The subject of holidays with pagan origins came up recently in our discussion on Jehovah’s Witnesses. I mentioned that I consider this a “Samaritan” issue, that is a nonessential. However, I would like to pursue this a bit in that it has value in a lesson on applying biblical principles on a subject not directly mentioned in the Bible. Not only that, this is not just a Jehovah’s Witness issue. I know of Christians who feel uncomfortable with holidays because of their pagan origins and churches that are uncomfortable with Christmas trees for the same reason. It is not the idea of holidays that are the issue, as Jesus celebrated both biblical (Passover, Tabernacles etc.) and nonbiblical (Hannukah) holidays (holy days). It is the pagan origins that are the problem.
I already mentioned that pagan influence goes deep in our culture. Even our days (Wednesday = Woden’s Day, Thursday = Thor’s Day) and months (January = Janus, March = Mars) are often named from the pagan gods. But to make things even more complicated, the Bible itself is not afraid to borrow from the pagans. A common word for the world of the dead in the New Testament is hades. Not only is Hades the place of the dead in Greek mythology, it is also the name of the Greek god of the dead. Paradise (a favourite term for the resurrection earth for Jehovah’s Witnesses) is a Persian word for garden that was used in Persian mythology to describe the hope of a blessed afterlife. Obviously the biblical authors were not afraid to borrow from the pagans. But I believe that there are two passages that are particularly applicable.
In 1 Corinthians 8 (see also 1 Corinthians 10:23-33), Paul discusses the eating of meat that had been dedicated to idols. This is the heart of pagan origins. What is interesting is that Paul does not ban the practice. Paul agrees with the group at Corinth that idols are nothing and that the gods do not exist. This means that no matter what religious dedication took place, meat is still always just meat. That does not mean that there is no limit on this freedom. Although the Corinthians are free to eat the meat, they must be sensitive to the weaker group that still believe that idols are real. The stronger group should not use their freedom to cause their weaker brothers and sisters to stumble. The application is obvious. If you have a Christian friend who comes from a Jehovah’s Witness background or who otherwise believes that holidays are bad, do not send them cards or presents or invite them to your house when it is all decorated. You are free to celebrate but do not let that cause another to stumble.
But can God really tolerate something of pagan origin? And is it just bare tolerance or can something of pagan origin actually become positive? There is a very interesting story that is found in the Old Testament.
“Moses said to the whole Israelite community, “This is what the LORD has commanded: From what you have, take an offering for the LORD. Everyone who is willing is to bring to the LORD an offering of gold, silver and bronze; blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece.” (Exodus 35:4-9)
We need to ask: where did the Israelites get such treasure? They were slaves in Egypt and have been on the run since then. It had to come from somewhere, so where did they get it? The answer is found in an event after the tenth plague when the Hebrews were still in Egypt.
“The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The LORD had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.” (Exodus 12:35-36)
This is very interesting. If you have studied anything about Egypt, you will know that very little was “secular.” It is likely that the gold and the silver that the Hebrews took was covered with images of their gods. Not only was this treasure of pagan origin allowable for personal use, this was the material that was used to construct the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was constructed of material of pagan origin!
What is the application? Many of our holidays do have some pagan influence in their origins, as does almost every other aspect of society. The question is: what is their role now? If Christmas is used to focus on God sending his Son, Easter on the death of Jesus and his resurrection, Thanksgiving to give thanks to God, and New Years to decide to make a new start at a godly life, then God can use these things, even with some pagan origin as he did with the construction of the Tabernacle.
But I must be clear: I am not arguing that people who are uncomfortable with holidays should start celebrating them. If you are convinced in your mind that holidays are bad, then God bless you. What I am asking is that people on both sides have tolerance, for as we can see from the biblical witness, the situation is much more complicate than we thought.