Every year at Christmastime articles appear in various newspapers across the country about the origins of Christmas. They aren’t meant to shock or discourage anyone from its celebration. To the contrary, the public finds the pagan origins quaintly interesting. The articles usually close with a local clergyman advocating less commercialism and stressing the need to “put Christ back into Christmas”.
Millions of people know that holidays like Christmas and Easter have pagan origins, but it doesn’t really matter to them because they “don’t celebrate it that way.” As long as they are mainly celebrating the birth and resurrection of Jesus with only a little bit of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny “for the kids” then God understands.
These holidays are filled with years of sights, smells and sounds of good feelings going back to one’s childhood. The good times at Grandma’s house, the taste of eggnog and the lilt of carols all engender deep emotional feelings.
Been There, Felt That
While the Bible doesn’t show the apostles celebrating any of these days, the holidays are authenticated and validated for most by the experience and our intuition. In other words, we conclude there’s so much joy, love of family and praise to the Lord that God obviously approves these traditions to honor Him. Like the song says, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right….” Who cares about Nimrod, Ishtar, sun worshipers or Saturnalia when you’ve got Bing Crosby, Mom, apple pie and warm fuzzies. The reasoning is that God must feel good about Christmas and Easter because we feel good about them. We have fond memories, so God must have fond memories too. Or does He?
The pagan origin of these days bears little significance to most people because there is no memory of paganism. Who or what is a Nimrod, and who cares? Pagan is a meaningless word, and nothing seems pagan today. Whatever can be remotely called pagan is usually referred to as a quaint native custom, and people like to take pictures of it while they’re on a tour.
Our memories of December 25th may invoke thoughts of Grandma, the smell of evergreen and sounds of sleigh bells all over a backdrop of a 19th-century Charles Dickens or Currier & Ives setting. What about the thousands of years prior to the 19th century? What are God’s memories?
God does have a memory, and it goes far beyond our own, for He “inhabits eternity” (Isa. 57:15). We need to expand our universe into His. For example, if her teacher were to tell my 9-year-old daughter that they’re going to choose December 7th to honor the Japanese, she might think that is wonderful. Should she announce this to her grandfather who fought in the Pacific during WWII, she would probably come to me and ask what a day of infamy meant. Her universe would expand a little bit into Grandpa’s, and in deference to Grandpa’s feelings she would want to have them choose a different day to honor the Japanese. The same might be said for a little Japanese girl from Hiroshima wanting to honor Americans on August 6th.
To young children, WWII is like ancient history. Earlier events of the 20th century are beyond the scope of their universe and memory. Events of that era are only read about or seen in old black-and-white silent newsreels in which the people “walked kinda fast.”
The Real Face of Civil War
A number of years ago many of us were very moved by the documentary shown on public-television by Ken Burns on the American Civil War. It wasn’t anything like the textbook memorization of our school-days about who won the Battle of Bull Run. Instead, we saw faces of real people who looked like us and had feelings like we do. Through the narration of actual letters from the front, we wanted to know if the soldier ever made it back to his “beloved Sarah.”
We barely touched the Civil War soldiers’ experience from afar. God saw them all in living color. He heard the cannon’s roar at Gettysburg during Pickett’s charge and heard the clash of steel on steel. He also knows the weight and texture of a Roman soldier’s cloak. He knows what the apostle Paul’s favorite food was, and He knows the ambient temperature inside a prison on the Isle of Patmos. History (“His story”) is all very real to God, and to Him, to whom a thousand years is like a day (II Pet. 3:8), these events all happened only yesterday.
What if most of God’s memory about December 25th or certain other holidays included the sounds of chanting before idols, human orgies and later the sight of Christians being persecuted? The wicked men who first selected these days to honor their gods or themselves and the Roman Christians who much later accepted the same days for worshiping God were all real people. Their world was just as real to them as ours is to us. They had names, and so did those who died because they rejected the pagan world and refused to compromise with a corrupting church. Men may forget massacres and martyrdoms after a few generations, but God remembers. He still hears their voices under the altar crying out for justice (Rev. 6:9,10).
So in the panorama of human history what might be God’s memory of “the holidays?” Again, since pagan festivals like the Saturnalia mean nothing to most people today, and historical names like Nimrod or Tammuz have no significance, I would like to tell a story. It’s about something that never happened, and it employs a time-culture switch with the ancient world only to drive home a point.
Once Upon A Time
The year is 1937 in Nazi Germany, and the churches are in trouble. The Lutheran Church is losing young members of the Luther League who want to join the more flamboyant Hitler Youth. The Adventists are failing in business because they are seen to outwardly resemble the Jews in their Sabbath observance. Not all the churches are faltering, however, since some church leaders are advocating a few changes.
Some ministers reason that, to win the young people back to Christ, the church needs to make a few minor modifications. For example, Hitler’s birthday falls on April 20th, and there are celebrations throughout Germany on that day. Since nobody knows when Jesus was born, they select April 20 as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Also, by adding a few short nooks to the cross, it can now look strikingly like a swastika, only they will call it the cross of Christ.
The number of members coming back to church increases greatly with each change they make. Their families now march around the cross of Christ with their right arms fully extended to glorify the Lord. Sure, they look a lot like any other Nazi family down the street, but the church was now growing again. Celebrating the resurrection of the Lord will also happen to fall on the anniversary of the rise of the Third Reich. Needless to say, the churches that adapt to the new Germany thrive, while those that refuse to compromise are severely persecuted and scattered.
After the war, all of the customs and trappings of those days continue. Hundreds of years later people still celebrate the birth of Jesus on April 20. They set up the cross of Christ in their living rooms while the families extend their right hands to salute it.
It is a wonderful time. The children make little cookie people, the one’s with the six-pointed star of Bethlehem on their chests, and bake them in their ovens. There is some mythology about the man with a funny mustache who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, but mainly it is a religious holiday. Sometimes a lot of families get together and build a big bonfire. An honored family member carries the cross of Christ with all of its banners attached to the pole. Everyone marches around the bonfire to the tune of “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” (same tune as the German national anthem) while their right arms are fully extended to salute the cross and praise the Lord Jesus.
One day a man comes to church and tries to tell them about the origin of their holidays. They don’t seem shocked at all. To them terms like Nazi, holocaust and Hitler are meaningless. It doesn’t matter what happened centuries before anyway, because they are worshiping the Lord. Their memories of past April 20s are filled with love and joy. Songs of gladness are sung as they bake the little cookie people in the ovens. Life is good, and God must be pleased.
Then the man posed a question to them: What are God’s holiday memories?
Closer To Home
Would any Christian today doubt the need to tell the characters in the preceding story about the origins of their Christmas? How would God feel about choosing of all days the birth of Adolph Hitler to represent the birth of His son? How would God feel about the day symbolizing the resurrection of the Third Reich to represent Jesus’ resurrection?
How about the cross that he bled on symbolized in a swastika or people giving it the Nazi salute? What about the little cookie people with the six-pointed star of Bethlehem on their chests that were baked in the ovens? Wouldn’t people want to know how that custom got started?
Surprisingly, those in this story would probably give the same responses as to why it is okay to celebrate their April 20 Christmas as those do today who want to keep their December 25 Christmas:
“We’ve always had Christmas on that date, and, besides, it doesn’t really matter what day you choose.” “It’s good for the children.” “We try to keep the commercialism down and emphasize the birth of Jesus.” “God understands our hearts, and we get so much out of these days.” “We just put a little cross of Christ in our home, nothing fancy or elaborate.” “Mom would really be disappointed if we didn’t appreciate all the work she put into this day.”
They would have strong feelings of nostalgia from past Christmases and a deep-seated desire to fit in with everyone else celebrating on April 20th.
Something Wrong with You
Try as you might to convince them otherwise, these hypothetical people would inhabit their own little universe. Every reason people give today to rationalize the celebration of December 25 would be thrown right back at you.
To those in the story, April 20 is absolutely wonderful. Christmas to them is almost magical in its beauty (“and no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” II Cor. 11:14). To them the spirit of Christmas equates with the spirit of giving. To be against their Christmas is to be against giving, so there must be something wrong with you. You must not even care about the needy.
So powerful would be the allure of the April 20 Christmas that even millions of atheists would put up the lights to join the party or “put Heather in the play.” Try as you might, you could not convince them that all the Nazi origins of the day should keep them from celebrating now.
The only way people will see through all the tinsel of this economic piece of Babylon that literally drives the Western economies is to have their hearts turned toward God. Those who are Christ’s will seek to look at things from His perspective and not their own. It doesn’t matter that it looks good, smells good, tastes good and sounds good or that most of the world is celebrating it. It doesn’t matter what Christmas means to me or my kids or my mom or my boss, for what it means to God is the most important opinion of all. His thoughts, memories and feelings don’t revolve around mine. Jesus said that His ways were going to set a man at odds with members of his own household, and we are instructed to love Him more than father or mother or son or daughter (Matt. 10:35-37).
In a Christian’s life Jesus is real and has a daily impact on the decisions that are made. To many in this world Jesus is pictured either away in a manger, dead on a cross or off somewhere “two stars to the right and straight on ‘til morning” in a heavenly never-never land. He is treated like a cosmic good luck charm or a God of convenience, but not someone you actually serve or seek advice from. The human reasoning for many suggests that “He must like this holiday because I do, and my minister gives his approval. Surely all of these churches couldn’t be wrong.”
This holiday’s broad appeal to this world should be a warning flag to a Christian. Jesus said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). After warning about false prophets, Jesus also went on to say in verse 21: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” God’s will is revealed in scripture and the Bible is to be our standard in how we are to worship Him.
Church Blending with Paganism
To the apostles, the will of God did not include Christmas or anything like it. This all came centuries later when a compromising false church grew by blending in with the pagan Roman world. By placing the Lord’s name on pagan practices, they deceived people into thinking they could keep their old ways and call it the Lord’s will. Satan succeeded in deceiving virtually the whole world at that time into taking the broad way of doing things that are contrary to God’s will (Rev. 12:9). He is still deceiving the world today.
The will of God has to be the central point in how we worship Him. The apostle Paul wrote “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). Jesus spoke about members of the religious community in His day who were in their own little universe and said they were worshiping Him, but all in vain, because of their man-made traditions (Mark 7:7-8). In John 4:23-24 Jesus said “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (verses 23, 24).
Both those in the above story about the April 20 Christmas and those in the mainstream of Christianity today don’t understand that the huge deception of Christmas is a lie. You can’t “put Christ back into Christmas” because Christ was never in it. The mind of Christ won’t mix righteousness with unrighteousness or light with darkness (II Cor. 6:14-16). “Therefore come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you” (verse 17).
God’s people are to come out of Babylon. You can’t take the customs of a day dedicated to a demon, sprinkle some holy water on it and now say it’s dedicated to Jesus, or then centuries later say its origin doesn’t really matter.
Less Abominable with Time?
Would that terrible act be an abomination only to the actual perpetrators, but in each succeeding generation become less & less terrible until God finally likes it? If 100 years from now the great-grand daughter of a Satanist was to learn that the portrait of Jesus above the mantel was really a portrait of someone named Charles Manson, should she just shrug it off because she doesn’t think of it that way or because her mom always loved the painting? It’s a simple answer for us as older adults because in our timeline we can remember who Charles Manson was and remember the symbolism of that swastika on his forehead. For her, however, the painting’s origin or symbolism would all be meaningless. In her world there is no memory of someone named Charles Manson and the origin of the symbol on his forehead that people 180 years earlier used to call “Nazi” would have no bearing on how she would feel about the painting. Were you to ask her about the painting, she would tell you that to her this is still a portrait of her Savior and she feels His presence whenever she walks in the room. The cross on His forehead reminds her of Christ crucified, and how what He did on that cross should always be on the forefront of our minds. So she’ll keep the painting of Jesus, that both her mom and grandmother also loved, right where it is and so will her children because to her the painting’s origin really doesn’t matter. What’s most important to her is how it draws her closer to Jesus and how she feels about the painting. What she should consider though, is how God feels about the way His Son is portrayed in that painting and what God’s memories are of events in the 20th century. God has a memory which we need to consider when trying to honor Him. How He feels about something that is evil doesn’t center on how we feel about the same thing.
God has a memory. Those who are His want to honor and worship Him in truth as He commanded us. According to His Word, how we choose to do so is important to Him. God tells us not to learn the ways of the heathen (Jer.10:2) or inquire about how pagan nations serve their gods. “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (Deut. 12:31).
The broad, easy path that this world loves is paved with good intentions, but it leads to destruction. The decisions we make in life as Christians aren’t to be based on how we feel or Mom feels or how our church feels, but how God feels. That’s what you do to truly honor the one you love above all others.
Written by Lee Lisman (published in In Transition, Dec. 1995)