Jeremiah 10:1-5 (ESV)
Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
Chapter 10 in Jeremiah is a satire on idolatry. Jeremiah specifically speaks to the folly of customs that become idols. Perhaps the Puritans of Massachusetts were onto such a pitfall when they banned Christmas in 1659. They feared that its festivities would be idolized and Christ would become an afterthought. The group questioned the origins of the holiday. Could they foresee Black Friday in America? Could they imagine hordes of people trampling on each other for highly sought material at bargain prices? At least one silver lining this year is that COVID-19 prevented American mobs from attacking storefronts at Walmart and other retailers.
William Bradford, Plymouth Colony’s second governor and a signatory to the Mayflower Compact, was markedly opposed to the holiday. Well before the 1659 ban, Bradford wrote that he tried hard to stamp out the “pagan mockery” of the Christmas observance. To many colonial settlers, Christ was sacred. They contended that activities involving human-centeredness would be a distraction from the Savior. Essentially, the holiday’s frills ”would be the idol” as the traditions were created by pagans.
New England’s devout Puritans were indeed familiar with the festivities of their home country, Great Britain. In the mother country, Christmas generally ran from late November through early January and was associated with heavy drinking and “merriment.” The colonial settlers wanted to shed those traditions in favor of what they considered true worship of the Lord.
Trees Borrowed from Pagans
The first Christmas tree in America was displayed by German settlers in the 1830’s. The tree was not widely accepted by Americans at the time because it was viewed as a pagan symbol. Decorated evergreens were used to celebrate winter solstice well before being incorporated into Christmas.
The verses in Jeremiah 10:1-5 are often used to point out the pagan beginnings of adorned trees. In conjunction, Christmas tree detractors note that the Egyptians and Romans decorated trees prior to the birth of Christianity. On the other side of the argument, opponents state that the passage is clearly about the construction of idols, not decorated trees. Regardless of the interpretation, in 2020 we can ask ourselves, “Has the tree become an idol that supersedes the Messiah?” Furthermore, “What is the true spirit of customs associated with the December 25th holiday?”
Holiday of Excess
In total, Americans spent just over 1 trillion dollars on Christmas in 2019. On average, each American household burned $1,500 on Christmas cheer. After all, “happiness” does not come with a price tag. Grandparents openly state that it is their job to ”spoil their grandchildren.” And for very young children, the fictitious Santa Claus will make dreams come true if they have been “good.”
For the vast majority of Americans, Christ is not a part of the holiday equation. Like most man-made traditions, the focus is on vanity. Excessive gift giving and receiving have become hallmarks of the American Christmas holiday. The Season is a commercial bonanza, driving up stock prices and bonuses as money chases the newest electronics, clothing, and toys.
The Christ Follower and Christmas
As we think about what the Christmas holiday represents in 2020, it’s easy to lose focus on Christ. The tradition is truly a worldly and carnal enterprise. The setting in which Jesus was born is far removed from its excess. Our Savior came into the world in an inconspicuous place and was laid in an animal feeding trough (manger). Jesus gave up His position to save men. In Philippians 2:6-8, the Apostle Paul states, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross.”
For Christ followers, approaching the Christmas holiday with humility and thankfulness is the right mindset. Focusing on the Advent season is the antithesis of our culture’s winter activities. We may have decorations in our homes, but unless we devote this time to worshipping Jesus, it’s all just a pagan exercise. Likewise, if we do not live for the Lord throughout the entire year, the holiday does not serve as a serious spiritual marker for the birth of Christ.
Our commitment is to spend this time contemplating the indescribable gift that God has given us in Jesus Christ. This gift is conveyed in 2 Corinthians 9:15. Christ followers should engage Christmas pointing to Christ and serving others in some meaningful way. Let us be the light. Let us distinguish ourselves from the world’s patterns and habits.
So, is Christmas a spiritual marker or a pagan holiday? The answer lies with the individual and his or her relationship with Jesus Christ.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
2 Corinthians 9:15
Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross.
1 John 5:21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.