Now that the holiday season is over and life is back to normal, I believe it is time to consider this question: what should Adventists do with Christmas? In this two-part article I will present some thoughts to ponder regarding Christmas.
We know that Christmas is a time people associate with Jesus’ birth and thus we have an opportunity to turn people’s minds to the true story of Jesus’ birth. They also turn their attention to His life, His reason for coming to earth, and His death. Much of Adventism (I’d like to say most but I don’t have the statistics) seems to be comfortable celebrating Christmas.
There are pockets of resistance (the Polish Adventists of my parents’ generation who migrated to Australia being one group – more about that later), however they seem to be few and far between. Many Adventist churches throughout the world have a Christmas or nativity-themed service on the Sabbath closest to December 25. Children (and adults) act out the story of Joseph and Mary travelling on a donkey, giving birth in a barn among the animals, and laying the baby Jesus in the manger. Some even put on large, elaborate displays for the public (eg Road to Bethlehem).
We know that Christmas is also full of other traditions, ones which have nothing to do with the Bible. Adventists who object to the celebration of Christmas like to point out the pagan origins of many of the traditions and symbolism surrounding Christmas – Babylonian, Roman, Norse/Germanic. And then there are the modern-day insertions such as houses decorated with lights, Santa Claus, Rudolf the red-nosed Reindeer, etc., and of course the commercialism seen in the push to spend significant sums of money on gifts.
But we’re trying to draw people’s attention to Jesus, and the world is thinking of Jesus at this time, so shouldn’t we celebrate Christmas in some way? The problem with doing this is that there are two separate celebrations going on around the time we call “Christmas”. I would like to call them story A and story B.
Story A: The Biblical story of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.
Story B: Everything else – Santa Claus, reindeer, snow, Christmas trees, holly, ivy, presents around the tree, you name it.
And the problem we have as Adventists is that these two celebrations have been conflated together into one big celebration called “Christmas.” Those not familiar with the biblical story may find separating fact from fiction a difficult task. They simply see all these things as “Christmas”, which is why many simply see it as a tradition they get involved in every year and don’t think too hard about the details. They get together with family, have a nice meal and enjoy the fun and the decorations, and for the Adventists, their conscience is clear because they know deep down it is all about “Jesus” (or is it?). Forget for the moment that Jesus wasn’t born on or around December 25. That’s only a minor consideration.
When we celebrate Christmas, what is it exactly that we are celebrating? Luckily, there is a principle which says that actions speak louder than words. The answer to this question should be made plain by carefully examining every individual activity we get involved in and asking at each step “are we celebrating story A or story B”?
If we put up a Christmas tree in our house, decorate it and place presents underneath it, is that story A or story B? How about Santa Claus? A or B? Buying presents for our children? A or B? Reindeer and snowmen? A or B? If we decorate the place with the customary green and red colours is that coming from story A or story B?
I encourage anyone who involves themselves in Christmas in any way to make a detailed list of all the individual activities they participate in and tally up the numbers for stories A and B. This should reveal to us where we really stand on the matter.
If we were truly celebrating the birth of Jesus, what would be the acceptable maximum number of B items in the list? A low percentage or zero perhaps? However, if B items outnumber A items (as I suspect is the case most of the time) then it is high time we repeat that famous line purportedly spoken by Apollo 13 astronaut John Swigert, “Houston, we have a problem”. And we have a problem indeed, for our list has made it clear what it is we are actually celebrating. (If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck….)
The celebration of Christmas in much of the world today can best be described as religious syncretism. Syncretism is the blending of religious beliefs, practices or schools of thought. Syncretism is what Israel had practiced throughout much of its history. At Mt Sinai, when Aaron had fashioned the golden calf, he said to the people “These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex 32:4). This was syncretism. Note that they were still prepared to worship the god/gods who brought them up out of Egypt, just that they wanted to do it according to the pagan ways they were used to in Egypt. We can see this in what they did next.
Aaron declared a feast to the Lord, and “they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” The word which is translated “play” is the same word used to describe how Isaac and Rebekah were “sporting” or “frolicking” (or flirting), which is why Abimelech said to Isaac: “She isn’t your sister, she’s your wife and I can tell because of how you behave around each other. Such behaviour is only acceptable between a married couple, so why did you tell me she’s your sister?” (Gen 26:9 (author’s paraphrase)). Some “feast to the Lord” it must have been.
When Moses and Joshua approached the camp they heard “the noise of war” and saw the people dancing around the calf. Was this an appropriate way to worship the God who had brought them out of Egypt? Can we worship God any way we choose as long as we believe we are worshiping Him? Can we mix pagan and traditional elements in with our worship of God as long as we do it in good faith? Is God pleased when we mix up unbiblical elements in our worship service? How does the history of Israel throughout the Old Testament play out?
By celebrating the birth of Christ at Christmas, but making it look--for all intents and purposes--exactly the same as the way the rest of the world celebrates their syncretistic “Christmas”, are we not in fact saying “This is thy God, O Adventists, which has brought you up out of Egypt”?Are we then sitting down to eat and drink (with family) and rising up to play (with the children and the presents), just as it was in the time of Moses?
Even the religious aspects of the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas time need to be examined carefully. In our Christmas church services, do we receive solid spiritual food, or is it simply an excuse to “do something Christmassy”, for the kids to have some fun dressing up as wise men and donkeys, for the adults to be involved in drama, for everyone to have a good laugh? For me personally this is one of my biggest gripes at this time of year. I have been known to say after the service, “now I will go home and watch a sermon on the internet and get some real spiritual food.” Have we become so used to being entertained that the church service is just another source of entertainment--and what better time than Christmas?
How about Christmas carols? If the carols are about Jesus then why not sing them? I don’t have a problem with singing biblically correct carols about Jesus. We do, however, need to examine whether all the religious carols are biblically correct, or whether they contain elements of Catholicism or other traditions. Let’s take “We Three Kings” for example. How biblical is it? Where do the three kings appear in the Bible? The Bible speaks of the Magi (wise men) who visited Jesus but says nothing about them being kings, nor of there being three of them. Other carols have some vague connection to “Jesus” but are so far removed from the biblical story as to be fanciful (e.g., The Little Drummer Boy). True, we don’t sing it in church but we do often hear and sing it in other settings. I believe that it’s not OK to worship God by singing something vaguely about Him if it isn’t true and contains elements sourced from Catholicism, paganism, mythology, or the inventive minds of modern songwriters.
But the real problem with carols comes when religious carols are interspersed with secular carols. How can we sit in the crowd and sing and enjoy Christmas carols when we sing about Christ the King one minute and Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer the next? It puts the two on an equal footing, making out the story of Christ to be a fable on par with the story of Rudolf. This is where Christmas is most dangerous, particularly for the children. It fails to help them distinguish truth from error; rather it blends the two and puts them on an equal footing.
Parents enjoy seeing their kids thrilled anticipating Santa Claus come and deliver presents. Some add to their children’s excitement by making it appear all the more real, making reindeer footprints, leaving biscuits and milk out for Santa, or leaving partially eaten reindeer food lying around. In this way, they are perpetuating a lie, and this leads society to believe that lying is OK sometimes, if there is a good reason for it, which obviously includes having fun with children. Try informing children that Santa Claus is not real and see what reception you get (from the parents). How can we help children to learn to distinguish between fact and fantasy and between truth and error when we go against it in our Christmas practices? And in all of this Christ becomes no more (and often far less) important than Santa Claus and Rudolf, because at least the latter are fun and bring back happy memories, whereas the former is boring.
But Ellen White told us we can put up a Christmas tree in church, so it must be OK? Hold on, not so fast! Let us read what Ellen White actually wrote in Part 2.
Leopold Hamulczyk, B. Pharm., is a Pharmacist residing in Australia. He is also an elder at his local church in Bairnsdale, Victoria, and preaches occasionally there and in nearby churches. Together with his wife he is passionate about running evangelistic missions in the Philippines and elsewhere as God calls.