In a culture such as ours any attempt to stand back and examine the value of religious festivals is hindered, because they are as much secular events as religious holy days, if not more so. This element of mixture, best summarised as folk-religion, so clouds the issues that the observer finds the greatest difficulty in detaching themselves from all the cultural and family ties of having participated in these events many times over. Even if we want to examine the roots and purposes of the popular religious festivals for ourselves, others seem reluctant to let us do so. This if anything is surely a sign that such occasions are in many cases for the benefit of the participants, and not for the glory of our Father in Heaven. This is the true nature of folk-religion.
The question "Is it possible to baptise folk-religion?" has been asked, and we must seek to answer it here. Where something is steeped in traditions, practices and origins from a variety of backgrounds, mostly with pagan connotations, can one take these things and make them essentially Christian - things which give true honour and glory to Jesus Christ and His Father? Is it possible, or will the occult origins remain at the heart of such Christianised festivals and traditions, and eventually begin to dominate once more the activities which take place under such titles as Easter, Christmas, Harvest and even Bonfire Night?
Since the fourth century the church has attempted to take the practices of folk-religion and cover them with Christian paint, in order to make them a way of communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ. Such "preaching" is aimed at people who themselves wear a Christian lebel on unregenerate hearts. The question I want us to ask and answer is, has this proved effective or helpful, not just to the unbeliever, but to the believer also? This is at the heart of the issue of religious festivals - it is the reason so many committed Christians give for continuing their involvement in such activities - is it a valid one, or is it an excuse? Folk-religion by its very nature blurs the issues - even in the church.
2. Festivals in the Old Testament
Festivals are not unknown in the worship of the Lord God Almighty; the Jewish calendar had several - Feasts of Passover, Pentecost (Harvest), Tabernacles, New Moon and Trumpets. The fact that the Lord instituted such a variety of festivals is surely proof that they are important for the people of God to celebrate - or is it? Throughout the latter part of the O.T. God repeatedly tells His people that their festivals are pointless and abhorrent to Him, (e.g. Is 1:10-20 and Hos 2:11). This is because they were aspects of outward religion by people whose hearts were far away from Him. Righteousness, justice and the care of widows and orphans were much higher on His priorities list than festivals and holy days. So why did He give instructions for the Jews to celebrate special days and seasons?
The answer to that question is found in the fact that these special ocasions, along with daily sacrifices, a separated priesthood and a holy place (tent or temple), were all aspects of the Law of the Jews, which the Lord gave to them for a purpose, but not as a permanency. The Law was a school-teacher to lead the Jews to Jesus, that they may find faith in Him (Gal 3:23-25). The laws, the sacrifices, the festivals all pointed forward to some aspect of Jesus, and yet only those O.T. Israelites who found faith could see Him through these things. The majority of Jews only saw religious practices which had to be done to appease a legalistic deity. The one who wrote the letter to the Hebrews goes to great lengths to contrast the failures of the Law, and therefore its temporary nature, with the eternal values of Jesus Christ. The Law with its gifts and sacrifices could not make the worshippers perfect, because it only dealt with the outer person, but the blood of Christ cleanses our consciences from dead works to serve the living god (Heb 9).
The Law was given to prepare people for faith - but if numbers are a measure of success it was a disaster, as the majority of the O.T. is taken up with the failures and not the faith of Israel. The festivals are part of that old covenant which is no longer required because Christ has come, and with Him a new covenant, through which God deals with our hearts directly. There is no longer a need for the signposts which point to Christ - men and women can approach Him directly. The Law dealt with unconverted hearts, as a restriction on them to lead them in a way they did not want to go - the philacteries, daily sacrifices and yearly feasts were all to serve as reminders of the faithfulness of the Lord to those hearts - and were not primarily for those who through faith had come to a deeper understanding of the God of Israel.
3. Festivals and the New Testament
If festivals were intended by the Lord to be relevant under the new covenant, would He not have ensured that teaching on them, particularly which ones, was included in the Christian Scriptures?
Paul does refer in three separate letters to the keeping of special days, but nowhere is there any specific direction that the followers of Jesus Christ should keep annual dates to commemorate His birth or death, or any other event in the history of the church. Paul, while he says it is a matter of personal conviction whether or not one celebrates certain days, seems to hold the position that while it is "lawful" to do so, it is not helpful. This is the principle which he taught to the Corinthian Christians concerning the Christian life in others areas (1 Cor 6:12 and 10:23). We shall look closely at what the N.T. records for us about Paul's attitude to festivals and other "holy days".
Romans 14 In v.5 Paul states that every person should be fully convinced in their own mind of the course they take with regard to special days. He does not say that one conviction is right and the other wrong - he only applauds honest action. This is an attitude he refers to again in v.23, when he says that whatever is not of faith is sin! If I am not fully convinced of something, then I cannot act in faith, and so I sin if I participate. Sadly, many Christians expect others to join in some activity simply because it is the traditionally "done thing", or the latest trend for "blessing". Could the reason for this be that those who encourage others to rush headlong into joining them without first being convinced by God that it is His will, have themselves failed to examine in prayer, study and waiting upon the Lord whether such an activity is profitable, edifying and a way into true freedom? Failure to examine things fully in God's light, but to do them because everyone else does them is a common distraction amongst God's people today - and, if Scripture is to be taken as authoritative, a common source of sin.
Paul continues in v.6 to say that those who choose to celebrate certain days do so "to the Lord". His earlier point is that every servant is only answerable to his own master - and the Lord is merciful. Much of the activity involved with the folk-religion festivals embraced by the church seems not to be focussed on the Lord. However, all that can be done is to ask others to examine their own hearts honestly, to see if when they participate in these things they do so "to the Lord" or to some other "god", be it themselves, the god "family" or the pagan demonic gods, who were originally the focus of these celebrations.
Colossians 2 In vs. 16 and 17, Paul restates the principle that no-one is to judge another in regard to food and drink, or a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These things are only shadows, the reality is Christ Jesus Himself. Who, if anyone, is he defending, those who participate or those who do not? In the context of the passage, in which his theme is that through baptism the believer has died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world (v.12 and 20), it appears that he is encouraging those who choose not to get tied up with these things to maintain their freedom. These elementary principles of the world he sees as philosophy, empty deceptions and the traditions of men, which are opposed to Christ, and are used to make people captives. In vs. 20-23 he expresses astonishment that people who have been set free from such things by Christ allow themselves to come under their authority again. He continues (3:1-4) by encouraging them to set their minds on the things above and not on those things which are earth-bound. Paul himself, it seems, valued freedom from those elementary principles of the world.
Galatians 4 Here we return to Paul's teaching that the Christian is not under the Law. Whilst under the Law he says that "we" were held in bondage to the elementary things of the world. It is to be noted that the R.S.V. translates this phrase, (the same one he uses in Colossians 2), as "elemental spirits". We have been set free by Christ, free from slavery to those things which were by nature no gods (v.8). Again, He expresses amazement that Christians are turning back to those weak and worthless elemental false gods, as if to be enslaved by them again. How does he say they are doing this? They are observing days, months, seasons and years, (v.9). He fears that all the work he has put into them has been pointless, because they are turning back to the things of the old order - the old covenant, and away from Christ Jesus. It seems tht Paul was not popular with some Christians of his day for teaching that believers are freed from the Law and the other expressions of the straight line (elementary) principles of the world's ruling spirits. However, he presses home the message by contrasting the descendants of Hagar and Sarah - and in v.31 declares "We are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free".
4. The Sabbath
In Genesis 2:3 we are told that on the seventh (Sabbath) day of creation God rested from His work because it was complete. It seems that He enjoyed His rest so much that He blessed the seventh day and made it different from the others. Thus the Lord establishes a sabbath day's rest for His people. The next time Scripture mentions it is about 2,500 years later when the people of Israel get an object lesson on what their God intended for the seventh day. In Ex. 16 they find that there is only one day for which they are allowed to gather extra manna the previous day, and that is the Sabbath - this means that they can rest from the work of gathering it. In v.29 God rebukes them through Moses and states, "See, the Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day..." The people then take the hint and learn to rest on the sabbath day. In the Ten Commandments in Ex. 20, the Lord tells them to keep the sabbath day holy: however we often misconstrue what He meant by "holy". He does not introduce in this commandment any special acts of religious worship which are to be observed on the sabbath day. The word holy means separate or different, not religious, and the difference of the seventh day is that it is to be a day of no work for all, a day of rest. In spite of the fact that the Israelites had been told that the Lord had given them the seventh day as a day of rest, they did as they did with all His other commands, and continually failed to keep it. The result is tht we find the prophets rebuking the Jewish people many times for failing to enjoy the gift of God - their sabbath rest day, (e.g. Is 58:13-14).
What the Jews did manage to do with the Sabbath was to turn it into a day of religious rules and restrictions. It was this attitude that was preached by the religious teachers during the time Jesus was on earth. The majority of references to Jesus and the Sabbath in the Gospels are to do with the occasions where the religious leaders of the time considered Him to be breaking the Sabbath commandment. Jesus did not see it this way, and asked them if the Law was intended to stop people from doing good. More importantly, He reminded them of what His Father had said in Ex. 16, that the sabbath was for man's benefit - man was not designed to be a slave of the sabbath, (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus who on this occasion declares himself, the Son of Man, to be Lord even of the Sabbath, at no time taught his disciples to keep a one day a week religious sabbath, nor is such teaching to be found anywhere in the New Testament. It appears therefore that over the centuries the church has turned back to the elemental principles of the world, and reintroduced the Law, and one aspect of it is the requirement to keep the Sabbath. However, in this process there have been two changes made to the sabbath as sanctified by the Lord on the seventh day of creation.
The first is that the sabbath is no longer taught as a day of rest from labour, and thus different from the other six days in this respect. Today the word "religious" is used to describe the sabbath held by many (in contrast to the word "holy"). It is a rest only in the sense that it is not worldly activity which is expected from the faithful, but church activity. The sabbath is not a day for the benefit of Man, but for the weariness of man, woman and child, either by over-work or by the imposition of so many restrictions that the day is not seen as a delight, but as a day when one should not put a foot wrong. If one does transgress, then the wrath of another brother will fall. Truly this is a return to the days of the Law when the Jews could not see that their own priests profaned the sabbath if this is what it was about (Mt 12:5), as today many ministers are forced to work harder on a Sunday than on any other day of the week.
This moves us on to the second change made by the majority of the church concerning the sabbath. In spite of no New Testament reference to support it, the sabbath is considered to be Sunday, not Saturday - the seventh day of the week. It is not that we cannot count - we all know that Jesus rose from death on the first day of the week - Sunday morning. Perhaps it is because the connection offers us a more religious reason for a special day than a Saturday of rest. Sunday was first adopted as the special day of the church in AD321 after Constantine had decreed the conversion of the Roman Empire to a form of Christianity. In spite of this there were still many members of the cult of Mithras in the Empire. Sunday provided a wonderful compromise for the holy day of the week - not only was it the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, so it could be special for the church, it was also the day associated with this pagan god who was in fact the ancient Babylonian Sun god. Ever since then Christians have tried to justify a change of sabbath from Saturday in spite of there being no support for it anywhere in the Scripture.
Sadly this emphasis on a one-day-a-week sabbath and return to bondage under the elemental spirits has totally robbed the majority of Christians of any understanding of the sabbath which is taught in the New Testament. This sabbath is a seven-day-a-week sabbath, and is explained in Hebrews 3 and 4. The writer links the failure of some of the Jews to enter by faith into the rest of the promised land with the rest of the sabbath day, and with what some call today a spiritual rest. The emphasis of the writer is that the day on which God wants us to enter His rest is any day that is called "today", which is of course, every day.
In 4:9-13 we are told that there remains this sabbath rest for the people of God to enter. We know we have done so when we cease from our works, exactly as God did from His. The believer is instructed to be diligent to enter this rest, and not to fail to do so by disobedience - which the writer has already said is the outworking of unbelief. This is the sabbath which God has prepared for the people of the new covenant, a sabbath which has no regard for the elemental spirits of the world. It is probably because it cuts right across these things that it has not been taken up by the church, whilst the legalistic sabbath has been held in respect.
5. "Christian" festivals today
Over the past 1600 years the church has filled the calendar with festivals, special days and seasons, some of which have been adopted by society at large. Many others remain in the background, remembered only by those strong on traditions. The latter do not offer much distraction to the majority of believers, not because they have considered them and rejected them as invalid, but because it has never been their custom to celebrate them. Similarly, those festivals which are celebrated more widely are participated in by most believers not after prayerful consideration, but because it is the custom they have been trained in. They do so either ignorant of the origins of such "holy" days, or believing those roots to be unimportant. Should not Paul's fear that first century Christians were returning to slavery under the elementary things of the world by celebrating special days (Gal 4), cause us at least to examine the facts more closely? The way in which people are swept along by this "folk" religion and its customs are surely a warning that these things ought to be considered more carefully. Christian pastors however have failed to acknowledge the roots of these events, and so do not inform the church of the facts, and Christians are left in ignorance to follow the strong powers of custom and folklore.
We will look briefly at some of the origins of the many customs in the most popular folk festival commonly called Christmas. It began as a midwinter festival to celebrate the solstice. In its early days it was held in honour of the Babylonian god Mithras (him again!), and later amongst the Romans, the god Saturnalia. With the official conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the god of the festival was exchanged once more, though its roots and practices remained as a time of celebration in the darkness of winter. (It is essentially a festival of the northern hemisphere). Over the years many practices have become associated with the festival from various European pagan customs. Boxing Day and the giving of presents were a feature of the festival of Saturnalia. The tree, with its source in Germanic paganism, is still decorated and gifts offered at its base in the same way that the tree homes of the demons of the Far East are adorned. Carol singing originates from wassailing, the festival and practice of driving demons from orchards, especially those growing cider apples. Santa Claus - a mixture of characters including the Scandinavian god Odin, and the creation of the American advertising industry, has become confused with the character of Jesus Christ, and for the majority of children in Britain, is the focus of this festival. The list of influences from pagan religions within this one festival alone is long. It is a fact that not only Christmas but every "Christian" festival has similar origins, (e.g. the name Easter comes from Eostre - the goddess of the Spring equinox), though some have been closely linked as well with Jewish dates and festivals.
I would also like to consider at this point a festival which is not considered as a religious one - Bonfire Night, (5th November) - but which is in fact another date that finds its roots in pagan practice. Some Christians see it as a time to celebrate the survival of Protestantism in England - if Guy Fawkes had been successful, then the country would have once more been dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. What is not commonly known is that the origins of Bonfire Night lie not in the "Gunpowder Plot", but are identical with those of Halloween. Both are based on one of the quarter days of the Celts. The other one of those quarter days which remains is May Day. On November 1, bonfires were lit, torches carried and sacrifices made to drive away evil influences and uphold the fertility of the world. The practice was continued in England and when Thomas Hardy wrote, about 1800, "The Return of the Native", he refers to November bonfires, but made no reference to Fawkes or the burning of effigies. It must be noted though that prior to 1605, these bonfires had been adopted by some as a way of celebrating "All Saints Day", and from the thirteenth century the word "guy" was used to denote a dummy or effigy. Perhaps the Gunpowder Plot therefore became yet another excuse for British pagans disguised by a thin layer of Christian paint to continue their old folklore religion, unchallenged by the Church.
In our final section we shall consider the question of how believers should respond to this foundation of paganism in the festivals of church and culture.
6. Conclusion: It was for freedom that Christ has set us free
We have seen that in the New Testament the Holy Spirit declares Christians to be free to celebrate festivals or not, as long as they act in faith. We have also noted that the same writer, Paul, expresses a fear that involvement in festivals and other special days will enslave Christians once more to those elemental spirits of the world, from which Christ has freed them. We have looked very briefly at some of the ways in which these elemental things run throughout the origins of the festivals and holy days of Christendom. Paul himself taught that ALL THINGS ARE LAWFUL, but not all things are helpful, (1 Cor 10:23) - so the question is not, is it right to join in these events? but is there any true profit in them for the believer?
The answer to this one is for each person to arrive at individually. It is for people to decide for themselves whether they can participate in activities and practices that belong to pagan religions in honour of the Lord and in such a way that maintains their freedom in Christ. For myself, from my understanding of Scripture and personal experience, I do not believe either of these are possible, but everyone must be fully convinced in their own minds, and respect other Christians' freedom to come to a different conclusion. Some, for example, would look for the true meaning of Christmas by working backwards through the following list of ingredients, cutting out what they felt uneasy with, and focussing on the birth of Jesus. The list goes something like this: Jesus' birth; the date (25th Dec); family; goodwill; presents; tree/fairy lights; materialism; gluttony; drunkenness and sexual immorality. The point to which that list is cut back depends on each individual's consideration (or lack of it), of each ingredient. My own position is that if we cut the first item from the list, then we are left with the true meaning of the festival which has lately been called Christ's Mass, (the mass also has its origins in pagan sacrifice, though the actual word is in fact a misunderstanding of the Latin for mission). What remained would be a festival to celebrate midwinter and the start of the lengthening of the days, devoid as it originally was of any Christian emphasis. The various traditional practices and the modern commercialism could then exist happily without being embarrassed by any reference to the Son of God, and the period could fully adopt the honest name of "X"mas, "X" standing for family or food, Mammon or Mithras, or whatever the individual wants to worship through this high point of northern hemisphere folk religion.
The New Testament teaches that we are to decide individually what we believe to be honouring to our God, through prayer and study, and we must assess honestly the response of the Holy Spirit in our hearts - what He rejoices over, and what He rejects. Whatever one chooses to do, not just with Christmas, but with every festival in our culture, it is important that we keep in mind the principle of Gal 5:1, and keep standing firm, and do not become subject again to a yoke of slavery. If for some reason we find ourselves slipping into a place of being dominated by the elemental things of the world, though it is not always easy to discern this from the inside, then we should reject the things that lead us that way, and follow Christ.
"Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind".
Randall Hardy, 1990.
Suggestions for the teaching and observance of festivals and special occasions in a Christian school
It may be that all the parents in a Christian school have come to similar conclusions about their own policy with regard to celebration, or not, of special days. If this is so, it may be felt that the issue of festivals and special occasions is a non-issue in that particular school. I would argue that this is not the case, and it would be wise for those with responsibility in the school to have considered the issue for two main reasons. The first is that as the Biblical teaching on festivals receives so little exposition, and the roots of special days as celebrated today are seldom examined amongst Christians, in order to fulfil its role properly, the school should lay good foundations for whatever course is chosen at any particular time. Secondly, the possibility of a family of different convictions becoming part of the school should not be ruled out, and it is wise to be prepared.
By the laying of good foundations I mean that the teaching of the New Testament about freedom to choose, and yet the potential dangers of re- entanglement, should be clearly held to. From this point, parents/teachers should then examine together the different aspects of each event which they choose to celebrate or not, and some explanation be offered to the pupils of what is seen to be good and bad in these things, and why a particular approach has been adopted. Obviously, the older pupils should be given a fuller explanation than the younger ones.
What could be the approach of the school where parents of different convictions are already involved? How is it best to proceed? First it is important that the teaching of the New Testament be emphasised, because of the general ignorance of it within the church. Because of this ignorance, and the pull of folk religion, this will not be an easy task. In the real situation, most Christians have not reached their position by conviction, but by tradition, and so find the experience of other believers taking a different standpoint very threatening. If this foundation is ignored, then misunderstanding will arise, and worse, one group will seek to make all others conform to their ways. This is why a policy which seeks to bury the differences will prove very unsatisfactory, as would any attempt to override the conviction of the minority. A positive approach would be, first to lay foundations with the parents, then to work out a practical response to each of the folk religion events which provide so many themes and material particularly for primary school activities. This should be done, of course, for all relevant events, including Halloween (All Soul's Eve!).
There seem to be two general ways in which such responses could be put into practice in a helpful way. First, where the majority of parents wish a festival to be celebrated by their children in school, and secondly, where the majority wish one not to be. In either case it is important that the freedom and convictions of the minority be respected by the majority, and vice versa. It is also important that an explanation of the thinking behind the chosen course is explained to the children at home as well as in school, especially where the "big" festivals are concerned - no such explanation need be given for the feast of St. Swithin or Candlemas, for example! Where it is agreed not to celebrate a particular festival in the school, then it is more than likely that once the children are aware of the policy, nothing further needs to be done. For example, the failure to join in Christingle ceremonies within school should present little problem for the parent who believes it to be a good thing for their children to participate in, as such opportunities are provided out of school by family or church.
The real difficulties arise when the course of celebration has been chosen, and there are parents involved who do not wish their children to participate. The parents' will must be respected, and their Biblical freedom not overriden. This means that children of such parents should not be involved in any work or activity that focusses on the celebration of the event - this may of course present practical problems of providing alternative activities. The best solution to this wold probably be found in a working together of school and parents. When teachers planned specific activities, or when the general atmosphere in the school tended towards the celebration of such an ocasion opted out of by one set of parents or more, then advance information should be given to those families, who could then re-assume their full responsibilities and provide the alternative themselves. Of course, such liaison would need to be done well in advance - a note the night before would not be helpful!
Finally, to say that the role of the school would be made much easier
if the churches were to teach what the New Testament taught about times,
seasons and special occasions. The foundation would already be laid in
the lives of families, and they would come to the school having thought
through much of what has been referred to in this paper. Sadly, the truth
is that the majority of churches are so entangled in the elementary principles
of the world, philosophies, empty deceptions and the traditions of men,
that they are not free to proclaim the truth found in Scripture. The task
of doing this will, in some instances therefore, become that of the Christian
school, and it is important that they do not fail, as this is part of their
responsibility, and I believe their calling, to raise up a generation of
young believers who are truly FREE to follow Jesus Christ, whatever the
This study is aimed at providing a basic treatment of the topic, as a stimulus to personal bible study. Every effort has been made to be accurate, but the reader should test everything (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess 5:21). Please report errors and omissions, and queries unresolved after consulting THE LORD to the writer: Email Randall Hardy
© R Hardy, 1990. This paper may only be copied in
its entirety for private non-commercial use. All other usage requires
the written permission of the author.