I have frequently heard it said that the Law was given as a sort of object lesson, to prove to Israel–and by proxy all mankind–the futility of attempting to earn salvation by keeping the Law. While that isn’t quite correct, it isn’t very far off the mark either.
Paul wrote that the law was given to serve as a witness against us in our sins much as a No Trespassing sign is a witness against the trespasser who cannot claim that he didn’t know he was on private property when it was clearly marked. Despite the clearly marked boundaries of Torah, despite God’s assurance that his laws are not too difficult for us, we all still fail. We are all trespassers, and without God’s grace to forgive us, we would all be condemned to die under the Law by the Law’s own testimony. The real object lesson that demonstrates to us that we cannot be saved by the Law is the destruction of the Temple.
In Paul’s day, he spent a significant amount of time and ink arguing against those who claimed that the new gentile converts could not be saved without undergoing the full ritual conversion of becoming a Jew. Paul continued to keep the Law, circumcising Timothy and sacrificing at the Temple, but he clearly understood that those things were mere shadows of the spiritual reality. He wasn’t alone. Many other Jews understood this, but unfortunately they appear to have been in the minority. The Temple eventually had to be destroyed before God’s grace would be widely accepted.
I recently listened to a 2006 discussion of Yom Kippur and teshuva by Rabbi Meir Schweiger. Addressing the matter of atonement without the Temple, he said:
This is an unbelievable kindness…to allow me the opportunity to once again be in relationship with him.
Perfect obedience to the letter of the law cannot save you, but it can point you in the right direction. Salvation is found in the “unbelievable kindness” of God’s mercy in providing a sacrifice whose blood atones for all who trust in him and commit heart-felt teshuva.
I can’t remember for certain where I first heard this allegorical story of Christmas–probably on Mark Call‘s radio show–but I have never forgotten its message. It involves a recently married couple. The wife has a sordid past, and her husband gave up nearly everything to help her put it behind her and heal from her many emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds. I have embellished it somewhat from the original. Here, we overhear them discussing his birthday.
W: “Dear, what would you like to do for your birthday this year? Anything you want!”
H: “More than anything else, I’d like to spend some time with you. Let’s go camping for a week where we can really be together.”
W: “But it’s so uncomfortable out there sleeping on the ground. Mosquitoes, flies…yuck! And no air conditioning! I have a better idea. Why don’t we stay home and throw a party? We’ll put up lights and decorations, and we’ll give presents to everyone! I know how much you like the wilderness, so we’ll put a tree up in the living room and make it up all fancy with lights and silver and gold! Oh! Won’t it be beautiful?”
H: “I’m sure it would be, but that’s not what I want. Besides, didn’t you used to do all these things with one of your ex boyfriends?”
W: “I know you didn’t really ask for anything this fancy, but I know you’ll love it. It will give me and all our friends a chance to show you just how much we love you! We’ll even change the date to make sure it’s convenient for everyone. How does December 25th sound?”
H: “That’s your ex boyfriend’s birthday, not mine! Those are the things he wanted you to do! How could you possibly think I would appreciate that?”
W: “I know, but we already have this tradition. We’ve been doing it every year for so long now. It will be so much easier if we just keep using that same date and holding the same party. We’ll change the name! It’s OK because everyone will know we’re doing it for you now, not for Sol. Nor for old Satty, even if that’s where I got most of my ideas. Nor for Mithras, because hardly anybody remembers him anyway. See? It’s OK because I’m doing it all for you!”
H: “I already told you what I want.”
W: “Thor and I used to have a fire every year on his birthday. Let’s do that too! Oh! One more thing. You’ll love this! Can you dress up like Odin? He looked so cute, and the children will love it!”
H: “I am not Odin!”
It gets worse. Here is another conversation at a later date.
H: “I want you to always remember how much I sacrificed to rescue you from the cruel bondage of your former lovers. I want you to remember how I bled and suffered for you.”
W: “Oh! I will. How could I ever forget? To commemorate what you’ve done for me and to show you how much I love you, I’m going to bake a ham and invite everyone over for dinner.”
H: “You know ham disgusts me! I told you to roast a lamb.”
W: “We’ll color eggs and decorate with cute little bunnies.”
H: “Isn’t that what your ex lesbian lover, the one who murdered your children, used to make you do?”
W: “Well, yes, but that doesn’t matter anymore. I’m doing it all for you, and you know how much I love you. We’ll celebrate this day in your honor every year, and we’ll call it Easter!”
H: “That’s your lover’s name!”
God specifically told us not to adopt the religious customs of pagans. He told us not to join in their feasts. Yet we do it anyway, year after year after year, and we say it’s all good because God knows our hearts. He does indeed. Do you? What would you think of a wife who continued to celebrate the birthdays and deeds of horribly abusive ex lovers while claiming she did it for her husband who told her not to? How pure can your heart be if you still pine after your slavery and fornication?
Failure to see the mitzvot as an expression of the totality of God’s will, and not as just disjointed commands, leads to the distortion of mitzvot themselves. One year I received an urgent call just before Yom Kippur from a woman in my congregation. Her husband had been told by his doctor that he was suffering from a condition which could prove life-threatening if he fasted. Nevertheless he was determined to fast. I spoke to his doctor and consulted another observant doctor to confirm the diagnosis. There was no doubt that fasting would endanger his life.
I called in the man and explained to him that he must eat on Yom Kippur. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Rabbi, you’re a young man and I’m about three times your age, well into my 70s. Since my bar mitzvah I have not eaten on Yom Kippur, and I do not intend to start now.” I replied that I could not force him to eat on Yom Kippur, but that as soon as he left my office, I would instruct the gabbai never to give him another honor in our shul. When he asked why he deserved such treatment for being strict with respect to Yom Kippur, I told him that we are prohibited from honoring idol worshipers.
“What idol worship am I guilty of?” he demanded to know. I explained, “The God of Israel has decreed that you must eat on Yom Kippur. If some other god has commanded you to fast, it is irrelevant to me if you call it Zeus, Kemosh or Yom Kippur – all idols are the same.”
Tashlikh is supposed to be done on Rosh Hashanah, but I think Yom Kippur is really a much better time for it. The idea is that you take stones that represent your sins, and you throw them into the sea or whatever body of water you can find, preferably water that is moving toward the sea. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, and while we can do little things to make our wrongs right, only God can really make them go away.
He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.
Like Egypt’s chariots and like the army of locusts before them. Beyond reach, beyond memory.
I have two stones on my desk, and I have written something on each of them. Maybe they won’t seem like much to you. However, to me they represent the two sins which have dominated my life over the past year. On one stone I have written, “Jonah,” and on the other, “Pharaoh.”
Jonah ran from his calling. While I haven’t been running from mine, I haven’t exactly embraced it either. I have some writing to do, and I have neglected it all this year.
Pharaoh raged against God. I allowed anger and hatred to set the tempo and the terms for this past year. I made some difficult and harsh decisions. I made the right decisions–I don’t think there was any way to avoid it–but I could have done it with more grace and civility.
So now I’m going to go throw my good buddies, Jonah and Pharaoh, into the pond a few blocks away. Then I’m going to try to set some past wrongs aside and concentrate on turning some very unpopular thoughts into electronic bits.
When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations before you, where you go to possess them, and you take their place and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you do not become snared by following them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not ask about their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods, that I too may do likewise? You shall not do so to the LORD your God. For every abomination to the LORD, which He hates, they have done to their gods; even their sons and their daughters they have burned in the fire to their gods. All the things I command you, be careful to do it. You shall not add to it, nor take away from it.
(See also Deuteronomy 18:9-14.)
Regarding Christmas, there are good things and bad things, but the most important consideration for me is what pleases God. In Deuteronomy 12:29-32, God said not to learn how the former pagans used to worship their gods and then do the same for him. He told us how he is to be worshiped, and we are forbidden from adding to it or taking away from it.
Christmas is to holidays as English is to languages. They are cultural borgs, assimilating everything they touch. Some Christmas traditions are clearly biblical, while others are clearly pagan, and some are more difficult to pin down. Google the words “pagan” and “Christmas,” and you are sure to find plethora of sites declaring everything about Christmas to be purely pagan and evil. You will also find sites claiming that everything about Christmas is purely inspired by God with not a speck of yellow to mar the pristine snowy landscape. Who’s right?
I am no expert on the subject. In fact, I haven’t even read a single book on it. I’ve read a lot of articles, listened to speeches, and sat in on debates, though. So, for whatever it’s worth, I’m going to give you my thoughts on it.
From what I’ve read, December 25th was decided on as the birthdate of Yeshua relatively early on in Church history. Unfortunately, it was still decided at least a century after the fact, and it was decided by Greeks and Romans who wouldn’t necessarily understand all the nuances of the Jewish Gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, and John were all native Jews, and Luke was a proselyte at a fairly young age.
There are some people who seriously believe that Yeshua was actually born on December 25th, but they are a minority. Most believe he was actually born on some other date, either in the late spring or early fall. Competing modern traditions point to the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and the many other winter solstice celebrations to explain how December 25th earned the title.
One tradition says that most of the cultures encompassed by the Roman Empire had some kind of winter solstice celebration, which generally fell very close to December 25th. That tradition is undoubtedly correct on that point, but it goes further. It says that Roman Christians didn’t want to appear to Jewish, so instead of celebrating a new holiday at a different time of year, they melded the new ideas into their existing celebrations. In that way, they would be celebrating Christmas at the same time everyone else was celebrating Saturnalia, and they wouldn’t stand out from the crowd. This sounds like a reasonable explanation, but as far as I can tell, it is only speculation. The solstice celebrations were certainly real, but I have never heard of any solid evidence that this was the motivation for selecting this date for Christmas.
A competing tradition says that the Roman Empire instituted the formal holiday of Saturnalia in order to compete with the growing popularity of the Christian holiday. I have at least heard of some documentary evidence that Saturnalia was not officially recognized by the Emperor until after Christians had already adopted the 25th for Christmas. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Saturnalia had not already been celebrated unofficially, so it doesn’t disprove the previous argument.
Another argument against December 25th is the fact of shepherds tending their flocks in the hills at night. I have heard it argued that no shepherd in Judea would have been tending flocks outdoors at night on December 25th. The shepherds supposedly drove their flocks into barns or warmer climes, I’m not sure which. This sounds like something invented by people with no actual knowledge of sheep or shepherding.
The counter argument is that it rarely gets below freezing in that region even in December, and that shepherds routinely tend their flocks under those conditions. I have no way of knowing which is right. I know that in modern times the temperature does occasionally fall below freezing, but that it averages something closer to forty degrees Fahrenheit, but climates can change dramatically over two thousand years. Maybe it was ten degrees every night or maybe it was sixty. I have never seen any documentation of either claim.
There is also the faint possibility that December 25th was chosen because it is possible that Yeshua was conceived sometime near Hanukkah, which is celebrated beginning on Kislev 25 and is always within a few weeks of December 25th. Kislev, being a month on a foreign calendar, was changed to December and the day came to be celebrated as a birthdate instead of as a conception date. More speculation.
Absent proof of one hypothesis or the other, I’m not going to raise a stink about it. If everyone wants to celebrate Yeshua’s birth on December 25th, then I’m OK with that.
Every report I have heard says that Christmas trees were adopted from a Germanic solstice tradition. One such report said that some Germanic tribes would bring a tree inside their house as some sort of talisman against the symbolic death of the shortest day of the year. The living tree within their home helped preserve their own lives and ensured another prosperous year. I have no clue if that is correct.
Also consider the prophecy of Jeremiah 10:2-5:
So says the LORD, Do not learn the way of the nations, and do not be terrified at the signs of the heavens; for the nations are terrified at them. For the customs of the people are vain; for one cuts a tree out of the forest with the axe, the work of the hands of the workman. They adorn it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers, so that it will not wobble. They are like a rounded post, and they cannot speak. They must surely be lifted, because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them; for they cannot do evil nor good, for it is not in them.
I doubt that Jeremiah was thinking of Christmas trees when he copied these words from God, but the parallel is too striking to ignore. The pagans are terrified of the signs of the heavens, signs like the winter solstice, in response to which they cut a tree out of the forest, bring it back to their house, and decorate it. Perhaps Jeremiah had never heard of the German people or their Yuletide traditions. Perhaps he thought he was only writing about carved idols inlaid with gold and silver.
But then again, perhaps God had a wider perspective than Jeremiah.
It seems obvious that, despite many efforts to apply Christian meaning to the Christmas tree, it is not of biblical origin. It was almost certainly adopted from some pagan religious rite. However harmless it might seem, I can’t see any way that it does not violate God’s command to not adopt pagan religious practices. Justifying it by saying we are doing it in his honor adds insult to injury. Does it help the adulteress’ case to claim she was thinking of her husband at the time?
The Twelve Days of Christmas, Yule logs, Yule Tide, and Yule everything else is unquestionably pagan. There is nothing biblical about it, and claiming otherwise is pointless.
I suspect the tradition of candles placed in the windows was adopted from Hanukkah, in which an 8 or 9 candle menorah is lit and placed where it can be seen through the house’s windows. While this tradition is not included in the Scriptures of the canon, it is not done in honor of any pagan gods. It is done solely in honor of a miracle that God performed in fulfillment of prophecies in Daniel and in preparation for greater fulfillments to come. I say light ’em up.
One tradition says that gift giving was adopted from Saturnalia. Another says that it was instituted in honor of the gifts brought to Yeshua by the magi. Either one seems like speculation to me. I have never seen evidence either way.
Witnesses from the first century report that the Celtic Druids employed mistletoe (not the same as holly) in religious fertility rites, perhaps even involving human sacrifice. Most pagan European cultures ascribed magical properties to mistletoe, and it was widely associated with fertility.
Red and Green
Once again, I have never heard of documentation for claims of pagan origins for the colors red and green. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how it might be derived from Scripture. I suspect it is a harmless tradition based on one of the most hopeful denizens of winter: evergreen hollies.
Lest anyone think I might be turning into the Grinch, I am not interested in making anyone else conform to my opinions on Christmas. There will be no Christmas trees or Yule logs in my house, but you need to make your own decisions about it. I am not going to complain about nativity scenes or Christmas trees on public property, and I am not going to tell you you’re going to hell for your cheese log. These are just some rambling thoughts relevant to the day. They might even be wrong. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind.
Have fun. Enjoy yourself. But consider giving your traditions a little more thought as to whether or not they please God. He is, after all, the reason for this and all other seasons. Is he not?
Add your thoughts if you want. I might disagree, but I’ll try not to call you any bad names. 😉
119 Ministries’ documentary, The Christmas Question, also discusses the origin of these and other Christmas traditions. Watch it free right here.