Let’s Not Get Strange About Christmas, Shall We?
Posted on December 23, 2017 by Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD
When I was a kid, and there were still knights in shining armor, Maid Marian was kid Marian, Robin hadn’t gotten his hood, and the Sheriff of Nottingham was just learning to think scurrilous thoughts, no one ever said, “It’s just not biblical to celebrate Christmas, and Jesus wasn’t born in December anyway! He was born on Sukkot!” At that time, pretty much everyone realized that December 25 was just a time when it was traditional for many to celebrate the birth of Jesus, although the Eastern Church does so on January 6.
Nowadays, though, I occasionally run into people for whom this is a BIG deal. Not only is celebrating His birth on “the right day” considered important, and not only are arguments about Sukkot being for sure the right time zealously championed, but celebrating Christmas according to the church calendar is rejected as if rooted in the Whore of Babylon, something from which we must all come out.
This kind of discussion appeals to some people, and is even of interest academically. That is fine. The problem is when we find people for whom a pet date for Yeshua’s birth is a non-negotiable article of faith, obliging the enlightened to correct or reject those who don’t hold to that date, while judging them to be, if not simply misinformed, then surely deceived, and indifferent to the contaminating effects of grieving God with their unbiblical calendar.
To which I say, HOLD IT!
Now for starters, I am not big on Christmas. I don’t have a tree, don’t wear a Santa Claus suit, don’t have a creche, and don’t conduct an inquisition about over who does and does not do these things. But I will say this: whenever people get nostril-flaringly adamant about this day, that day, or the other, I get the creeps.
And of course we all know that Paul reminds us not to get all steamed up over such things (see Romans 14:5, for example), but that is not my line of argument here. My concern is over what kinds of communities we are forming.
Here’s the problem.
When we form communities that get hot and bothered over the right day to celebrate the birth of Messiah, especially when they view those who disagree with them to be defectors from the True Faith, or to be defective in some manner; when we have people who pride themselves on being “more biblical than thou” on such matters; when we form communities fixated on such issues, we are very much in danger of creating sectarian looney bins, marginal groups for marginal people, which will attract no one but the religiously fixated. But don’t believe me: ask yourself: What kinds of people are such hyper-intense religiously preoccupied groups likely to attract? Will such groups attract normal Jewish people who see modeled for them sane and balanced Jewish community that honors Yeshua as Messiah? Will these groups attract healthy everyday people? Or won’t they rather attract the religiously fixated looking for an elite religion?
The answers are not only obvious: they should concern us greatly because they point to reasons why our movement fails to win the respect, interest, and faith of many Jews. Am I wrong? I wish I were!
Here is how I would quickly refute this date-preoccupied mentality. Those who feel that it is crucial that we not celebrate Christmas because it is a pagan-rooted holiday should immediately forsake the common calendar, because the names of the months are all modeled after pagan gods, like January, which is named after the Roman god, Janus. Furthermore, such people must as soon as possible also forsake using the names of the days, because all of them are pagan too. No more Monday because that is Moonday, etc. Are any of you prepared to live this way? And will people flock to your gates because you are so compellingly “biblical?”
This whole preoccupation with avoiding “the pagan roots of Christmas” is based on what is termed the genetic fallacy–that something should and may be fairly evaluated on the basis of its origin. This is FALSE. Things should be evaluated on the basis of their use, not their origin. The Star Spangled Banner’s melody was taken from a pagan themed song which said “entwined (is) the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.” And Wikipedia reminds us that “the song (titled ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’), through its bawdy lyrics, gained popularity in London and elsewhere.” Now obviously we can’t continue to sing the Star Spangled Banner because of its pagan roots. Then, if we practice the genetic fallacy, we should, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, cease having birthday parties, because the only birthdays celebrated in the Bible are those of pagan kings.
The ultimate disproof of the genetic fallacy is Solomon’s Temple, which was built on the floor plan of Phoenician temples where children were sacrificed to idols to the sound of pipes and drums (remember Solomon had the aid of Phoenician builders). Yet the Temple was a place where God was pleased to manifest His presence over the Mercy Seat because it is use rather than origin which determines something’s sanctity or lack of it.
And here’s another refutation. Most of us are big on celebrating the seventh day sabbath. But suppose we ran across scholarly arguments “proving” that the world began on a Tuesday, and that therefore the seventh day would be a Monday. Would that rightly result in people bailing out on Saturday as shabbat because it wasn’t biblical? Would that rightly result in groups splitting off and beginning to celebrate the true and biblical seventh day sabbath, from sudown Sunday to sundown Monday? I sure hope not. I hope we all agree that the key here is that the sabbath should be celebrated, NOT that if you’ve got the day wrong nothing else counts.
Now I am not ridiculing or minimizing the right of people to have convictions on which day is best for the celebration of Messiah’s birth. Each should be persuaded in his/her own mind, and is more than entitled to his/her own convictions. In fact, some of the arguments about the Sukkot date sound pretty convincing, and the shepherds certainly weren’t tending their flocks by night in the fields in December! That is a good point!
But when we become nostril-flaringly adamant about such things, when we patronize or denounce others whom we deem to be “less biblical” or less pure than ourselves, when we derive a sense of the rightness of our group because of our championing of such issues; when we become distressed over whether we’ve got the absolutely “right” position on these things, then we are very much in danger of becoming sectarian and even borderline cultic. Under such influences, the Messianic Movement would become an even more marginal movement, to be judged the lunatic fringe by most balanced people, including the Jewish people who are supposedly of special concern to us.
So have your convictions. But please don’t major in the minors, because doing so brings no health or blessing to anyone.
But more to the point, it looks downright strange. Even to God.