On (not) Observing Christmas
December 8, 2022 (based on December 3rd sermon)
It is officially OK to put your Christmas lights up now.
I saw a survey of some 4000 U.S. homeowners which identified December 1st as the day it is OK to hang those lights, and, I guess, start focusing on the upcoming holiday season. I won’t be doing either of those as I stopped observing Christmas a long time ago. I have had friends and family who just could not grasp why I did not embrace Christmas. Sometimes those failures to understand have deteriorated into harsh words. It can be an emotional subject.
Many see Christmas as an opportunity to proclaim, to draw the attention of the world at large to the birth of Christ. And they have a valid point; each year the birth of Christ is once again focused on, to one degree or another, by most of the world, I suppose. So why not celebrate it? Why refrain from embracing it?
I do not think the answer to those questions is as easy as many would like. Many years ago, the quick answer by some would have been simply it’s pagan.
But not all of it is pagan, right? Some very beautiful and true music is often played during the Christmas season. The birth story of Jesus Christ, His incarnation, His first Advent, is proclaimed. As my mother would often tell me, He was born; what’s wrong with celebrating a birthday for Him?
And yes, there are definitely pagan traditions, but it is hard to avoid all paganism in this age. We are accustomed to using names for the days of the week, which originated from pagan mythology. And in an effort to avoid the pagan traditions of Christmas, some have come to avoid the Biblical narratives of the birth of the Messiah as if the Bible itself is something to be avoided in that area.
And that is not a good response.
In thinking about all of this, I thought it might be good to talk about the celebration coming up which tends to alienate some of us from other professing Christians and put us on the spot, so to speak, of seeming to take a rather bizarre stand against what most see as a good thing. In past years, I have spent weeks digging into this topic; I do not intend to do that this year. Probably just this one study today, so a lot will be left out. I want to concentrate on what I feel is the most important reason.
I do not celebrate Christmas. Why? The reason is the very same one many people use to celebrate Christmas.
I love Christ and wish to honor Him.
Now, it’s important to realize, those reasons are not important to everyone. Some people do not believe in, do not care about Jesus Christ. Some just like the celebration; it is a time to party. It is a bright point in a drab time of the year. To others, Jesus may be a peripheral consideration, a casual part of a tradition which is enjoyable and expected by friends and family to be participated in. To these two groups, what God thinks about celebrating Christmas is either unimportant or simply assumed to be approving. Not a whole lot of thought is given to whether such a celebration actually is what God would want.
Then there are those who really care what God thinks. Many of those celebrate Christmas with a desire to honor the Son of God who laid aside His glory for a while to become a lowly human and Savior of mankind. To them, the traditions are peripheral and the honoring of Christ is central.
We need to recognize that. People observe Christmas for different reasons and some have good intentions.
Some, like me, do not observe Christmas with good intentions.
Good intentions matter to God, but it is quite possible to have good intentions and make poor choices. And poor choices lead to negative consequences. Ignorance of what God wants from us is no free pass. One quick example:
47And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. 48But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
Those who claim to have a relationship with God have been given much, some more than others. But ignorance is not an adequate excuse to entirely escape God’s chastisement. There is an expectation we are to diligently seek our Lord’s will in all things. After all, that is the path we started on of our own professed will at baptism, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life we are to imitate.
So, how do we know God’s will, His desires, His expectations for us in anything, including Christmas?
That is what His written Word is for. We must, if we care about His will, carefully and honestly seek to understand what He has deemed worthy to preserve in written form.
We must be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in us, those who have the gift promised at baptism.
John 16:13-15: 13However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. 15All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He [c]will take of Mine and declare it to you.
There is a unity in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, of what the Godhead desires and approves of. We need to carefully discern the leading of the Spirit of God in our lives in all things, regardless of traditions, or what we prefer, or what others prefer for us. This is loving God, loving Christ, above all others. We are to express that love as God indicates, not necessarily as we think it is good to express.
Have you ever given a gift to someone and you later learned that gift was not appreciated, for some reason was not even liked? I know my wife well enough I do not give her chain saws as gifts. I would be delighted to receive such, but not-so-much with her. Nor would I give my daughter the best coffee beans I could buy. She would not be appreciative.
God tells us something in His word that He clearly hates. I’ll get right to the point now: God hates syncretism. Oh, the word does not appear in the Bible. But the practice of it, and God’s response to it, does.
Online, you can find these definitions: Merriam-Webster defines syncretism as “(1) the combination of different forms of belief or practice; (2) the fusion of two or more originally different inflectional forms.”
Wikipedia defines “religious syncretism exhibits the blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation of beliefs from unrelated traditions into a religious tradition.”
Christmas clearly shows the incorporation of beliefs from unrelated traditions into a religious tradition - syncretism, in a word.
Christmas tradition combines the Biblically-accurate account of the incarnation of the Son of God with peripheral traditions that did not come from the Bible. Those “peripheral” traditions either have clear traceable links to other religions or, if not directly traceable, then are uncomfortably similar to other religious traditions. It is very difficult to “spin” all of the non-biblical peripheral traditions into a Biblical narrative. To try to do so is ludicrous.
I’m not going to provide many examples of that as researching Christmas traditions is easy to do online and even the old-fashioned way, in books. Lots of information is out there, and I’ve covered it before.
Rather, I want to look at some of the responses in the Bible to syncretism.
Galatians 1:1-7 1Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;) 2And all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia: 3Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, 4Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: 5To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. 6I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: 7Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.
There is not another; there is only one gospel.
8But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
I believe this is the Holy Spirit in Paul expressing a strong condemnation of tampering with, syncretizing, the Gospel.
Some think what is being referred to here is early Gnosticism, which involved belief in revelations from angelic beings. It is a possibility based on the reference in verse 8. Let’s move on.
10For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.11But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man.
Paul is going on to describe another syncretistic threat to the true gospel.
12For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. 13For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: 14And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.
Paul was highly trained, deeply immersed in, the Jews’ religion, Judaism we refer to it. He trained under one of the best, Gamaliel, a leading authority in the Sanhedrin, mentioned both in Biblical and non-biblical history. Paul was exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers, what would later come to be called more commonly, the oral law. The oral law was never the religion of the Old Testament; it was a creation of men. Jesus was frequently in conflict with the Jewish religious leaders over the written law of God vs. the oral law traditions. Judaism, the traditions of the fathers, came to be totally rejected by Paul as an improper addition to the authority of the Word of God. And his opposition to it was strong. Judaism was perceived by Paul as a syncretistic threat to the written Word of God.
OK. Let’s take another look at the Biblical response to syncretism, a bit more closely linked to Christmas perhaps, although I think a bit misunderstood, in my opinion. Jeremiah 10:1-2:1Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:2Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
It does not take a lot of research to determine pagan religions, unbiblical traditions, have risen from what ancient people saw happening in the sky. The winter solstice, happening in late December in the northern hemisphere, was a time of festival in many pagan traditions, long pre-dating the birth of Christ.
The Bible tells us a lot about the birth of Jesus but does not tell us the date. In fact, it seems to go out of its way to obscure the exact day. Since I believe God inspired what is written, I do not think God wanted the date known, at this time. I can confidently say God didn’t overlook it. God did not forget to tell us something we would have obviously wanted to know.
That seems significant to me. There are hints and attempts to calculate it, but they all fall short of certainty because there are too many variables. If someone claims to have figured out the date of Jesus’ birth to December 25th, I believe the proper response is extreme skepticism.
So, how did we get December 25th? It’s unlikely anyone knows exactly how it came about. I’ve heard a lot of maybes presented as fact over my years of researching the topic.
So instead of taking a position on that, let me just say this: The date of Christmas and many of the traditions done as part of Christmas bear some similarities to pagan religions, you think? I think that is safe to say, even understated. Syncretism? I think so. That’s what I feel the Holy Spirit confirming to me. But not all will see it that way. Each person needs to examine what information is available and listen for the Spirit of God to guide and to lead into truth - those that love God, I’m referring to.
Jeremiah goes on and I think some Bible teachers have missed the mark here and done some damage in trying to make this into a Christmas tree. It sounds similar to a Christmas tree, but in my opinion, it is a mistake to accuse people of worshipping a Christmas tree. This following passage is referring to fashioning a false god, an idol. Jeremiah 10:3-5: 3For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.
When I was young and my family observed Christmas, we never even thought of attributing any deity to the tree. It was just a nice-smelling, sometimes pretty tradition. Now where the tree tradition originated is disputed, but we would have rejected any accusations of worshipping it. I would not accuse anyone of idolatry because they had a Christmas tree; I just don’t think that is fair. That does not mean the tree doesn’t have some possible shady links in tradition though, pardon the pun. Perhaps Martin Luther had a part in the current Christmas tree tradition, but trees and idolatry go way back beyond Luther. Putting a tree in our house during the winter solstice would have a strange, uncomfortable feel to me based on what I know about the Bible and pagan traditions. It sure would violate my conscience at this stage of my walk with God.
So how does syncretism happen to even sincere, godly people? Through bad reasoning, exposure, and carelessness.
I think a pretty good example of that is when David tried to transport the ark to Jerusalem, described in 1 Chronicles 13. I won’t go there; we have discussed it in detail not too long ago. The Philistines had captured the ark in a battle, but God made it difficult for them while they had it, and they decided to send it back to Israel. They put it on a new cart to do so, and it came back to Israel’s possession. Later, David chose to do the same transportation method, a new cart, instead of the way God had clearly said to transport it - to be carried. A man ended up being struck dead because God’s instructions were not followed. It’s easy to not check God’s word, to like how others relate to God and to imitate them. There may not be anything obviously wrong with an idea other than God said don’t apply that to Me.
There’s lots of other examples, but I think we probably understand what syncretism is. Does the Creator of the universe and all in it have a right to be sensitive to how we relate to Him? Let’s look at a few verses of what God says and then think about why He is so sensitive to syncretism in our relationship with Him.
Deuteronomy 12:29-32: 29When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; 30Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. 31Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. 32What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
This extended to even how the ark was to be transported, what many might consider of lesser importance.
Deuteronomy 13:1-2: 1If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, 2And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;
So this person is presenting an argument to at least syncretize, if not to totally abandon following God, and he has some angle of persuasion to get people’s attention, to convince them he might be right.
Deuteronomy 13:3 3Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
So adhering carefully to what God has said, avoiding syncretistic additions to the worship of God, is a love test.
Deuteronomy 13:4: 4Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him.
Sounds like what Jesus said in the gospel of John: If you love me, keep my commandments.
Why is our love important to God? Because He has an attribute we might find surprising. He is jealous of our relationship. He says so.
Exodus 34:14-16: 14For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: 15Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; 16And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.
God likens syncretism to adultery, to sexual immorality.
God’s intimate relationship with His people is consistently referred to throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
2 Corinthians 11:1-4: 1Would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly: and indeed bear with me. 2For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. 3But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. 4For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
The Church is the Bride of Christ; purity is a priority with Paul as he oversees God’s people. Like in Galatians, Paul is concerned about other stuff coming into the Corinthian church, perhaps a syncretistic blending they would not even recognize happening.
Ephesians 5:21-32: 21Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. 22Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 25Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 28So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 29For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: 30For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. 31For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. 32This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 33Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.
So the relationship between God and His people, Christ and His church, is one of intimate love.
So, perhaps we can extrapolate this out to better understand why a Jealous God is so sensitive to syncretism. Most adults, whether now married or not, have experienced a close relationship with another at some point in time. They believed it to be, intently wanted it to be, exclusive of all others, special, intimate, reserved for only the two. You and me separate from the world.
If someone else began to intrude into that special relationship, became a syncretistic third party, jealousy would no doubt be the response. Even seemingly little things become an issue when an outsider threatens an intimate relationship. The intruder’s cologne or perfume, choice of words, clothing items, opinions brought into the intimate relationship between two can create anger, jealousy, and ultimately, even a break-up of the relationship.
What we want in an intimate relationship with another is for that person to focus on us, to learn our ways, our desires, at a special level relationship. And, in turn, we do likewise.
That is God’s special relationship with His people and ours with Him.
Israel and the Church were not prohibited from interacting with others; they could do business, mingle, and even have friends with different beliefs. But when it came to worship and how to live out life, there were to be no syncretistic intrusions into the relationship with God. Rather, pursuing that intimate relationship with God is a lifelong pursuit, continuing to learn from God’s Word at church and at home, changing as we go down the path, the Way.
I grew up with Christmas. I know the attractions and the pulls of human nature to observe it. But I heard of another Way, proclaimed by God Himself in Leviticus 23 and other passages, a different set of holy days to observe. The New Testament reveals those Holy Days, listed in the Old Testament, were designed by God to be about Christ and to be observed by Christians. Nevertheless, it was not easy to make the change to the Sabbath and Holy Days of the Bible, as traditions we learn as children are not easily changed. But I did it because of love, first God’s love toward me and in response, my love toward God.
So, again, I do not observe Christmas. It’s not about legalism or some fanaticism against everything pagan. It’s about love for God.
My little sermon/article probably won’t change many people’s opinion, if any. We all have the right to decide how to conduct ourselves in our intimate relationship with God. Nevertheless, be aware of syncretism. It is all around us in this world.
And we serve a Jealous God.