Especially from October through early spring we go through what might be considered one long holiday season. While there are significant holidays (in America) between Pentecost and October, most of the major ones in that period are not related to any particular church or religious event. Of course, even the name holiday implies some sort of holiness to the day. Some would celebrate all holidays; others would prefer to celebrate none. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. So, how much of what people celebrate as holidays is tradition? And does it really matter whether it is traditional or not?
The Jewish Holy Days
Most Christians do not celebrate the holy days listed in Leviticus 23 and other places. Some might celebrate Shavuos (Pentecost), but only because of its association with Acts 2. Others observe the sabbath, but not the rest of the Jewish calendar. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the only time to partake of the Lord’s Supper is on pesach (Passover). (This is based onChristians do not participate in the Lord’s Supper because it was part of the Passover; they participate because of the new symbolism. the command “This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:25) The argument is that his disciples would have only participated in the Passover once a year, so Jesus was limiting their observance of the Lord’s Supper to that time.)
Whether because of the explosion of Messianic Judaism or independent of it, many Christians are beginning to take part in the Jewish holidays. In some cases they modify the seder (order of worship) to include Christian references. In other cases they celebrate in virtually the same manner as the Jewish people. Some Christians object to this trend, claiming that it violates the principles of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. They accuse those who participate in the Jewish holidays as relying on the Law for their salvation, and thus falling from grace.
Can a non-Jewish Christian participate in a Jewish holy day, either in its original form or modified into a Messianic form? Many Jewish people, including some Messianic Jews, would answer that they could not. This is particularly true of pesach, and some would extend that to all the holy days.
And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. (Ex 12:48)
Others would point out that Paul said there is no distinction in Christ between Jews and non-Jews (Rom 10:12). Therefore, any Christian who chooses to participate in a celebration of one of the Jewish holy days should be allowed to do so.
But if it is allowed, should a non-Jewish Christian participate? As the reverse-legalists who point to Galatians would point out, motivation has a lot to do with the answer to that question. If one is keeping the Jewish holidays, including the sabbath, for the specific reason that he or she believes it is a requirement for salvation, then Paul points out that such a motivation would make it wrong. “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal 5:4) If it is only to fulfill the Law that one observes the holy days, then such a person stands condemned under that law. Nevertheless, if one chooses to participate in the holy days because of their symbolism both to the Jewish people and to Christians, that is a different matter. Christians do not participate in the Lord’s Supper because it was part of the Passover; rather they participate because of the new symbolism (which may even be the old symbolism) based on the Messiah. If a Christian chooses to expand the Lord’s Supper to its original form (a pesach seder) in order to gain a fuller understanding of the meaning Jesus put into that portion of the celebration, that person gains a benefit. The benefit is not that of fulfilling a requirement, but that of understanding a deeper meaning. And so it is with the other holy days. If the participation is for the deeper meaning rather than the keeping of law, it becomes a tradition, and a tradition with value.
What about the post-Torah tradition of Hanukkah? Since that holiday is not found in the Jewish scriptures (and indeed only mentioned in the New Testament), it is purely a tradition. It might even be that by participating in this particular holiday one might become better able to teach his or her Jewish friends. This is particularly true because of the timing of that holiday being so close to another tradition.
There are those that say the term “Christian holiday” is an oxymoron. There are no specific holidays required in the New Testament scriptures. And that is true. However, there are many traditional holidays associated with Christianity. One such is Christmas, as alluded to in the previous paragraph.
There is no mention in the New Testament of the establishment of any day as a holy day. Because of the nature of man we have traditionally established holidays based on certain events in the life of Jesus or the church. Even though the birth of Jesus has no meaning without the death and resurrection, some choose to celebrate Christmas. Some object because the holiday is celebrated in December although Jesus was born either around Passover (March/April) or the Feast of Booths (October). Others object because there is no biblical precedent for such a celebration. Still more object for a reason to be discussed later. If there were any holidays to be celebrated based on biblical events, one would think they should be either Passover or the first Sunday after the beginning of Passover, or Pentecost. The one celebrates the death and resurrection, and the other celebrates the beginning of the church. Nevertheless, there is no biblical precedent for celebrating either of these within the first forty years of the church’s existence.
Some Christian denominations have added even more non-biblical holidays. Many Irishmen celebrate St. Patrick’s Day whether they are religious or not. Others celebrate various saint’s days, as well as certain days surrounding supposed events in the life of Miriam, mother of Jesus (commonly called Mary). All of these days are purely traditional.
Does that mean we should not celebrate any of them? As with the Jewish holidays there may be value in some celebrations. Christmas is a time when many people are exposed to the Messiah or Christian concepts. Taking advantage of that interest has value. Some Christians who have not previously done so are beginning to celebrate Lent. In that this period of self-denial focuses one outward rather than inward, this is a celebration that may be a good tradition. While many Christians celebrate the death and resurrection by taking the Lord’s Supper weekly, a special emphasis on Easter cannot hurt. Strangely, Pentecost may be the least celebrated of the important events in the New Testament. Perhaps people should celebrate it in the Jewish manner, by devoting themselves to prayer and study of God’s word all night.
Perhaps one of the biggest objections to some of the traditional holidays of Christianity is that those celebrations often contain elements taken from pagan (or at least non-Christian) religions. (Many things attributed to paganism actually belong to other non-pagan religions.) These objectors point out things like Christmas trees, Easter eggs, witches at Halloween, and many other traditions.
Someone recently asked, “Is Easter a pagan holiday?” One proper answer is that it is a pagan holiday if you are celebrating it as a pagan holiday, but it is not so if you are celebrating it as a Christian holiday or a secular holiday. In other words, thinking makes it so. If one puts up a Christmas tree in order to worship the gods of the forest, then it is certainly a bad tradition. If one erects the same tree because it points upward toward God and focuses the attention of the people in the room on a celebration of the birth of Jesus, then it is no longer a “pagan” tradition. The same with Halloween witches, which anyone would be hard pressed to prove that dressing up as one ever caused a person to convert to Wicca. Easter eggs are a celebration of new life (and an egg is even traditionally a part of the Passover seder, possibly even before Jesus’ time). Can these traditions become bad? Certainly. Any tradition when held blindly or bound on another can become a bad tradition. Are they necessarily wrong and to be avoided? Only if in the mind of the person participating it is wrong, or if someone whose faith might be damaged by seeing someoneBecause of our nature, we have traditionally established holidays based on certain events in the life of Jesus or the church. participate in them objects. The principles contained in Romans 14 may apply in limited circumstances. In that chapter, though, Paul even says that each person should examine themselves and participate or not participate in holidays based solely on their own convictions.
One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. (Rom 14:5-6)
Paul apparently continued to observe the Jewish holy days (Acts 18:21; 1 Cor 5:8). He clearly condemns judging any man based only on the traditions he keeps. “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” (Col 2:16-17) If Paul did not object to traditions in holidays, who are we to do so?