Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Are Christian Holidays Pagan in Origin?

Lenny,

Have you or your organization have done any research on the origins of Christian customs, holidays, and symbols? I have read that in the 3rd century AD pagans were largely received into Christianity and were permitted to retain their signs and symbols. (Vine's Dictionary of Biblical Terms) Also many of today's holidays for instance Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, even the Sabbath was changed from Saturday (the 7th day of the week) to Sunday, etc. (Microsoft Encyclopedia, Fossilized Customs) And if all of this is so, why aren't more people hearing about it? Some may not care but Christians definitely should. We don't want to be the pagans of today, right?

Thanks again for taking the time to read my question.

Sarah

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for writing. I appreciate the concern you have in making sure that Christianity isn't unduly corrupted by pagan influences. However, your worries are unfounded. Let's look at your examples above and see if we can be consistent with the Bible's teaching on the matter.

The Sabbath Day

First, I would say that the Sabbath was never "changed". That's a misrepresentation. The Bible states that as the Jews would gather for services at the synagogue on Saturday, the believers would then meet on the first day of the week (Sunday - see Acts 20:7). It was on Sunday they would celebrate communion.

When the Gentiles began being converted, they would also meet on the first day of the week. However, since they weren't Jews, they wouldn't attend the Saturday synagogue service. Paul had no problems with this, as he wrote the Colossians "Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day-- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ." (Col. 2:16-17).

If you'd like a more detailed treatment of this subject, please refer to my article "Should Christians Hold to a Saturday Sabbath?"

The "Pagan Roots" of Holidays

As for some of the other holidays, I think you may have things turned around a bit. Easter is specifically a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (see my article "The Resurrection as History" at http://www.comereason.org/newsletters/mar01.htm ). While there are many different types of springtime rituals and celebrations (much of this stemming from the importance of agriculture in the survival), the fact that they occur somewhere around Easter is purely coincidental.

The time of Christ's resurrection is clearly shown in the New Testament to be the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. Jesus was arrested after having celebrated the Passover with His disciples. He was crucified and rose three days later. The fact that in subsequent centuries symbols of some other spring rites such as bunnies and eggs have made their way into the Easter celebration in no way makes the holiday pagan. Many of those symbols are expressions of new life - which certainly fits in with the theme of Easter.

As for some of the other holidays, such as Christmas, Christians didn't allow the pagans to keep their celebrations, but rather provided an alternative to the more popular secular festivals. During the Christmas season, for example, many Christians were uncomfortable with the worship of a pagan god, Mithra (for more on Mithra and Christianity, see Did Christianity Steal From Mithraism?). So the church decided to counter the pagan festival with one of their own, one that celebrates the birth of the true savior. Since no one knows on just which day Jesus was actually born, December 25 worked as well as any other. We see many churches do similar things today in their Harvest festivals; they choose October 31 to create an alternative celebration to Halloween.

Hank Hanegraaff correctly summed up this issue when he wrote, "The real question that must be addressed is, 'What was the church's intent in choosing December 25 for the celebration of Christmas in the first place?' The answer may surprise you! The early church chose this date to point to the triumph that Christ's birth represented over the pagan traditions of the Roman Empire. In other words, the church was not endorsing a pagan ceremony but establishing a rival celebration. Today the world has all but forgotten the pagan gods of Rome. But at least a billion people on planet Earth celebrate the Christ of Christmas."(1)

The Biblical Understanding of Festivals

Ultimately, though it is important to understand what God's word says about how we should approach holidays. Paul shows in Romans 14 that things we would normally consider pagan are not in and of themselves evil. It is really the conscience and motivation of the person that has the real significance. Paul writes "One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind." (Rom 14:5)

Since most people are not trying to celebrate pagan gods in their celebration of holidays such as Christmas or Easter, but the Lord Jesus, the holidays are not corrupted. Other holidays such as Valentine's day are really cultural celebrations that use established and well-understood symbols like cupid to convey an abstract concept like love. It is only when the holiday celebrates ideas that are counter to the Christian message that they become dangerous.

I hope this has cleared up any misunderstanding you may have had over the celebration of holidays. Please let me know if I can be of any more assistance. God bless you in your desire to serve Him.

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References

1 - Hanegraaff, Hank "Is Christmas Christian?" The Christian Research Newsletter, Volume 6: Number 5, (c)1993 Christian Research Institute http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-nwsl/crn0056a.txt

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