It happens every year. There is a buzz, a sense of anticipation that something special is about to happen. Almost overnight, stores, homes, and street corners are transformed by lights and garlands. In some countries, kids leave their shoes by the fireplace. In others, people flock to malls to have their children take pictures with a man in a red suit.
All of it is in anticipation of Christmas Day. Even some people with no religious affiliation have been known to celebrate Christmas.
For the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, Christmas is just another day. Why is it that this religious group, despite its origination in Christianity, wants nothing to do with a celebration of the birth of Jesus?
What Is Christmas?
Christmas means different things to different people. Various countries have their own customs. Some people focus on secular traditions like Santa Claus or mistletoe. Others embrace the religious traditions such as the celebration of Advent and candlelit worship services. So what exactly is Christmas?
According to Christians, it is a commemoration of the Incarnation, the moment when the eternal God became a human being in the person of Jesus. The season begins with Advent, which celebrates the coming of the Messiah, and ends with Epiphany, which commemorates the revelation of Jesus as God in the flesh.1
Beyond its religious significance, Christmas has a complicated backstory. After all, nowhere in the Bible is a date given for Jesus’ birth. The Eastern Church, which uses a different calendar, celebrates it on a different day. Many popular traditions can be traced to pagan celebrations.2 Throughout history, some have embraced Christmas, some have secularized it, and others, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have rejected it altogether.
The Case Against Christmas
The Jehovah’s Witnesses avoid many practices found in mainstream culture. They specifically prohibit annual celebrations, such as Christmas, national holidays, and birthdays.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, their abstinence from holidays flows out of a desire to worship Jehovah in a proper manner. They point to the story of the golden calf—in which the Israelites constructed an idol to worship, dishonoring and disobeying God in the process—stating that Christians have committed a similar sin by recognizing annual celebrations.
According to Witness literature, “after the death of the apostles, who acted as a restraint against apostasy, so-called Christians who had no love of truth began to adopt pagan customs, celebrations, and ‘holy’ days, which they dubbed Christian.”3 They believe all such “worldly celebrations . . . reflect, not the spirit of God, but that of the world . . . [and share] a common theme: They appeal to fleshly desires and they promote false religious beliefs and spiritism.”4
Besides their general dismissal of celebrations, Witnesses take issue with Christmas specifically. Four of their arguments against the holiday include:
- Christmas is “sun worship renamed.”5 They note how ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, in late December.
- Christmas ritualizes sinful behaviors. Saturnalia celebrations included heavy drinking, cross-dressing, and gift giving.6 Likewise, Jehovah’s Witnesses point out, Christmas can lead to over-drinking. Moreover, the giving of gifts is made compulsory rather than spontaneous, which they feel makes the process much less biblical as it is “tied to a date” and givers often expect gifts in return.7
- Jesus’ birth was not in December. Always eager to incorporate proof texts from the Bible, Witnesses point out that the text does not suggest any particular date for Christmas. They argue that since the story of the shepherds takes place outside in fields, it is unlikely that Jesus was born in December.8
- The star said to have led the Magi came from Satan. Witnesses note that the Wise Men were likely pagan astrologers, who therefore “engaged in a practice condemned by the Holy Scriptures.”9 Moreover, the star led the Magi first to King Herod, “a mortal enemy of the Messiah,” and then to Jesus in Bethlehem, “thus placing Jesus’ life in danger.”10 According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, “These facts give evidence that the star was from an evil source, most likely Satan the Devil.”11
It is important to note that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not alone in their avoidance of Christmas. In an effort to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Church, seventeenth-century Puritans referred to the holiday as “trappings of popery and rags of the beast.”12 Over the centuries, it has been condemned by various Christian groups, such as Methodists, the Quakers, the Amish, Presbyterians, and Baptists.13
Putting on Flesh
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” wrote John in his gospel. He refers to the moment when Jesus, whom Christians believe is God, became a human being.14
Theologians describe this moment as the Incarnation, which literally means “putting on flesh.” Christians believe that the all-powerful God became a walking, talking, flesh-and-blood person. God came and lived among real people at a certain time. He used their language, culture, and traditions to show how much he loved them.
Throughout history, Christians continued to find new ways to express and celebrate God’s love through the customs of their surrounding culture. One champion for this process was Pope Gregory the Great. In a letter written in 601 to a missionary to Britain, Pope Gregory “recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs.”15
Modern missionaries Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost call this being “incarnational.” They argue that instead of expecting nonbelievers to come to them to learn about Jesus, a Christian should “seep into the cracks and crevices of a society in order to be Christ to those who don’t yet know him.”16
Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose Christmas because of its ties to paganism; to them, it is a worldly celebration that should be avoided. For those who embrace Christmas, it is a deeply meaningful religious experience and an opportunity to express—via the tools that culture provides—who God is and what he did through Jesus.
Dealing with the issue of holidays, the Apostle Paul summed up the Christian stance quite nicely: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”17
God never asks people to go against their conscience and do something they consider wrong. So should people celebrate Christmas? That’s between you and your conscience.
- In Western Christianity, Epiphany generally focuses on the visit of the Magi to the newborn Jesus. Within Eastern Christianity, the celebration emphasizes Jesus’ baptism by John.
- Cherie D. Abbey, ed., “Christmas: December 25,” in Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 4th ed. (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2009),149.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, “Celebrations that Displease God,” Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY, http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1102008072.
- Abbey, “Saturnalia,” 648–649.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, “Celebrations that Displease God.”
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, “What Kind of Star Led the ‘Wise Men’ to Jesus?” Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY,” last modified 2013, http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/102009446?q=wise.
- Chris Durston, “Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas 1642-60,” History Today 35 (1985), http://www.historytoday.com/chris-durston/lords-misrule-puritan-war-christmas-1642-60.
- Heather Clark, “Truth or Tradition? Christians Who Don’t Celebrate Christmas,” Christian News Network, December 22, 2012, http://christiannews.net/2012/12/22/truth-or-tradition-christians-who-dont-celebrate-christmas/.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 1:1, 14.
- Andrew McGowan, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Bible History Daily, December 7, 2012, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/.
- Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 25.
- The Holy Bible, Romans 14:5.
- Photo Credit: Cara Slifka / Stocksy.com.