Saturday, January 06, 2018

Christmas customs

I have been a Christian pastor for several years and I have a question that worries me. I would be very grateful if you could help me with your opinion on this subject. I am concerned about the usage of the Christmas tree in the celebration for the birth of Christ. There are some important facts: - The Christmas tree has a pagan origin, and was used in Celtic beliefs as part of pagan worship. - The Bible teaches us not to mix the pagan with the holy. This was the continuous struggle of the people of Israel from the time they left Egypt until they returned from the exile. Based on these two statements, should Christians use a Christmas tree as a decoration during the celebration of the birth of Christ? 

Craig answered this question, but I have my own response:

i) Christmas customs are not obligatory. These are not religious duties, commanded in Scripture. But by the same token, they're not forbidden.

It's good for Christians to annually commemorate key events in the life of Christ. If anything, the church calendar would benefit from systematically tracking events in the Gospels.

ii) It's good for Christians to be discriminating about what Christmas customs they observe. For instance, I disapprove of most secular Christmas songs. They are trite. They trivialize the season.

By the same token, I wouldn't include Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as a Christian parent, in my family tradition. That presents a complete counter narrative to the real Christmas story. A subversive alternative. In that regard it's not essentially different from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, even if the film is not intentionally anti-Christian. 

I remember watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in elementary school. As I recall, I thought it was effective storytelling, although I didn't care for the music. 

iii) However, Christmas trees, Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, and so forth, are natural objects. They have no intrinsic pagan significance. Pagans make use of natural objects to symbolize pagan beliefs, but that's a case of projecting something artificial onto the object. That doesn't make a natural object pagan. A tree is a God-given object. 

When Christians make use of natural objects, they are reclaiming God's creation from heathen usurpation. Taking back what pagans stole. It was never theirs in the first place. Pagans have no claim on God's creation. They are not entitled to reinterpret the significance of natural objects. They have no right to turn natural objects into pagan emblems.

iv) Christmas trees are decorated with lights and reflective materials to create a festive, celebratory atmosphere. Light is an ancient, central biblical metaphor. In the Gospels, light is associated with Christ. The star of Bethlehem (Matthew)–as well as Christ: the primeval light, entering the world he made (John). 

v) On a related note, Christian readers are often disturbed by how account of the Magi exploits heathen astronomy and astrology. But once again, pagans have no claim on celestial objects. Matthew is divesting heathen astronomy and astrology of its impious misappropriation by restoring and redirecting attention to the Creator of the heavens, born as the Savior of the world. 


  1. Can you clarify why you are singling out "Rudolph" for consternation? At first blush, it seems a more-or-less innocuous story line embodying the same theme as 1 Corinthians 12:12-26.

    1. Considering the fact that I compared it to Philip Pullman's trilogy, I didn't single it out.

      "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a full-blown Christmastide narrative that co-opts the real Christmas story. If it was just a childrens' story, that would be one thing, but the way it shoehorns into the Christmas season supplants the Gospel nativity accounts (and traditional music) with a secular Christmas story. A counterfeit alternative that captures a child's imagination and diverts it from the real thing.

  2. @Steve: I understand that the Continental Reformed celebrated Christmas, but not those of the Westminsterian sort. Your post impinges upon the "regulative principle," which historically proscribed any Christian worship or practice not commanded in scripture; ie only the weekly Sunday Sabbath.

    Do you consider yourself a confessional Calvinist/total subscription? Either way, would you mind waxing on the regulative principle? From my perspective it is nought but a nose of wax, but I'd appreciate hearing from you.

    1. i) I agree with the Westminster Confession on many things, but I'm not a strict subscriptionist.

      ii) There's a confessional Calvinist mentality that pays lip-service to sola Scriptura but in reality filters Scripture through Reformed confessions as the unquestioned interpretive grid.

      iii) The primary prooftext for the RPW is the Second Commandment (Exod 20:4), but that's proscriptive rather than prescriptive, and does not, as such, offer any positive guidance on the form and content of true worship. In the OT, the concrete details were supplied by the case law, and not the Decalogue.

      iv) My preferred style of worship is traditional Anglican and/or traditional Lutheran. I've attended both.

      v) You asked me another question a while back that was overtaken by other things. Care to repeat it?

    2. Thanks for the response, although we in the LCMS are having to face the consequences of viewing worship as either personal preference or "that's the way we always did it" sans any principle other than that of "the conservative refomation." ISTM one man's adiaphora is another's papistry.

      As for my other question, I fear it is gone from me, but I would ask to place another in its place: returning to the pagan influences on the celebration of Christmas and your position that Christians are merly reclaiming natural objects from idolatry. However, is there to be no qualms about Germanic pagans' use of not only trees, but the symbolism of transgressors' entrails wrapped around sacred trees? Or the use of the day of Sol Invictus for the birth of Christ? At what point does "spoiling the Egyptians" become syncretism?

    3. Well, the Lutheran musical tradition is second to none, so if Lutherans stick with their best composers, that, in itself, keeps the bar very high.

  3. Tree worship (ie the idea of blessing houses, doorways etc with trees, saplings, twigs and so on) is an ancient practice, that originate in human sacrifice, according to Fraziers "The golden bough".

    Likewise, the exchange of gifts was a way for tribes to maintain solidarity. It was probably a way of maintaining a primitive, communistic "one", as opposed to many. Arhcaic societies had a hard time with individuality and preferred oneness. By giving away what is valuable, one signals that the self is erased and only the other/s matter.

    Both human sacrifice and the giving of gifts where ways to strengthen oneness (the collective vs the enemy, the erasing of the self) and this is the antithesis of christian individuality

    I agree that christmas is good harmless fun but it is worth noting where the traditions come from. When it comes to culture, few things are innocent in their origins. Indeed, most seem satanic