As a kid, there was an anticipation, almost uncomfortable longing, attached to holidays. Holidays, be they religious or secular, seemed to break up the routine of life. There was special food, special music, special lighting, special smells because after all, these days were…special.
As an adult, perhaps jaded by repeatedly learning that no Christmas present is going to solve all my problems, as well as discovering that large gatherings often generate as many “incidents” as they do tender moments, holidays actually cause a little anxiety. When digging an artificial Christmas tree out of the basement, I can’t help but calculate how many days this thing will be up, how long it’ll take me to untangle lights, and how much I’ll resent taking it down in January before I wonder whether or not it was worth it. A bit Grinchy, I know.
Granted, I’m a pragmatist, not a romantic. Putting the best construction on it, I’m certain that some Christians perceive grand holiday experiences as foretastes of the wedding banquet of paradise. Furthermore, I’d certainly admit that I have fond memories of holidays as a child. And I can definitely understand the desire to help create positive experiences and memories for your children. All of that.
But part of the point of my blog is to help Christians see things from multiple unfamiliar angles so as to have a more thorough, biblical understanding of truth. The more Christians I get to know, the more I realize how different the experience of holidays can be.
For starters, it’s probably worth offering the reminder that our modern English word “holiday” comes from the Middle English for “Holy Days.”
As Christians, it’s also probably worth asking whether or not certain days of the week, month, or year are truly “holier” than others. If you ask the Apostle Paul, the answer appears to be, “Not really.”
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.Colossians 2:16-17
That’s not the end of the discussion of holidays for Christians, but I think it’s the right starting point. From a Christian worldview, THERE IS NO DAY THAT IS MORE SANCTIFIED THAN ANOTHER. Any insinuation against that would contradict Paul’s theology.
Secular Holidays and Christians
So long as a Christian doesn’t idolize the celebrations of secular holidays, I don’t think anyone would say most aspects of such things are inappropriate for God’s people.
A more interesting phenomenon, from my perspective, is the desire of churches to piggyback on such celebrations. Many churches today seem quite comfortable dedicating the weekend worship to Mother’s Day/Father’s Day, a 4th of July theme, or hosting Thanksgiving worship. I’ve definitely even seen Valentine’s Day hijacked. The secular holiday incorporation exists to such an extent that, if you didn’t at least have a thematic prayer offered up on certain weekends (e.g. Memorial Day), there’d likely be a few complaints.
What has been revealing to me was not, for instance, the celebration of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day itself. What feels more incongruous is the sadness attached to those who perhaps had harsh, critical mothers, from whom they are maybe even estranged, listen on Mother’s Day to how much moms are like Christ. What’s hard is championing the greatness of dads to fatherless onlookers.CLICK TO TWEET
Yes, it certainly presents an opportunity to talk about a Heavenly Father as the ULTIMATE Father. Yes, there are also a host of listeners who also had very faithful fathers.
But since the holiday itself is designed to celebrate, the occasion can nonetheless create a potentially unhealthy distraction in a Christian worship service that is supposed to perpetually be themed on the celebration of Jesus Christ.
Or, for instance, consider 4th of July celebrations. Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae posted the following to Twitter on July 4, 2016…
He immediately received backlash from his large support base of white evangelicalism for “turning everything into a race issue.”
Nevermind the fact that many American Christians haven’t actually thought through the implications of whether or not the American Revolutionary War was a biblically just one.
Let’s simply address the race issue.
Thomas Jefferson, the original drafter of The Declaration of Independence, was a slaveholder himself. So were famed 18th-century Christian preachers, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Though an early draft of the document did originally include a denouncement of the transatlantic slave trade, the antislavery clause was excised from the final draft due to the objections of numerous delegates who benefitted from slavery. (Hine, Hine, & Harold, African American Odyssey, vol. 1, 7th ed., Boston: Pearson, 2016, pg. 93)
Bottom line, if people of African descent aren’t interested in anointing our country as God’s chosen nation in a worship service, they’ve got legitimate historical reason on top of theological reason. Similar sentiments could arise if Native Americans don’t feel quite the same way about Thanksgiving as many white Americans do. Don’t be surprised, or offended.
It is never appropriate for Christians to deify anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ.
So while we can appropriately give thanks for fathers and mothers and the blessings of a relatively safe, free, country of incredible abundance, we must realize that the line routinely and hurtfully can get crossed. Nor should we lose sight of what the Church actually is.
For this reason, I’m not sure how I feel about celebrating “secular” holidays as a church. The obvious advantage of celebrating decidedly Christian holidays in Christian worship is that EVERY Christian can equally celebrate Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Week, Ascension, and Pentecost. The same simply cannot be said for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, et al.
The Christian Church is an intentionally counter-cultural body as contrasted against the surrounding secular culture.
Therefore, without saying “it’s wrong to celebrate such days,” it stands to reason that we should logically only be putting exclamation points behind aspects that unite us as the Body of Christ, not sometimes applicable holidays that help us overlap with secular society.
Christian Holidays and Christians
So I probably sound like I’m ALL IN on Christian holidays and totally against the celebration of secular holidays – a pagan Grinch of sorts. Again, notwithstanding the logical inconsistency of “secular holy days,” I’m not suggesting any of this is inherently wrong.
In fact, I’m not even suggesting that I’m completely enamored with the concept of Christian festival days. As a New Testament Christian, I possess a decidedly New Covenant mentality when it comes to festivals. And the general New Testament teaching on festivals, as mentioned, seems to be that they’re okaaaayyyy…until they’re not. Old Testament festivals were a shadow of things to come in Christ (Col. 2:17). Festivals are free for us to celebrate so long as our consciences are clear that the ultimate end goal is pursuing the glory of Christ (Rom. 14:5). But there exists a clear religious temptation to turn the celebration of these days, and their accompanying customs, traditions, and ceremonies into works by which we believe we’re achieving our own righteousness before God (Gal. 4:10).
My general takeaway from the Apostle Paul then is that while he’s not a legalist who forbids the ongoing celebration of festival days, he nonetheless recognizes dangers attached to them, and he wants New Covenant believers to steer clear of getting wrapped up in rituals that may lead to missing the forest for the trees – the reality that EVERY DAY is celebration in Christ Jesus.
This is perhaps a part of the reason why, for instance, for the first several centuries of Christianity, though some speculated on the birth date of Jesus, Christians don’t seem particularly interested in celebrating lots of special annual ceremonies like Christmas. Not until after 300 AD.
Early Christians writers don’t mention Christmas.
Irenaeus and Tertullian both give lists of Christian feasts that do not include Christmas.
Origen and Arnobius both seem to dislike the pagans’ celebration of birthdays. (McCracken, George, Arnobius of Sicca, the Case Against the Pagans, Volume 2, p. 83)
The earliest feast day in connection with the birth of Jesus was January 6, Epiphany, the day of manifestation. Historian Justo Gonzalez points out that December 25, which was a pagan festival date, began to take the place of Epiphany as a celebratory date in some areas of the Latin-speaking West, after Constantine (4th century). (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, pg. 112)
Gonzalez adds that the Christian calendar in the opening centuries was primarily a weekly rhythm – Sunday was a joyful celebration of Easter; Friday was a day of sorrow and fasting.
Aside from that, there was an annual resurrection celebration, but Christians weren’t even in complete agreement as to when that should take place and there became bitter debates about the matter.
The point here is that the Early Christian calendar, i.e. that which was brought forth in the Apostolic era, offered very little in the way of ritual celebrations. The saint veneration that occupies literally half of the liturgical calendar for many Catholics and Protestants today was unknown, and, I imagine, would be unappreciated by Paul and the Early Christians. It is a historical footnote fascination. Not guideline for worshipping Jesus.
Consequently, ritual celebrations are not inherently wrong…but they can become wrong IF they in any way detract or distract from Christ’s goodness rather than remembering and celebrating Christ’s goodness.
Holidays or No?
Admittedly, I’m writing this post from an angle – i.e. to challenge thoughts, habits, and benefits of holiday ritual. The very nature of ritual is to form habit, and almost transition from consciousness simply into a state of virtue. The nature of thoughtful critique then is to reconsider the merit of an existing habit. That said, I absolutely believe that one can fully celebrate holidays, or not, to the glory of Jesus! (1 Cor. 10:31) Without question, whatever you do, you shouldn’t do it (or not) because I said so. You should wrestle with biblical principles, pray, and be guided by the Spirit.
The gospel about holidays is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Though the world assigns subjective value and deems one day, one event, one moment comparatively better/worse than the next, our timeless Savior is always, constantly spectacular EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Jesus is never the emotional letdown of December 26 or January 2 or July 5. Every day is an opportunity to worship with full heart, mind, and body because every day Jesus is gracious beyond comprehension. Every day is a holy day in Christ.