I started drafting this before Christmas but didn’t get as far as finishing – and anyway I wasn’t sure I wanted to post this just then, to spoil people’s fun just when they were getting ready to enjoy the festivities. So here it is now – a little insight into the complex relationship between me and Christmas, and why, as a Christian, I don’t celebrate it any more.
When I tell people I don’t do Christmas, I get all sorts of different reactions. Some are sympathetic – though often for reasons which have nothing to do with my own rationale. People have all sorts of different reasons why they are tired of the whole thing – shopping, bad tv, family they don’t get on with, family they miss, etc etc. Some, on the other hand, love the whole thing so much that they can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like it – time with their family, nice food, pretty decorations on the tree, fun stuff on tv, presents, carols, nostalgia, the comfort of tradition, of doing things the way we’ve always done them since we were children, watching the kids or grandchildren enjoy it, etc etc. What’s not to like?
Some, of course, assume it’s because I’m Jewish… and I’ve had people try to give me helpful advice about how they thought I could combine Christmas meaningfully with Hannukah. They were kind, but I disagreed with them – though I know some Jewish people do celebrate a kind of combined Hannumas/Christmukah. It’s not unheard of. They do say if you take two Jews you’ll get three opinions about pretty much anything. :)
The most difficult conversations I’ve had about this issue have been with fellow Christians (yes, I’m Jewish and I’m a Christian, we do exist) who were shocked to hear of a Christian rejecting Christmas. But don’t you believe in the birth of Christ? Well, yes, of course I believe in the birth of Christ – not only in the simple historical fact that Jesus was born, but in the biblical account of his birth. But the Bible does not command me to celebrate this event on a date that was picked by human beings for a reason which I think is wrong – in fact the Bible doesn’t command me to celebrate this event at all.
Like I said, I’m Jewish, and I believe in Jesus. For me one of the implications of this has been a sifting through Jewish customs and sifting out those which I believe go against God’s ways – I don’t sift things out just because they’re not commanded in the Bible (putting socks on isn’t commanded in the Bible either, but it seems a reasonable thing to do when it’s cold), but I do sift things out when I think they’re wrong. For example, there is a custom in Jewish tradition of lighting candles at the start of the Sabbath (sunset on Friday) – my mother always did this, saying the traditional blessing, and I think it’s a nice custom, it doesn’t go against any of God’s commands, so I found myself as an adult and as a believer in Jesus choosing to do this too – but I won’t say the traditional blessing, as it contains a phrase which I don’t believe is true: it says that God commanded us to light the Sabbath candles.
So you see what I mean about the sifting? I am not anti tradition, but I won’t accept man-made tradition when I believe it’s wrong.
Now, church tradition says that on 25 December we celebrate the birth of Jesus. This is man-made tradition, it was not commanded in the Bible but invented by a human being who thought it would be a good idea to take a Pagan festival which people seemed so keen on, and give it a Christian meaning instead. Rather than insisting that people have to choose between Pagan ways and God’s ways – which is very much the principle I see throughout the Bible – the church decided to go easy on them and offer them a way of keeping the party going anyway. You like eating and drinking and making merry on this date? fine, we’ll call it Christ’s birthday and declare the party to be in his honour. And in church we’ll have special services to mark the occasion, and Bible readings about his birth, and, oh, you have this custom of carolling – ok, we’ll write some carols about the birth of Christ and we can sing those.
Now, there’s nothing in the Bible to say that we mustn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December – just as there’s nothing to say we must. The Bible doesn’t go into this at all. Now to me the fact that the Bible doesn’t mention this at all – doesn’t specify when he was born and doesn’t say anything about when/how/whether we should celebrate this event – to me this points to where this celebration is on God’s agenda: nowhere. So when I hear Christians talk as though celebrating Christmas is a really important event in the calendar, I say: bah, humbug. (or, more often, say it silently in my head, because I’m commanded to love my brothers and sisters.) God hasn’t made it an important event in the calendar, and if it isn’t important to him…
Not only do I believe that celebrating the birth of Christ isn’t high on God’s agenda, I also believe that the way it’s been done goes very much against God’s ways. Taking over the date of a Pagan festival, using a whole load of customs which are Pagan in origin – no, that isn’t honouring to God.
So I say bah, humbug to putting up an evergreen and decorating it and saying: it’s all about Jesus. It reminds me too much of Aaron making that golden calf and everyone dancing around it and saying: this is our God who brought us out of Egypt.
I say bah, humbug to the cries of indignation about how non-Christians are celebrating on 25 December with overeating, over-spending, over-indulging in all sorts of way, and how it’s all got so commercial, as though they’ve hijacked a Christian festival and turned it into something else – sorry, but it’s the other way round, the church took over something that was already there and tacked a new meaning onto it, but that doesn’t give the church a right to dictate to non-Christians what they do on that day. They are simply continuing the ancient pre-Christian traditions. They were there first.
I say bah, humbug to “let’s put Christ back into Christmas” because the way I see it, he doesn’t belong there, it’s not his birthday anyway and a lot of the way it’s done is not honouring to him.
I say bah, humbug to “Jesus is the reason for the season” because it isn’t his birthday and because the reason this is considered a festive season is because of Pagan festivities.
I said a lot of the way it’s done isn’t honouring to Jesus – I don’t want to sound like I’m ignoring things like doing Bible readings about his birth, especially when combined with readings from prophecies about the birth of the Messiah. but is it honouring to him in the context of having Pagan-style decorations in the church, and singing songs which contain truth mixed with untruth (no, he wasn’t born in midwinter, he was very very probably born around September/October), and pretending it’s his birthday when it isn’t?
And how can people keep saying that the birth of Jesus is “what Christmas is all about” when most of what they do on the day has nothing to do with him? Ok, so you go to church and hear a short message which hopefully does say something about the significance of the birth of Jesus, but that’s usually it – I’ve been to several different Christian homes for Christmas, and I have yet to see any reference to Jesus apart from possibly saying grace before the meal. What do people usually do on Christmas? Give each other presents, eat turkey with “all the trimmings” followed by Christmas pudding (ok, this is the UK version, I expect there are different customs in different countries), open their Christmas crackers, put paper hats on and read out the jokes from the crackers, watch TV, play games, go for a walk – some perfectly nice and pleasant things (if you get on with your family) but in what way can any of this be described as “all about Jesus”???
In all my years in England I think the one and only time I did something on Christmas Day that could possibly be described as “all about Jesus” – but wasn’t, in my case, because I was doing it for totally different motives – was the year I went to help prepare and serve a festive meal to homeless people. In my case it wasn’t out of Christian charity but out of a fear of being on my own on the day, having recently come out of a 9-year relationship and being suddenly single. So I was there not out of love for the homeless people but serving my own need. But it is the sort of thing that could, if done for the right motives, be described as “all about Jesus”. Feeding the hungry, serving those who have very little and are often looked down on – I think that would be his thing. Not stuffing our faces with food, writing letters to Santa and wishing for the latest computer game or iSomething-or-other, watching TV or playing Pictionary – no, sorry, enjoy these things if you like but please do not stick Jesus onto it all as some kind of kosher stamp making it a Christian celebration. Apart from those Bible readings in church and hopefully the sermon and some parts of the carols, apart from those there is nothing in this that is about Jesus.
I have a Christian friend who spent the day on her own out of choice, and spent the day focusing on Jesus and his birth. I think that’s wonderful – but so very hard to do. As for me, I’ve given up on the whole thing, I just feel so appalled by so much of it, there is so much I’d need to sift out that I just don’t feel I can. And I don’t feel it’s necessary – because it isn’t God who says we should celebrate the birth of Christ.
p.s. So why did I disagree with those who suggested I could combine Christmas with Hanukkah? And why do such suggestions annoy me?
Hanukkah and Christmas don’t have anything in common except for being festivals celebrated in winter, and each having candle-lighting customs attached to it. And Haunukkah is a celebration of the rededication of God’s Temple, rededicating it to God after purifying it from the idolatrous stuff that the Greeks had brought in. Christmas as it is traditionally celebrated is so far from the concept of purity and holiness and getting rid of idolatrous stuff, I find it pretty horrible when people connect these two festivals. The Maccabbees risked their lives for the cleansing of the Temple from idols. I don’t think they’d want to be associated with a festival which incorporates Pagan symbols, or with people trying to suggest that it all doesn’t matter really.
p.p.s. But it’s such a great opportunity for evangelism, don’t you agree?
This is something I’ve heard a lot from Christians when they heard me rant about what I believe is wrong about Christmas. I see what you mean, they say, but it’s such a great opportunity for evangelism, it’s one time of the year when many non-Christians come to church and hear a Bible reading and hear a Christian message – and I do get what they’re saying, I used to see it that way too. But now I think: is it really such a good opportunity? is it really so great that the one time of the year these people turn up at church, that’s the one time when we’re mixing so much untruth in with the truth? is it really helpful that non-Christians come and hear a message telling them about the wonderful truth about Jesus coming to die for them, mixed with the pretence that this is his birthday? I don’t think the end justifies the means – though I recognise that God in his amazing grace and love and desire that no one should perish, does use these opportunities anyway. But that’s not a sign that he approves of what we’re doing – I’ve known God to get through to people about their need for salvation through all sorts of situations that he doesn’t approve of, it’s just that if he waited till we had everything sorted out he’d have a very long wait, so he reaches out and saves people despite our blunderings. So he does use these Christmas services to reach people, but I think he’d be able to reach people a lot better if the church recognised that this isn’t right and gave it up – I think people would then see something radical and honourable happening in the church and they’d be much more impressed.