"Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people" (Acts 12:1-4)
The Christian world celebrates two holidays they consider to be holy days - Christmas and Easter. One commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ and the other remembers His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave. While it is understandable why we would want to do this, yet there is no commandment in the Bible that requires us to keep these holidays nor is there any indication in the Bible that Christ wanted us to.
Furthermore, the word "Christmas" does not appear in the Bible at all and the word "Easter" appears only once in the verse just quoted from the King James Version, but this is a mistranslation. In the Greek, the word is "pascha," which is the equivalent of the Hebrew word "persach" meaning "Passover." And, in deed, all modern Bibles translate Acts 12:4 as "Passover" rather than "Easter."
Because of this, there are some churches who teach that Christians should not participate in celebrating either Christmas or Easter because it is unbiblical. In addition to this they contend that such holidays are pagan in origin and are therefore unchristian in nature. Then, if Christmas and Easter are not mentioned in the Bible, which is supposed to be our sole guide in all spiritual matters, and they have their roots in pagan worship, why do so many Christian faiths observe these two holidays?
Before we can understand the answer to this question we first need to understand the history of the early Christian Church.
As prescribed by the law of Moses, the Passover was celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. In association with that law, prior to the day of Passover, a fast was to be held beginning on the tenth day of Nisan and ending with the eating of the paschal lamb on the fourteenth of Nisan (Exodus 12:6). In the beginning, the Christian faith was a Jewish religion and, as such, the Jewish saints kept the Passover. However, instead of it representing how the angel of death passed over the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt, it was a time to remember Jesus as our paschal lamb who saved us from the angel of eternal death because of His atonement for our sins.
However, after the death of the apostles, especially as more and more Gentiles became members of Christ's church, an argument arose among the saints over which day to celebrate the Passover in commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection and there were several points of contention on this issue. The first was that since the Passover was always celebrated on the fourteenth of Nisan, this date could fall on any day of the week. However, Jesus died on Friday and rose from the grave on Sunday. Therefore, it didn't make sense to many Gentiles to celebrate Christ's death or resurrection on a Monday or Tuesday, or any other day except Sunday or perhaps Friday. However, there were others who argued that since the apostles had always observed the Passover on the fourteenth of Nisan, then so should all Christians.
The second problem that arose was that while over time more Gentiles became converted to Christianity, the number of Jewish Christians actually kept decreasing. Therefore, what started out as a Jewish faith soon became almost an exclusively Gentile religion. Therefore, some argued that there was no need for Christians to continue keeping a Jewish holiday.
But there was a more serious reason for not observing the Jewish feast of Passover and that was that the Jews as a people were becoming more and more despised by the general public. Therefore, the Gentile Christians sought to present themselves to the world as being a non-Jewish religion. Even though Jesus and the apostles were Jews, the Church as a whole began to down played that aspect of their faith and instead preached how Jesus died to save all of mankind.
It wasn't until around 325 A.D. that the Church finally settled on Sunday as the day to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ, which day ended a fast that began four days earlier. It was also during this time that the Church became a state-approved religion under the Emperor, Constantine, and they took advantage of that status to increase their missionary work. Of course, that meant converting people from their worship of many pagan gods to worshipping just one God, Jesus Christ. However, old habits are hard to break and what the Church discovered was that after people became converted to Christianity they continued to practice their former pagan rituals along with their new-found Christian ceremonies.
This was not unusual because the same thing happened in the earliest days of the Church. Several times the apostle Paul addressed the problem of the saints eating meat that was offered to pagan idols and it appears that at least some of the Gentile saints in Corinth were continuing to fellowship with those who worshipped Belial and perhaps were even still attending the pagan temples. That is why Paul wrote to them saying, "what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing" (2 Corinthians 6:15-17).
However, in the fourth century the Church decided to take a different approach to combating this problem. Instead of forbidding the observance of pagan customs, they merely converted their meaning into teaching Christian principles. For example, the oldest of all pagan gods is that of the sun. Since the sun produces light and since the scriptures refer to Jesus as the light of the world, the Church merely changed the name of the pagan sun God to the name of the Son of God.
But there were a number of other Christian principles associated with the sun. From the time of the ancient Egyptians, people understood the sun's power to produce life. They were well aware that as winter approached and the days became longer that plants stopped growing and hence the food supply became low. Some cultures taught that unless they pleaded in prayer with offerings to the sun god that the daylight hours would become shorter and shorter until there was no sunlight at all and therefore no food. Other cultures understood that the days would start to become longer around December 21st so they celebrated the lengthening of daylight hours at this time of the year.
In the same vein, when spring arrived, it was also a time of joy and celebration as flowers began to bloom and nature began to awaken from its long winter rest. Since most people in ancient times imagined that all of these things were the result of divine activity, they invented gods to whom they attributed these events. For example, Spring was usually thought to be the activity of the god of fertility because things in nature came alive and grew as a result of her power. Although each culture usually worshipped a similar kind of god, they each had their own name for her, such as Istar, Astarte, Ashtoreth, Eostre or Ostara.
But the Christian faith had a similar belief, except it centered around Jesus Christ who was responsible for causing the dead to live again (i.e., the resurrection) and having people become "born again." Therefore, when the church leaders in the days of Constantine saw that each of these pagan rituals and customs could also be used to represent Christian doctrine, rather than forcibly trying to stamp out the old pagan ways they merely converted them into Christian holidays as a way to have them remember and worship Christ.
Also, associated with these pagan gods were symbols. For example, the most natural symbol for the goddess of fertility was the egg, for obvious reasons. For the goddess Eostre the hare or rabbit was used as her symbol, no doubt because these animals reproduced very quickly and often. It is from her name that we derive the word "Easter" and from which we get the Eostre bunny and the Eostre egg. However, in ancient times the Church allowed its members to continue using these symbols but, instead of them representing the pagan goddess Eostre, they became symbols for the new life that Christ brings.
And the Church did the same thing concerning the birth of Christ. Since the Bible doesn't tell us when Jesus was born the Church used the pagan symbols, customs and rituals of their winter gods to teach its members to celebrate and worship God's gift to the world, the birth of His Son. In that way, the converted pagans could still enjoy their old customs but as Christians these celebrations now took on a completely different meaning.
A dramatic example of this happened around 440 A.D. when a Catholic Bishop named Patrick went to Ireland to convert the Celtic pagans of that land to Christianity. Their primary god was the sun and their symbol for him was a circle. Rather than forcing them to abandon this symbol in favor of accepting the symbol of the cross, Bishop Patrick combined the two into one symbol. To this very day, Irish Catholics still used a cross that has a circle on it, which is known as the Celtic Cross. However, today for them it represents their faith in Jesus Christ, not the pagan beliefs of their ancestors.
Those who say that we shouldn't celebrate Christmas or Easter because it has its origins in pagan rituals misunderstand the nature of symbols. The only meaning a symbol has is that which we give it. Like all other faiths, Christians use such symbols as the cross, the fish, and the dove to remind them of Jesus Christ while those who are not Christians use these same symbols to remind them of something completely different. For example, in ancient times, a cross was the symbol for torture and disgrace and it also reminded the Jews of the hated Roman Empire, but Christians used that same a symbol to represent their faith in Jesus who gave His life for our sins.
One of the most common Christian symbols is that of a five pointed star known as the pentagram which has been prominently featured in Christian paintings throughout the centuries. This star is usually drawn with one point on top, a point on either side and two points at the bottom. However, sometimes it is drawn upside down with one long point on the bottom and two normal points on top. When drawn this way it represents the star that was over the place where Jesus was born. In fact, we still see this kind of a star place on top of Christmas trees.
But, in the late 1800's this inverted star was said to look like the face of Satan, with a long pointed beard and two horns sticking out of his head. Today, the pentagram, either right-side up or inverted has become the symbol for Satanic cults. If we are to follow the reasoning of those who say we shouldn't celebrate Christmas or Easter because we are really participating in a pagan custom then we would have to say that Satan worshippers are really worshipping Christ when they use the pentagram in their rituals since that was its original meaning.
However, the pentagram is much older than Christianity and dates back to the earliest Egyptian gods. During thousands of years this symbol has been used to represent many different spiritual beliefs. The same is true of the twisted cross, known as the swastika. Today we associate it with Hitler and his reign of hate and violence yet this symbol has been used by different cultures all over the world for the past 3,000 years and has meant many different things to different people. In fact, most of the time, the swastika has been used as a symbol of peace, happiness, and good luck.
Therefore, the original meaning of a symbol is not what's important to us What's important is the meaning we give it today. While the Christmas tree and the Easter bunny may have had their origins in pagan customs, today nearly everyone, including non-Christians, associates these symbols with Christ, whether they understand the connection to Him or not. Even though the name Easter comes from the pagan goddess Eostre, no one thinks of her any more. Instead, the entire world has come to associate the word Easter with the death and resurrection of Christ.
And this same thing also happens in reverse. For example, the person who originally invented the candy cane did so to remind of us Christ. He made it out of hard candy to symbolize the firmness and sweetness of God's love for us. He then formed the candy into what looks like a shepherd's hook because Christ is our Shepherd. The candy cane has red stripes in it to symbolize the blood of Christ and the stripes He suffered for our sins. The rest of the candy is pure white to symbolize the purity of Christ and how He was without blemish. However, over the years this symbolism has been lost and today hardly anyone associates the candy cane with Jesus. What this illustrates is that it doesn't matter what the original meaning of a symbol used to be. The only thing that is important is what the symbol means to us today.
As to the argument that the Bible doesn't authorize the celebration of Christmas and Easter, it should be noted that neither is there anything in the Bible that forbids such a celebration. As Christians we do a lot of things that are not specifically mentioned in the Bible but we have no objection to these acts as long as they don't violate any of God's commandments. For example, the Bible doesn't command us to celebrate our own birthday yet Christians see nothing wrong in doing this.
And the early Christians felt the same way about celebrating the birth, death, and resurrection of their Savior. As we have already seen, the apostles themselves kept the Passover, not as a Jewish feast but in remembrance of the death of the Lamb of God and the church has followed that tradition ever since. When it comes to celebrating the birth of Christ, there is evidence that Christians have done this in one form or other since 98 A.D. In 137 A.D. the Bishop of Rome made a proclamation that the birth of Jesus was to be observed with a solemn feast, but it wasn't until 350 A.D. that Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the day for this feast, which was known as the Feast of the Nativity.
However, critics contend that the way Christians celebrate these two holidays today are more reminiscent of the pagan customs than they are of Christian worship. Although there is some validity to that argument, the fault lays with the worshippers rather than with the holiday itself. To understand why, all we need to do is look at how we celebrate other holidays.
In America, Congress has established several national holidays such as President's day, Martin Luther King's birthday, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Veterans Day. On these days all government offices are closed and government employees are given the day off so they can commemorate the reason for the holiday. Yet, the vast majority of people don't really care about remembering our former presidents on President's Day or our soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Even on the fourth of July, which is the day of our country's independence, the vast majority of people don't take time to honor those who gave their life to establish our country. Instead, as a people in general, we tend to use these holidays to persue our own activities with little to no thought as to why we were given the day off from work.
In 1789, the Congress of the United States passed a bill establishing the third Thursday in November as "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God." Yet, more than two hundred years later, even Christians spend very little time on Thanksgiving Day in prayer, thanking God with a grateful heart for the many favors and blessings He has bestowed upon us as a country. Instead, we spend the day having fun. Generally speaking the only prayer we offer to God, if any, is given over the abundant sumptuous food that we are about to pig out on. And after dinner, rather than thinking about God, we think about the football games on TV.
And the same situation exists with Christmas and Easter. It isn't that we are following the old pagan customs when we celebrate the birth and death of Christ as much as it is that we, as a people, have become too careless and thoughtless in the way we choose to observe our Christian holidays