Now for starters, I am not big on Christmas. I don’t have a tree, don’t wear a Santa Claus suit, don’t have a creche, and don’t conduct an inquisition about over who does and does not do these things.  But I will say this: whenever people get nostril-flaringly adamant about this day, that day, or the other, I get the creeps.

And of course we all know that Paul reminds us not to get all steamed up over such things (see Romans 14:5, for example), but that is not my line of argument here. My concern is over what kinds of communities we are forming.

Here’s the problem.

When we form communities that get hot and bothered over the right day to celebrate the birth of Messiah, especially when they view those who disagree with them to be defectors from the True Faith, or to be defective in some manner; when we have people who pride themselves on being “more biblical than thou” on such matters; when we form communities fixated on such issues, we are very much in danger of creating sectarian looney bins, marginal groups for marginal people, which will attract no one but the religiously fixated. But don’t believe me: ask yourself: What kinds of people are such hyper-intense religiously preoccupied groups likely to attract?  Will such groups attract normal Jewish people who see modeled for them sane and balanced Jewish community that honors Yeshua as Messiah? Will these groups attract healthy everyday people? Or won’t they rather attract the religiously fixated looking for an elite religion?

The answers are not only obvious: they should concern us greatly because they point to reasons why our movement fails to win the respect, interest, and faith of many Jews.  Am I wrong? I wish I were!

Here is how I would quickly refute this date-preoccupied mentality. Those who feel that it is crucial that we not celebrate Christmas because it is a pagan-rooted holiday should immediately forsake the common calendar, because  the names of the months are all modeled after pagan gods, like January, which is named after the Roman god, Janus. Furthermore, such people must as soon as possible also forsake using the names of the days, because all of them are pagan too. No more Monday because that is Moonday, etc.  Are any of you prepared to live this way? And will people flock to your gates because you are so compellingly “biblical?”

This whole preoccupation with avoiding “the pagan roots of Christmas” is based on what is termed the genetic fallacy–that something should and may be fairly evaluated on the basis of its origin.  This is FALSE.  Things should be evaluated on the basis of their use, not their origin.  The Star Spangled Banner’s melody was taken from a pagan themed song which said “entwined (is) the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.” And Wikipedia reminds us that “the song (titled ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’), through its bawdy lyrics, gained popularity in London and elsewhere.”  Now obviously we can’t continue to sing the Star Spangled Banner because of its pagan roots.  Then, if we practice the genetic fallacy, we should, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, cease having birthday parties, because the only birthdays celebrated in the Bible are those of pagan kings, Pharaoh and Herod.

The ultimate disproof of the genetic fallacy is Solomon’s Temple,  which was built on the floor plan of Phoenician temples where children were sacrificed to idols to the sound of pipes and drums (remember Solomon had the aid of Phoenician builders).  Yet the Temple was a place where God was pleased to manifest His presence over the Mercy Seat because it is use rather than origin which determines something’s sanctity or lack of it.

And here’s another refutation. Most of us are big on celebrating the seventh day sabbath. But suppose we ran across scholarly arguments “proving” that the world began on a Tuesday, and that therefore the seventh day would be a Monday.  Would that rightly result in people bailing out on Saturday as shabbat because it wasn’t biblical?  Would that rightly result in groups splitting off and beginning to celebrate the true and biblical seventh day sabbath, from midnight Sunday to midnight Monday?  I sure hope not. I hope we all agree that the key here is that the sabbath should be celebrated, NOT that if you’ve got the day wrong nothing else counts.

Now I am not ridiculing or minimizing the right of people to have convictions on which day is best for the celebration of Messiah’s birth. Each should be persuaded in his/her own mind, and is more than entitled to his/her own convictions. In fact, some of the arguments about the Sukkot date sound pretty convincing, and the shepherds certainly weren’t tending their flocks by night in the fields in December! That is a good point!

But when we become nostril-flaringly adamant about such things, when we patronize or denounce others whom we deem to be “less biblical” or less pure than ourselves, when we derive a sense of the rightness of our group because of our championing of such issues; when we become distressed over whether we’ve got the absolutely “right” position on these things, then we are very much in danger of becoming sectarian and even borderline cultic. Under such influences, the Messianic Movement would become an even more marginal movement, to be judged the lunatic fringe by most balanced people, including the Jewish people who are supposedly of special concern to us.

So have your convictions. But please don’t major in the minors, because doing so brings no health or blessing to anyone.

But more to the point, it looks downright strange.  Even to God.

 

[This post originally dwelt on another blog of mine, under another name, so if it looks familiar, it is :-)]

33 Comments

  1. I thought I’ve seen this posting before! I have seen this “nostril flaring” rhetoric first hand. Thank you for writing this. Every year its the same thing from the same fringe groups (usually sabbatarians, and Hebrew Roots folks). I am tired of being ridiculed for observing Christmas. I gave a tree (my kids love it and it gives them joy) and even when the mood strikes put up lights. This year I plan on attending a late night mass at an Episcopal church here in town. Now I am in Advent, which drawd me into this joyful season. Christmas means much to me, as it recalls a very significant event in Israel’s history and the world! Toda rabbah and may all of us judge less, and love more

  2. Stuart, Thank you. As an anthropologist I have spent much time checking out the origins of this and that. It is always difficult to state origins with clarity and certainty. I have always been amused at the CRAP (Christian Reaction Against Paganism) that passes for serious discipleship. There is a “zeal without knowledge” that passes for conviction among many evangelicals and those in the Messianic movement. I pray we will be kinder to one another and think the best of each other even if we express these things differently.

  3. Isn’t life hard enough! “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”.

  4. This is encouraging to me, especially as I raise a family. It is vital to me that my kids embrace Yeshua as Messiah. I wonder what the long term effect would be if, as Messianic Jews, we reject the holiday set aside for His birthday, and set ourselves apart from the rest of the body of Messiah. I want my children to be comfortable with Christmas and with Hanukkah, given that they’re not mutually exclusive celebrations. Thanks for this article!

  5. Stuart, you know I agree with you wholeheartedly on the fact that there should not be condemnation of people because they don’t celebrate the same days one of us might choose to hold sacred. However, I do not agree with the fact that use determines whether something is acceptable. As far as Solomon’s temple goes, that land belonged to G_d originally as all the earth does and the heathens defiled it with their sacrifices. G_d just took back what was his. The calendar as we know it, in secular society, cannot be thrown away because it is the one used for our work and universally accepted as such. However, If you change the days of the week and prove the 7th day started on another day, it doesn’t matter, since the scriptures regarding the observance of holy days, including the Sabbath, were given to Israel, I believe we should leave it in their authority to decide which day has been kept for thousands of years as the Sabbath. As far as the non-Jewish international church is concerned, I believe we have to allow G_d to decide how to remove the paganistic practices from the church that were absorbed as part of the early church’s efforts to steer people away from other gods. It didn’t work and the spirit of what was in the original practices remains. All that said, I still believe there is room for grace to allow people their convictions and pray for G_d’s timing. Again, use, in my opinion, does not sanctify that which was originally idolatrous. I know that none of us would, knowingly, take things made by pagans to glorify idols and divination and use it for holy use, so I will stop there.

    1. You said, Shirley, “Again, use, in my opinion, does not sanctify that which was originally idolatrous.” You are entitled to your opinion. What I was commenting on was that this is in fact what God did with the Temple, for example. And it is common in missionary work in other cultures to take and sanctify aspects of the receptor culture, rather than require the “natives” to imitate the missionary’s culture. Experience proves that when the latter is the case, people learn to “play church” and to become imitations of the missionaries. However, such religion does not penetrate to the core of who the people are. If we strip a people group of its culture in the name of our superior one, we strip them of who they are. Far better to redeem their culture and artifacts, rededicating them and using them for the honor of the True and Living God, than to deceive ourselves into thinking that if they dress like us, pray like us, and act like us everything is great. There are extreme examples of this, such as German missionaries to First Nations peoples in both North and South America who required the natives to first learn German so that they could pray to God in an acceptable language rather than the “pagan language” of their culture. Believe me when I tell you, this creates puppets but not people of God.

  6. Well said Stu.
    We occasionally get folks like this at our shul. I tell them that they are not being “more Jewish” with these attitudes. In Judaism accepted practice rules. So we don’t stop saying Mazel Tov just because it is an astrology reference, nor do we discourage Christians from enjoying their trees and such. They always seem put off by this and never come back.

  7. Well said, Stuart! In a conversation I had recently about 1st Century Judaism, I felt compelled to point out that our ministry isn’t to 1st Century Jews, but to 21st Century Jews. If our service and witness isn’t consistent with our audience, then we do no service, and have no witness.

  8. Thank you for this article, Rabbi. I just couldn’t believe the nasty comments I received when I posted on Facebook a picture of our Christian, German exchange student sitting on Santa’s lap for the first time in her life with my own daughter! It was fun for them until the spoilers and haters came out with their ignorant, self-righteous fangs.

  9. I was part of a Messianic conference in El Paso light years ago and one rabbi from Oregon did all this math and figured out that Y’shua was conceived by the Ruach Ha Kodesh on December 25th….

  10. I’m not going to be pedantic here, but this daughter of an agriculture teacher must point out the inaccuracy of the “no sheep herding in December” statement.
    Shepherds WOULD have sheep on the Beth Lechem hills at exactly this time of year. It’s after Sukkot, so no new crops will be growing yet (usually winter wheat is planted after January in Israel ) & the sheep can graze on the yummy “leftovers” after the gleaners have gone through.

    Amen to the sentiments of your plea here. Could some people please celebrate the birth of the Messiah without being branded as infidels?

  11. I must say, I’m moved by this. Convicted even. I do want to do things correctly. I read in Scripture that when our ancestors mingled pagan practices with those of G-d’s Torah we were judged. Easter, I had figured out because we have Passover to remember Messiah’s death and resurrection, but Christmas gave me great pause (having been raised to observe both with fervor). However, I think you have a great point about origins vs. use. Thank you for pointing that out!

    Your friend in Chicago

    1. Dear Wonder Woman in the Windy City. Thanks for ringing in. This principle about use versus origins is huge when it comes to missionary practice, as I stated elsewhere. Missionaries not commonly recognize that it just will not due to come into an animistic or paganized culture and simply throw everything out, installing it its place the missionaries Western cultural behaviors, artifacts, etc. What you have when you do that is a receptor culture where people learn to “play” at being Christians. They do their best imitation of the missionaries who taught them, but such “discipleship” fails to go to deep to the bones and viscera of who these people are. Far better to redeem and transform the use of their cultural materials, keeping everything one can, some of which already speak the truth even without transformation. Paul does this himself in Acts 17. Even though grieved by the Athenians idolatry, he COMMENDS them for a pagan altar which says “To an unknown God.” He says, “What you call unknown, this I declare to you.” He uses their cultural artifacts as a bridge, a bridge which he redeems, instead of burning it. In the same way he quotes in his sermon from TWO pagan poets, who make a good point which he agrees with.

  12. I certainly agree that we should be careful of pride creeping in. It seems that we all have sacred cows and a desire to prove, approve or disprove. We find it necessary to define who we are (or who we think we are) by pointing at another and saying “This is who we are not.”

    Honestly, to me, the issue is not so much about when the Word was Made Flesh Dec. 25th, as that we should be first and foremost be concerned with what God has said we should celebrate, memorialize, and observe. Unless God’s word spells it out, or we have a personal “Rhema” word, this ‘holiday’ is really just about tradition and human culture. Ultimately, only the Moadim are God’s appointed times. God defines them (with considerable room for interpretation) and He is the One who sets them apart. The rest really is optional, according to the measure of faith within you.

    I sang ‘christmas carols’ tonight and fellowshipped with some churchy people. Ate some turkey, politely and not sanctimoniously declined the ham.

    And conversation about the optionals is good, as long as we are sensitive, guard against that pride thing, and (the real bonus round!) it compels both parties to go and “search the scriptures to see if those things are so”.

    On the other hand, I have seen some people take such pride in their ‘Tolerant Attitude’ to the point of becoming intolerant of people who hold any convictions. Yes, there is a potential for pride there too!

    I thank you, Stuart for the exhortation you are delivering here to watch our pride, for there is real beauty and power in a humble man’s dialog and exchange of ideas.

  13. Thanks Stuart! This time of year my FB newsfeed is full of Christmas bashers. I see the hurt it causes those that celebrate Messiah at this time. I don’t participate in these discussions but it is painfully obvious that the bashers are speaking from a religious spirit and not the Holy Spirit.

  14. Bravo, Rabbi Stuart! Thank you so much for this article. The unbelieving world is singing songs about our message: “Born is the King of Israel… Let every heart prepare Him room… Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” When we condemn them and get distracted about dates and pagan roots, etc., rather than using this as an opportunity to share with them the heart of the message that they’re singing, then we’re missing a golden opportunity to do what Yeshua came to do – to seek and save that which was lost. Thanks again for this tremendous article.

  15. I just wanted to thank you for the things you stated here. I thought your article and everyone’s comments to be helpful and insightful. I grew up in the Messianic movement when it was still new, and my parents (although raised Gentile) stopped celebrating Christmas when I was 5. I always missed the beauty and lights of it, although I greatly enjoyed all the Biblical feasts and holidays. As God would have it though, he called me to marry an Arab Christian! It was a very clear call, and it has taught me so much about God’s love and grace and His ability to LOVE all nations and peoples. Before we married, my husband and I spoke about our beliefs to try and reconcile them (actually – I tried harder to convince him that I was right! LOL) We are now married for 15 years, and he’s no closer to believing that as an Arab Christian he needs to celebrate the Biblical holidays, yet I have grown closer to believing that God is not as petty as we all make Him out! I’ve thought of the hundreds of years that Christian missionaries (not Messianics) have spilled their blood bringing the gospel to the far corners of the world where paganism runs rampant, and how it was NEVER the agenda to spread Hebrew roots or biblical holidays – yet SOULS were won for the Lord, and we will be seeing them in Heaven! Hallelujah! I’m so thankful that I serve a God who loves people – ALL people – not just the ones who’ve got it all worked out!

  16. Thanks Stuart! I’m “not big” on Christmas either, we only had a Christmas tree once in my life growing up. However, I do appreciate many traditions associated with Christmas. I loving singing Christmas carols and hymns that celebrate the birth of the King of Israel that quote the Prophets frequently. I love the anticipation of advent as we count down to Christmas’ arrival, it enables me to imaginatively enter the world of our Jewish people who are still longing for Messiah’s coming. I love the idea that families gather to tell the story of our Savior’s birth while exchanging gifts, sheltered from the cold and darkness of winter. Why would I begrudge such a wonderful tradition?

  17. As my husband likes to say, a balanced organization (usually speaking occupationally) has people on both sides of the equation pulling one another toward the middle. There doesn’t exist groups of “balanced” people. We learn from one another and grow into a different place with time and exposure to different ideas. So then, congregations should be places where ideas are fair game for exploration and discussion. Christmas/not Christmas. Develop your own ideals. Great post.

  18. scriptures tell us that we must be salt of the earth and when we share with our brothers its teachings it is to be done in love and not with flaring nostrils. the argument that it is wrong to be against the celebration of christmas was based on an emotionalism of the objection not on the truth that our creator hates the ways pagans use to worship their idols as much as he hates believers using those ways to worship him (deut 12:30,31).

    the truth of the matter is, the people of the almighty did not celebrate birthdays because it is rooted in astrology: the position of celestial bodies at birth rules one’s day, even life. elements of birthday celebrations (cakes, candles, wishes, gifts, elevation of the celebrant over the others) are not of our creator. is it not a wonder that this practice is so acceptable to the majority? does the holy writings not warn us that the way of god is alien to most? so when the correct day jesus was born to celebrate his birthday is a non-issue. (note: this does not negate the prophetic significance of the most probable date of his birth as falling on the first day of the feast of tabernacles as the root reason for celebrating his birthday on christmas is like celebrating everyone else’s birthday practice: astrology and its closeness to the dates of the pagan practice of celebrating saturnalia dec 17-23 ).

    but objection to anything that is ungodly cannot be focused on one or two pet objections. the objection need be against anything ungodly that our father in heaven and his son and holy spirit has shown us to be abhorrent, abominable to them.. and this can only be successfully done within the brotherhood. to those outside, the only needful thing is to proclaim the good news of salvation. when they believe, they need to be baptized and then taught all that our lord has commanded.

    observe what the moedim of the lord does compared to the holidays: do they drive the celebrants to drunkenness, riotous behavior, fornication, unsound financial practices, self-aggrandizement, etc? by their fruits we shall know them if they are from the almighty or not.

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