Are Holidays Unholy?

Question
Should Christians celebrate Christmas? Should Christians celebrate New Years and birthdays? Are they links to paganism? What did Paul really mean when he said not to observe special days, weeks, months or years?
Answer
Paul was instructing the Galatians (Gal. 4:10) not to engage in false religious practices. While he did not identify these practices specifically, it seems logical to conclude that he was speaking of the Jewish calendar. After all, the Galatians do not seem to have been idolators but Judaizers -- they attemtped to pursue righteousness and salvation by works of the Law (Gal. 1:6-7; 2:4,14-16,21; 3:1-14; 4:21-26; 5:1-4). Had the Galatians been involved in actually idolatrous practices with false gods, Paul certainly would have addressed the issue directly and forcefully. Since he did not, it seems best to assume that the Galatians followed the Jewish religious calendar as if it, being part of the Law, were a means to righteousness and salvation. This also seems to have been the case in Colossians 2:16, which explicitly mentions Sabbaths. Paul does not appear to have objected to the observance of the Jewish calendar when its dates were observed properly as non-salvific events (Acts 20:16; 1 Cor. 9:20).

Christmas, New Years, and birthdays are not, of course, part of the Jewish calendar, but Paul's teaching regarding the Jewish calendar does shed some light on these holidays, too. There is nothing particularly pagan about any of these holidays as we now celebrate them. Originally, some practices, such as Christmas trees, may have had pagan connotations. Some argue, for instance, that Christmas trees were initially incorporated into Christmas celebrations as a concession made by the medieval church when it converted pagans in Europe. It is argued that the pagans had their own winter festival which involved trees (for example, trees were holy to the druids). However, there is little support for these kinds of theories. In any event, Christmas trees do not now carry pagan connotations -- they are simply fun decorations people put up at Christmas.

Christmas itself, of course, is the celebration of Christ's birthday (though we do not know on what day Christ was actually born), so obviously it has no intrinsic pagan connotation. It is a celebration of the life of Christ, of God's gift of the Savior to the world. Holidays and celebrations thanking God for his special gifts and providence are not only biblically acceptable, but were actually madated in the Old Testament (Exod. 23:14-16). Some argue that the coincidence of the date of Christmas with the pagan winter festival casts a bad light on Christmas, but in fact no idolatrous practice can defile a date such that it becomes evil to celebrate legitimate things on that day. Again, even if some Christmas celebrations throughout history have been tainted with paganism, this is not the case today. While it may be wrong to celebrate some holidays under certain conditions in certain environments, it is never wrong in and of itself to celebrate God's gifts to us.

New Years is not particularly Christian, but neither is it particularly pagan. It is simply the celebration of the passing of an old year and the dawning of a new year. Birthdays, in turn, are simply occasions to rejoice over those we care about as we recognize the anniversaries of their births. I am not aware of any pagan connotations ever associated with birthdays, but even if somewhere along the line some pagans also celebrated birthdays and attached pagan significance to them, they would not thereby permanently defile birthdays.

The important thing to remember is that no celebration should involve anti-gospel elements, whether those be idolatrous or legalistic (as with the Judaizers). When celebrations do involve elements such as these, they are wrong. When they do not, Christians are free to engage in them, with the same kinds of caveats that Paul offers regarding meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8,10).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.