(WDGR Lesson 11: “Beliefs and Customs That Displease God”)
Why do many individuals in Christendom celebrate birthdays and holidays when these customs originated in paganism? Since Jesus never commanded Christians to celebrate His birth, are Christmas celebrations condemned by God?
KAREN: Cindy, a friend of mine was telling me that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas, Easter, or birthdays because these “customs come from ancient false religions.”1.
CINDY: That’s right, Karen. Just as we’ll be studying today in the Watchtower brochure, What Does God Require of Us?, “Not all beliefs and customs are bad. But God does not approve of them if they come from false religion or are against Bible teachings.…Christmas and its customs come from ancient false religions. The same is true of Easter customs, such as the use of eggs and rabbits. The early Christians did not celebrate Christmas or Easter, nor do true Christians today.”2.
KAREN: Cindy, there are many things in our modern culture that are rooted in paganism. The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that names of the days of our week are “derived from Anglo-Saxon words for the gods of Teutonic mythology.”3. We also see traces of pagan origin in many of the symbols and artwork found in modern stationary, wallpaper, and decorative designs.4. Does this mean that we should separate ourselves into some kind of community where all traces of paganism have been carefully removed from our presence?
CINDY: Of course not, Karen. While it is impossible for us to be able to remove all aspects of paganism around us,5. the Bible says that Christians are to “flee from idolatry”6. and should have “…no part of the world.”7. “Jesus never commanded Christians to celebrate his birth. Rather, he told his disciples to memorialize, or remember, his death.…The custom of celebrating birthdays comes from ancient false religions.” You don’t want to displease Jehovah by participating in pagan customs do you?
KAREN: Cindy, do Jehovah’s Witnesses have bridesmaids, wear bridal veils, and exchange wedding rings during their wedding ceremonies?
KAREN: Did you know that many of these customs come from pagan beliefs and rituals? For example, the book Something Old, Something New—Ethnic Weddings in America notes that “Although for Americans covering the bride’s face with a veil has come to represent innocence and purity, the practice was originally used in other cultures as protection from harm or molestation and was one of many rituals adopted out of concern for the happiness, safety, and fertility of the bride and groom.…raised chairs, red carpets, special shoes and other forms of insulation or protection have been used to defend against malicious spirits on the ground.…The current Western practice of having a bridal party to attend the couple evolved from a Roman tradition, in which the bridesmaids and ushers dressed exactly like the bride and groom, to protect the wedding couple by confusing evil spirits.”8. The World Book Encyclopedia also notes that “The custom of giving a wedding ring dates back to the ancient Romans.…Wearing the wedding ring on the ring finger of the left hand is another old custom. People once thought that a vein or nerve ran directly from this finger to the heart.”9. Also, The Encyclopedia Americana reveals that “The wedding cake has its origins far back in time.…In Rome the early marriage rite was called conferreatio from the cake of wheat…which the couple first offered to the gods, then ate together.”10. Thus, the book A Short History of Marriage concludes “There is not a single point connected with marriage which is not shrouded in innumerable superstitions, some of them dating back to hoary antiquity.”11.
CINDY: Wow! I didn’t know that.
KAREN: Cindy, don’t you think it’s a bit hypocritical for Jehovah’s Witnesses to condemn the celebration of birthdays and holidays due to their pagan origin, while at the same time implementing marriage customs in their wedding ceremonies that are rooted in pagan idolatry?
CINDY: That’s a good point, Karen. But “Jesus never commanded Christians to celebrate his birth. Rather, he told his disciples to memorialize, or remember, his death.…The early Christians did not celebrate Christmas or Easter,” nor did they celebrate their birthdays.12.
KAREN: Cindy, did Jesus command us to celebrate our wedding anniversaries? What about the early Christians? Did they celebrate their anniversaries?
CINDY: Well, no.
KAREN: That’s right, Cindy. The Encyclopedia Americana notes that “The family practice of observing wedding anniversaries seems to have grown up in western Europe” around “the 17th century.”13. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses celebrate their anniversaries even though Jesus never commanded it, why does the Watchtower Society argue that it’s wrong to celebrate the birth of Christ simply because Jesus and the early Christians didn’t participate in this celebration?
CINDY: I don’t know, Karen. But “the only two birthday celebrations spoken of in the Bible were held by persons who did not worship Jehovah”14.and in both of those cases bad things happened. Since “Everything that is in the Bible is there for a reason.…Jehovah’s Witnesses take note that God’s Word reports unfavorably about birthday celebrations and so shun these.”15.
KAREN: Cindy, do Jehovah’s Witnesses celebrate the Jewish Hanukkah?
CINDY: Well, no. Why should they?
KAREN: If everything that is written in the Bible is written for a purpose, why don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses celebrate Hanukkah, since the Bible reports that Jesus celebrated it at John 10:22?16.
CINDY: Karen, that’s a good point. I don’t know why, but one thing the Bible is clear about is the fact that Christians should honor Jehovah God and shun creature worship. Since “birthday celebrations tend to give excessive importance to an individual,”17. this is why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not to celebrate their birthdays, but choose rather to “give gifts and have good times together at other times during the year.”18.
KAREN: Cindy, there is quite a difference between considering someone special and worshipping or idolizing them. If the celebration of one’s birthday is considered giving “excessive importance to an individual,” shouldn’t the celebration of one’s wedding anniversary likewise be considered the giving of “excessive importance” to one’s spouse? Don’t you think such reasoning is inconsistent?
CINDY: Well, I guess you’re right, Karen.
KAREN: Cindy, I think we would be wise to apply the advice that the Watchtower Society gave in the Awake! article of January 8, 2000. In that article, entitled “A Balanced View of Popular Customs,” the Society noted, “Customs have been profoundly influenced by religion. Many, in fact, arose from old superstitions and non-Biblical religious ideas.…But what about customs that may once have been linked to questionable practices but that today are primarily viewed as social etiquette?”19. The Society went on to say, “…Does this mean that Christians are forbidden to observe such customs? …Although there may be reason to examine the origin of a particular custom, in some cases it is more important to consider what the custom means to people at the time and in the place where one now lives.”20. Cindy, why don’t we apply this advice from the Watchtower Society. How many people today even know about the pagan origin of Christmas, Easter, and birthday celebrations—much less believe they are worshipping pagan gods by engaging in such activities? Don’t you think these customs have lost their pagan significance and just as this article noted, should be evaluated in light of the time and place where we “now” live?
Friends, The Bible reveals that many of the early Christians were allowed to celebrate all of the Jewish religious festivals and national holidays even after the coming of Christ and the abolition of the Law of Moses. Paul at Romans 14:5-6 encouraged individual freedom on this issue by stating: “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord….”21. And at Colossians 2:16-17, the Bible states: “Let no man therefore judge you…in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”22.
1. What Does God Require of Us?, 1996, pp. 22-23
2. What Does God Require of Us?, p. 22:1, 3
3. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 12, 1998, p. 555
4. Awake! December 22, 1976, p. 12
5. Awake! December 22, 1976, p. 15
6. 1 Corinthians 10:14, New World Translation
7. John 17:16, New World Translation
8. Something Old, Something New—Ethnic Weddings in America, (Philadelphia, PA: The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, 1987), p. 8
9. The World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 13, 2000, p. 221
10. The Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 28, 1999, p. 565
11. A Short History of Marriage, by Ethel L. Urlin, (Detroit Singing Tree Press, 1969), p. 201
12. What Does God Require of Us?, p. 22:3, 4
13. The Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 28, 1999, p . 564
14. What Does God Require of Us?, p. 22:4
15. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985, 1989ed, p. 68-69
16. See Illustrated Manners And Customs of the Bible, J.I. Paker, M.C. Tenney, editors (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980), p. 409
17. School and Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1983, p. 18
18. What Does God Require of Us?, p. 22:4
19. Awake!, January 8, 2000, pp. 26-27
20. (emphasis in the original) Awake!, January 8, 2000, pp. 26-27
21. New American Standard Bible
22. King James Version