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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Pagan Holidays or God's Holy Days - Really?

Herbert W. Armstrong wrote about some of our modern holiday observances:  "Ancient Rome's pagan holidays have been chained upon a heedless and deceived world. These include certain annual holidays — Christmas, New Year's, Easter, as well as many more, every one a pagan day — every one used to stimulate the sale of merchandise in the commercial markets. Upon honest investigation, the earnest seeker after truth learns that these days are all of heathen origin and pagan significance. He learns that he can have no part in them." He went on to talk about certain days talked about in the Bible on this wise:  "God's feasts, or holy days, or Sabbaths, were commanded to be kept year after year, and forever! We ask the reader to retain an open mind, for we shall prove that forever, in this case, means forever!" -- http://www.hwalibrary.com/cgi-bin/get/hwa.cgi?action=getbklet&InfoID=1326294480

Moreover, many of the groups which have risen from the ashes of the old Worldwide Church of God continue to teach the same things about Christian holiday/Holy Day observance. Are these understandings/teachings correct? Are most of our modern holiday observances pagan in origin? Are Christians obligated to keep the festivals outlined in the Old Testament? In this post, we will examine the scriptural and historical evidence available to us and let the reader come to his/her own conclusions.


HWA and most of the groups who follow his teachings regularly quote the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus to bolster their case for Christian observance of God's festivals. They point out that these events are referred to as "the feasts of the Lord" and "these are my feasts." Likewise, they like to point out that the phraseology of "a statute for ever" and "throughout your generations" is employed over and over again in this chapter. The implication is clear:  These are God's festivals, and they are to be observed forever.

However, when one digs a little deeper into Scripture, such dogmatic assertions do not hold up under scrutiny. In fact, an independent study of what Scripture has to say on the subject reveals that HWA and his followers have either left out and/or twisted a great deal of what is revealed there. For instance, in the opening verses of this chapter (Leviticus 23), we read:  "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them..." Doesn't that indicate that this message was clearly for the children of Israel?

Another item which they typically gloss over or ignore is found in the sixteenth chapter of Deuteronomy and is referred to as the "Law of the Central Sanctuary" by many theologians. Simply put, it is made clear here that there would only be one acceptable place for the Israelites to observe these festivals. Notice the phraseology which is repeated over and over again in this chapter concerning them observing the festival in the place "which the Lord shall choose." Indeed, in the summary of these festivals, we read:  "Three times (or seasons) in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose..." (verse 16).

This concept is made even clearer in the twelfth chapter of Deuteronomy. After instructing the Israelites to destroy all of the places of worship which the previous inhabitants of the Promised Land used (verses 1-4), we read:  "But unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, even unto his habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come" (verse 5). The following verses make plain that this encompassed all of their religious observances, including the feasts (verses 6-7). And then, just so there wouldn't be any room for misunderstanding, we read:  "Ye shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes. For ye are not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance, which the Lord your God giveth you. But when ye go over Jordan, and dwell in the land which the Lord your God giveth you to inherit...Then there shall be a place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there...Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest: But in the place which the Lord shall choose in one of thy tribes, there thou shalt offer thy burnt offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee" (verses 8-14).

Of course, most students of the Bible know that there was only one place which God chose to place his name - one place for the central sanctuary:  The Temple at Jerusalem. This is made clear in the books which cover the kingdom period. After Solomon completed the temple in Jerusalem and prayed that God would recognize it as his house (I Kings 8), we read of God's response in the following chapter:  "And the Lord said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou hast made before me:  I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually" (verse 3). Compare this scripture to II Chronicles 7:12-16.

That the temple at Jerusalem was the place which God had chosen is made plain throughout these histories of the kingdom period. It is evident in Jeroboam's decision to create two places of worship at Bethel and Dan to prevent the people from returning to Jerusalem to worship after the ten tribes abandoned David's dynasty and kingdom (see I Kings 12:25-33). It is also clear from these accounts that festival observance as outlined in the Torah was a rare occurrence during this period. This is demonstrated by the fact that Hezekiah and Josiah were reported to have held festival observances in accordance with God's instructions (see II Chronicles 30 and 35).

Notice too, that ALL of the festivals required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, not just the Feast of Tabernacles (as practiced by most Armstrongites). This understanding is critical to a proper comprehension of the entire subject going forward.

Now, as all good students of the Bible are aware, the Israelites and the Jews (Judah) were carried into captivity. Moreover, when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated and dethroned the last king of Judah, we are told that he destroyed Jerusalem and the temple (see II Kings 25 and II Chronicles 36). What happened to festival observance when that happened?

 We read in the book of Lamentations:  "The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn feasts:  all her gates are desolate:  her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness" (Lamentations 1:4). In the following chapter, we read:  "And he (God) hath violently taken away his tabernacle, as if it were of a garden:  he hath destroyed his places of the assembly:  the Lord hath caused the solemn feasts and sabbaths to be forgotten in Zion, and hath despised in the indignation of his anger the king and the priest. The Lord hath cast off his altar, he hath abhorred his sanctuary..." (Lamentations 2:6-7). Without the temple in Jerusalem, festival observance as specified by God came to an end! To be sure, festival observance was later re-established - after some of the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to the Promised Land and rebuild the temple; but there is no escaping the fact that festival observance ended for a time.

What about the fact that festival observance is prophesied for the future - in God's Kingdom? (see Zechariah 14:16-19) Notice that this is speaking of the FUTURE. This scripture is clearly referring to the time when the Lord of Hosts shall be headquartered in Jerusalem. And, once again, everyone will be required to attend the Feast of Tabernacles at JERUSALEM (verses 16-17) - no Mt. Pocono, Wisconsin Dells or Jekyll Island!

Didn't Jesus and his disciples continue to observe the festivals? Yes, Christ continued to observe the festivals. Remember, he had to fulfill all of the particulars of the Law in order to rescue us from the penalty of breaking its provisions. Notice, however, that Christ always attended the festivals at Jerusalem! In the Gospel according to Luke, we read:  "Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast" (Luke 2:42-42). Likewise, we read in the Gospel according to John that he attended the Feast of Tabernacles (Chapter 7) and Feast of the Dedication (Hanukkah) at Jerusalem (10:22-23). Of course, we all know that Christ celebrated his final Passover with his disciples in Jerusalem (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22 and John 13). There is also scriptural evidence that his followers continued to observe these rituals after his death, burial and resurrection (see the book of Acts).

Doesn't this demonstrate that Christians are still obligated to observe these days? NO! Remember, the early church was Jewish. The apostles had failed to follow Christ's instructions to "teach all nations" (Matthew 28:19) and had focused instead on Palestine. Hence, it is quite natural that Jewish Christians would have continued to observe these Jewish festivals. However, when the church finally began to expand into Gentile countries where there was no tradition of keeping the Mosaic Law (including festival observance), festival observance was practiced by a smaller and smaller portion of the Church (as the number of Gentile converts grew).

Finally, when the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the reconstructed temple in the year 70 A.D., ALL festival observance ceased (just as it had when the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians). Yes, history informs us that new traditions eventually developed regarding these festivals, and that the Jews began observing them in their homes and synagogues around the world. In similar fashion, many Christians eventually began observing them again after a fashion in later years. Nevertheless, it is apparent in both the Jewish and Christian observances of these days that they are following man-made traditions with regard to their celebrations and do not observe the scriptural formula for keeping them (indeed, it is currently impossible to do so)!


How much of our modern observance of Christmas is pagan (pre-Christian) in origin? You be the judge!

Yes, the Norse had their Yule (which could last for 12 days); the Romans had their Saturnalia, Juvenalia and Mithra's birthday - all in December (our months and days of the week also derive from these folks).
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas

Two of the canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke) contain an account of Christ's birth, and the events surrounding it.
-- King James Bible, 1611

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a Third Century Christian monk named St. Nicholas.
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus

Clement Clarke Moore published his iconic description of Santa Claus An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas (better known as Twas the Night Before Christmas) in 1822.
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus

Thomas Nast drew the first modern likeness of Santa Claus in 1881.
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus

Martin Luther (of Protestant Reformation fame) is credited with bringing an evergreen tree into his home and decorating it with candles.
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

Chistmas trees were introduced to America by German immigrants in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

Christmas has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas

Washington Irving was responsible for making the celebration of Christmas the family-focused holiday that it is today with a series of stories published in 1819.
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published in December of 1843 and remade the holiday into a time for cheerfulness, optimism, charity and good works.
-- https://books.google.com/books/about/A_Christmas_Carol_in_Prose.html?id=m_JRAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false

The custom of sending Christmas cards began in Great Britain in 1843 and appeared in the United States a few years later.
-- http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/cards.shtml

Poinsettia plants were introduced into the United States from Mexico in 1828.
-- http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas

The story of Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer was introduced by Montgomery Ward Department Store in 1939.
--  http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas

Consider the following dates for the music associated with the holiday:  Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1934), White Christmas (1940), Here Comes Santa Claus (1947), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949), Silver Bells (1950)
--  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_music

Consider the following dates for cartoons/movies associated with Christmas:  It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966), Frosty The Snowman (1969)
-- http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038650/

Now isn't that interesting? Of fifteen bullet points associated with the development of our Christmas traditions, only one of them had anything to do with paganism. And, eleven of those same points occurred within the last two hundred years!


  1. A good friend of mine (and brother in Christ) e-mailed some thoughtful comments to me that I believe deserve a response. They are as follows:
    "First of all, as far as the Holy Days, our Creator gave them for a reason, the Sabbath being the first listed. They picture the plan of salvation."
    I agree with this statement. Paul says that they were given as "a shadow of things to come," and that Christ is the reality (Colossians 2:17). As you know, I have benefited from having attempted to observe and study these days, and I still believe that all Christians would benefit from being more familiar with them. That said, we must still confront the fact that observance of them according to the biblical instructions is NOT currently possible. No matter how good our intentions, we must fall back on measures of our own devising in our attempts to observe them. Scripture tells us that God chose JERUSALEM (and the temple there). There is NOTHING in Scripture to indicate that "He" has chosen any other site (including Mt. Pocono, Wisconsin Dells and Jekyll Island) or building. The scripture which you quoted about Paul confirms that the Holy Days were tied to Jerusalem ("I must by all means keep this feast which comes at Jerusalem.") Moreover, if it is wrong for people to muse about and invent ways to celebrate Christmas, it must also be wrong to muse about and invent ways to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles! Are motels, hotels and campgrounds listed in the scriptural instructions about the FOT? Is a motel a temporary structure constructed for purposes of the festival? Why are the other pilgrimage feasts celebrated at the local level?
    In your remarks, you mentioned other "ancient systems" which inspired these holidays in addition to the ones which I mentioned. Yes, mistletoe was used by the Druids; but the association with Christmas came much later. Yes, the Yule log was pagan, but how many American households do you know of that actively incorporate the Yule log into their Christmas observance. Yes, there was definitely the "mother and child" imagery extant in some pagan religions, but I'm perplexed about what you are implying/suggesting relative to Christ's nativity. Are you suggesting that the stories in Matthew and Luke were borrowed from paganism? Like it or not, these stories are an integral part of two canonical gospels! Most historical scholars attribute Santa Claus to stories about Saint Nicholas - Where is the proof that he was derived from a Chinese fire god? (and wasn't Nicholas a follower of Jesus Christ?)
    My friend also pointed out "Then there is the matter that Jesus was NOT born on Dec 25." That is most probably correct (we don't know when he was born), but the birthdays of most Kings, Queens and Presidents are not celebrated on the actual day of their birth (e.g. Elizabeth II and George Washington). And, if the Holy Days truly picture the different elements of God's plan of salvation and Trumpets pictures the coming of Christ, doesn't that mean that the Worldwide Church of God attempted to celebrate Christ's birth after a fashion? (are we saying that Trumpets only pictures his second coming and excludes the first?)

  2. My friend went on to comment in a second e-mail: "Let us have them throw drunken parties, spend money they do not have, inspire violence in families, crimes all over, and call it all worshiping Christ!" Sounds to me more like a Worldwide Church of God celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles than most folks observance of Christmas!

  3. In my opinion, the issue is not resolved without the context of the salvation plan, and it is a context that eludes most people with a sabbatarian Church of God background, because most of them believe in the heresy of replacement theology, which is the teaching that the Church replaced Israel.

    The promises were made to Abraham and his descendants. Nobody gets salvation outside of that relationship. We have to be adopted into Israel to inherit the promises with Christ.

    The law as given to Israel as instruction ("Torah" means instruction) on how to live love, and it included details to facilitate its benefits to the early audience of Israel. It was also given as part of the covenant through which the promises were perpetuated. Later the holy spirit was given and the new adoptees were given access to the divine nature to help them keep the law in spirit. These new additions to Israel had new circumstances (no temple) and so needed another place to meet. God promised to write the law into their hearts, and he made a new covenant with Israel, but as before, it included the law, except this time the people would be able to keep it.

    The spirit of the law includes that the festivals would be kept where God appointed. For a time that was Jerusalem. If it was always to be Jerusalem, I expect the congregation would have been told they would keep the feasts at Salem rather than at the place God chooses. (They would have known about Salem). The style of the instruction implies that the place might change. I won't argue how the new location would be transmitted.

    The point is that the holy spirit leads us into keeping the law, otherwise it would not be written into our hearts as part of a new covenant. I know this raises questions, but I need to cut this post short.

  4. Gordon,
    Thank you for your comments. It occurs to me that a similar argument could be made for the substitution of almost any element of the Torah (e.g. substituting Sunday for Sabbath), but where is this substitution validated in Scripture? If Jerusalem was only appointed to be the place temporarily, then how do you explain Zechariah 14?
    I don't believe that the Law (including the festivals) was done away with - I believe that it was fulfilled by Christ. As you say, the spirit of that Law is still in full force and effect, and that spirit is LOVE (Love for God and love for each other). Paul said that these things (the festivals) were shadows of the reality found in Christ. Symbols point to profound truths. For example, the author of Hebrews tells us that the Sabbath pointed to the time when God's people would stop doing their own work(s) and rest in God's work. He/she also talks a great deal about how the temple and rituals surrounding the Day of Atonement point to a much more profound reality. The new covenant is immersed in that reality, not in the dos and don'ts given to Israel (legalism). While I still observe the Sabbath, I'm not under any illusion that doing so has earned me a spot in God's Kingdom (Christ's fulfillment did that for me).