Life Hope & Truth

Holy Days vs. Holidays

Why aren’t most traditional religious holidays mentioned in the Bible? Paradoxically, why haven’t many heard of the holy days the Bible tells us to keep?

It seems like everyone loves the holidays! They provide such special times for families to get together. They are times for keeping special family traditions going year after year. This is especially true of the period of time surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song goes.

Then there is Easter, to which many attach a deeply religious meaning. But are its traditions and customs biblical? What do colored eggs and chocolate rabbits have to do with the supposed meaning of the day?

Why can’t we find specific instructions about the careful observance of Christmas and Easter in the pages of the Bible? One would think such important celebrations would be a major part of the teaching of the New Testament Church. But the Bible does not teach their observance. The Bible teaches seven meaningful holy days, but not the major holidays celebrated today. 

The reality is that the Bible forbids the observance of holidays like Christmas and Easter that have their origin centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ! Let’s examine holy days vs. holidays.

Holidays have ancient pre-Christian origins

Does this surprise you? It shouldn’t. Every year the newspapers and Internet are filled with articles describing the intriguing details of how the customs and traditions surrounding Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day and Halloween began in ancient pagan rituals. A search of several older reference works will show these facts have been known for many years!

In the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911 edition, under the heading “Christmas,” you will find: “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. … The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt.” And: “Pagan customs centering around the January calends [the first day of the month in the ancient Roman calendar] gravitated to Christmas.”

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1946 edition, has this: “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church. It was not instituted by Christ or the apostles, or by Bible authority. It was picked up afterward from paganism.”

Encyclopedia Americana, 1944 edition, says: “Christmas, according to many authorities, was not celebrated in the first centuries of the Christian church, as the Christian usage in general was to celebrate the death of remarkable persons rather than their birth. A feast was established in memory of this event (Christ’s birth) in the fourth century. In the fifth century the Western Church ordered it to be celebrated forever on the day of the old Roman feast of the birth of Sol, as no certain knowledge of the day of Christ’s birth existed.”

The history of Christmas

Notice that? These recognized historical authorities show Christmas was not observed by Christians for the first 200 or 300 years after the life, ministry and death of Christ—a period of many generations after the establishment of the Church on the Day of Pentecost. Clearly we see there is no biblical justification for the observance of Christmas.

So where did Christmas come from? William Walsh provides some of the historical origins of Christmas in his book The Story of Santa Klaus: “We remember that the Christmas festival … is a gradual evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period. ... It was overlaid upon heathen festivals, and many of its observances are only adaptations of pagan [ceremonies]” (1970, p. 58).

Reporter Jeffery Sheler noted, “So tarnished, in fact, was its reputation in colonial America that celebrating Christmas was banned in Puritan New England, where the noted minister Cotton Mather described yuletide merry-making as ‘an affront unto the grace of God’” (“In Search of Christmas,” U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 23, 1996, p. 56).

Imagine that! Early New England settlers actually banned the celebration of Christmas! The Puritans fined anyone who celebrated Christmas. Spending just a brief amount of time in research, one can quickly see that practically every tradition associated with Christmas originated in pre-Christian pagan ritual practices.

What about Easter?

But what about Easter? Isn’t it biblically based, depicting the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Again, we find the same result. If you research Easter customs, you will find that many of them are based on ancient fertility symbols.

Have you ever stopped to question why bunnies and colorful eggs are so closely linked to the commemoration of the death and resurrection of the Savior of mankind? Perhaps it’s time we did just that—ask questions.

What we see is a combination of biblical themes with the pagan traditions of ages past. This is called syncretism. Notice this definition of syncretize: “To attempt to unite and harmonize especially without critical examination or logical unity” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition).

Many people will acknowledge that this practice of syncretism played a part in the expansion of Christianity through making it more appealing to pagans. Some think, so what if some of our customs and traditions surrounding cherished holidays have pagan or non-Christian origins? Why does that really matter if one’s intention is to worship God through these various customs? Many would claim that these “quaint” customs only enhance the celebration and make it fun for the family.

Let’s look at that carefully because a great deal rides on how that question is answered.

Holy days vs. holidays: What does the Bible say?

Christianity is based on the Bible. What does the Bible say about holidays and customs? God warned His people not to seek to learn how other nations worshipped their pagan gods: “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31).

Notice this reference that bears resemblance to the modern Christmas tree in Jeremiah 10:2-5: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves.’”

This description of an ancient pagan worship of idols, with parallels to the modern Christmas tree custom, helps establish a critical premise from Scripture: God’s people are not to learn the ways of people who do not worship Him.

Some might respond “Yes, but that was thousands of years ago and that really doesn’t apply to New Testament Christianity, does it?” Consider what Christ said in Matthew 15:9: “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

Worshipping God on His holy days

Is it possible that our cultures, intending to honor Christ by celebrating the supposed dates of His birth and resurrection, are doing it all in vain? The Bible enlightens us with God’s instruction to avoid the traditions and customs that are rooted in non-Christian cultures.

Does this mean all religious holidays and festivals are offensive to God?

By no means! We find repeated commands to keep the Sabbath and the holy days as outlined in Leviticus 23. These observances are proclaimed as “the feasts of the LORD” to be proclaimed throughout all generations. John 7 describes Jesus Christ teaching at the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles. Luke 22 shows that Christ and His disciples kept the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. If the Bible is our guide to the observance of religious holidays, the conclusion becomes clear.

Still, so many people seem to get so much pleasure out of celebrating Christmas and Easter and other traditional holidays. “I only do it for the sake of the children” is a popular reason given to observe these days despite the clear biblical instruction against them. “It’s the only time we get all the family together.” “God wouldn’t want me to keep my family from all these joyous holiday festivities and traditions, would He?”

But what will be our guide for living? God’s words or our own logic?

Jesus’ own words are direct: “‘For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men. …’ He said to them, ‘All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition’” (Mark 7:8-9). Paul chimes in with his letter to Colossae: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

What else can we say? What decision do we make?

Did you know that many people have chosen not to observe these religious holidays? A little research reveals that many of our traditional religious holidays are nothing but cleverly crafted remakes of ancient rituals disguised as “Christian.”

This is not necessarily true of nonreligious holidays frequently observed in nations around the world. Observances similar to the American holidays of Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day are not intended to be religious holidays and can be acceptable to celebrate.

Also, the Jewish holidays of Purim and Hanukkah were established to give thanks to God, just as the American and Canadian Thanksgiving days are. Though some modern customs of these days may not be pleasing to God, they are not rooted in paganism and do not subvert any of the truths presented in the festivals of God.

What will a true disciple of Christ do?

Holy days vs. holidays? Does it really matter what religious days we celebrate? Why not look into it and prove it for yourself? Maybe you will be shocked by what the Bible actually teaches!

For additional information, check out the other helpful articles in this section and download the free booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.