In general, Messianic Jews do not celebrate Christmas, and their congregations do not. It is not a holiday commanded in scripture. Messianic Jews often avoid parts of Christian culture that are man-made, especially if based on error (Yeshua was born at Sukkot).
Yet many Believers who are not Messianic Jews feel no reason to avoid Christian culture, and have been celebrating Christmas all their lives knowing it was probably or certainly not the actual day of Yeshua's birth. Our congregation is often contacted by such people, wanting our insights about how to best celebrate Christmas. The guidelines we share are applicable to any man-made traditions that have become part of religious life.
This essay will first discuss these guidelines, and then discuss the history and traditions of Christmas, to better apply our guidelines to that holiday.
It is our hope, at P'nei Adonai, that this knowledge can help those who do celebrate Christmas to have an even more meaningful holiday than previously. Please excuse our chutzpah, of those who do not celebrate Christmas giving advice to those who do.
In 1st Corinthians 10:14-33, Paul lays down a few reasonable rules:
(A little earlier, Paul had made the same points using a slightly different argument. In verses 8:7-13 he also taught that we may set things apart for God even when they have association with paganism, but must not do so if it hinders someone else's spiritual growth.)
In Ephesians 3:6 Paul mentions a "joint inheritance" that Gentile Believers share with Jewish Believers. As with any special inheritance, it need not be used, but it should also be valued and neither ignored nor scorned.
As a metaphor, imagine a brother and sister who both have sentimental attachment their grandparents' rocking chair. When the grandparents die the brother inherits this rocking chair; it is delivered to his garage. He might put it in his living room so his family could use it. Or he might decide to not use it as a chair for sitting, but as a decorative piece of furniture in his daughter's room with pillows or stuffed animals on it. Or he might decide to keep it carefully packed away until a certain occasion, such as when he has his next child and his wife is nursing. Or he could give it to his sister if she wants it more. All of those decisions could be respectful of this inheritance. But if the brother did not realize he had inherited the rocking chair, and left it in the garage while being completely oblivious, that would not be respectful.
So we can make a fourth guideline:
Before we can apply these guidelines to the Christmas holiday, we need to examine that holiday's customs.
Because December 25th was a Roman religious holiday, and decorating an evergreen at the time of the winter solstice was a pagan activity, there is a commonly believed myth that Christmas was created by Gentile Christians to be appealing to Roman pagans. They imagine it was an attempt to make Christianity similar to paganism, thus making evangelism easier by watering down the truth. But the writings of the Roman "church fathers" tell a different story.
The Hellinization of Christianity happened very quickly. In the year 200, when Clement of Alexandria first wrote about people debating the day of Yeshua's birth, all the arguments were presented using the Roman calendar, not Hebrew calendar.
In part, December 25th was chosen for Christmas as part of the slow process of Gentile Christianity solidifying its split from its Jewish roots during the second and third century: the day mimicked the holiday of Chanukah, which begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. But probably more important was that December 25th was proposed in the early 300s to actively oppose the Roman religious birthday of Sol, called Natalis Solis Invicti ("nativity of the unconquerable sun"). That choice of day was popularized by Pope Liberius in 354, and became an official rule with Pope Sixtus III in 435.
So the church of Rome was creating a holiday to purposefully oppose Sol-worship. Other regional churches did similar things, such as using January 6th for Yeshua's birthday to oppose both the Greek birthday of Dionysus and the Egyptian birthday of Osiris, but the day favored by the Roman church is the date that survived historically.
The Roman "church fathers" show in their writings that they knew the day was a pagan holiday, and they knew it was not necessarily Yeshua's birthday, but they wanted to create a contrast between Yeshua and the popular (but false and impotent) Roman god Sol. They were not trying to be accommodating to Sol-worshippers, they were trying to be challenging and annoying, for the sake of the gospel. An equivalent situation today would be for an American church to celebrate July 4th as "Freedom in Messiah Day" to deliberately contrast political freedom with spiritual freedom.
This choice of day does have a pagan association, but that does not make it wrong to use, as long as you do not "partake of" anything pagan on this day.
However, there are many people who see the use of this day as hypocritical, because they think that Believers are partaking of pagan things on this day. It is the responsibility of those celebrating Christmas to explain that they do avoid pagain activity.
Also, if there are people you know whose spiritual health or growth is troubled by your celebrating Christmas, then you should not celebrate that holiday.
Finally, to be respectful of your "joint inheritance" of the scriptural holidays, you should mention that you have learned that Yeshua was born at Sukkot, but are celebrating Christmas anyway.
It is actually quite appropriate to remember Yeshua's birth on the wrong day. The story of Yeshua's birth is all about good things happening in less-than-optimal circumstances:
So intentionally commemorating Yeshua's birth in less-than-optimal circumstances is quite fitting.
Christmas has always been about celebrating Yeshua's arrival. The Messiah has come! This is surely worth remembering any and every day of the year.
When proclaining that the Messiah has come, Believers should be mindful of Romans 11, where Paul reminds Gentile Believers to provoke unbelieving Jews to jealousy.
This calling should be easy to fulfill because of all of the benefits obtained from a relationship with Yeshua. Believers have the Holy Spirit within them in an unprecedented way. They have authority as citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven in an unprecedented way. They are even able to be called children and friends of God in a new way.
Yet for most of the past two thousand years, Gentile Believers have provoked unbelieving Jews to fear or hatred, not jealousy. To stop this trend, Gentile Believers must do better at sharing Yeshua's Jewishness.
Messianic Rabbi Jim Appel created the following metaphor to explain how the Jewishness of Yeshua is important for this issue. A person will only get jealous if someone else tries to be possessive of what that person already has. This is true whether we mean "jealous" as in "envious of" or as in "guarding of". If a man was to flirt with my wife and she smiled at him, I would be both kinds of jealous, since her flirty smiles should be aimed at me, and I want to guard her from other men's advances. But if that same man was to do the same thing to someone else's wife I would not be jealous. I might be protective, if that seemed necessary, but I would be jealous since the woman was not my wife.
Similarly, it will be impossible for Gentile Believers to make unbelieving Jews jealous of a better relationship with God as long as the unbelieving Jews think the Gentile Believers are worshipping a "Christian God" or a "Christian Saviour". But as soon as Yeshua is presented as the Jewish Messiah who fulfilled the Jewish prophecies, came to the Jewish people, was loyal to Torah and the God of Israel, and did not intend to start a new religion, then unbelieving Jews will become jealous of Gentile Believers who are claiming to have a more intimate relationship with their God.
This does not mean that a Gentile Believer needs shun Christian culture or act like a Messianic Jew. Someone who celebrates Christmas while acknowleding that the holiday is a church-made tradition and that Yeshua was born on Sukkot can still be proclaiming that Yeshua is a Jewish Messiah.
In Romans 11, Paul says that when unbelieving Jews are properly provoked to jealousy it will bring about "life from the dead". Whatever this means, it is surely a desirable thing! Moreover, in verse 11:25, Paul writes that when the Gentile Believers have "fullness" then all of Israel will be saved. In context, the "fullness" is a fullness of doing this role of provoking the unbelieving Jews to jealousy. (The translation "full number" is inaccurate.) So this role is not only good to do, but an eschatological activty.
Most Christmas customs were imported from the 4,000-year-old Babylonian holiday Zagmuk, including a feast, masked party, visiting from house to house, caroling, giving gifts, plays, lasting twelve days, bonfires, and the mock rain of a fool. (Some of these are only European Christmas traditions.) The Greeks had turned this holiday into Sacaea, and then the Romans turned it into Saturnalia.
The struggle among church leaders to keep Christmas focused on Yeshua is nothing new. In 742, St. Boniface wrote a letter to complain to Pope Zacharias because the Roman Christians were so notorious for behaving in rowdy and pagan manner during Christmas that it hindered his labors to bring the good news to the Franks and Alemans. When he tried to teach these Germanic people to turn away from pagan customs, they answered that they had seen them done under the very shadow of Saint Peter's cathedral in Rome.
The pagan roots of Christian customs are becoming increasingly well known. For example, the Yule log was taken from Scandinavian worship of Odin, which (as with Christmas customs until recent the 1800's) included bringing to the home a special log and having young boys show their bravery by briefly sitting on it as it burned. A paraded boar's head is left over from Germanic worship of Frey. Evergreen boughs and garlands were traditional European wards against evil spirits, and adapted into medieval Christmas celebrations with the burning of evergreen boughs for smoke auguries and children "blessing" adults by teasingly hitting them with evergreen boughs. Wassailing at Christmas begain as visiting fruit trees, to drink to their health and pour out drink offerings onto them.
Currently, people who celebrate Christmas do not also use Christmas customs with pagan roots to participate in pagan activity. In our day, people no longer worry about helping end winter (the theme of Zagmuk), nor do they put children in a fire, parade a boar's head, do smoke auguries, or try to obtain good luck from evergreen boughs.
So according to the guildelines Paul established, Christmas customs with pagan roots may be done as ways to glorify God. But the people doing them should acknowledge that they understand the pagan roots, to avoid appearing hypocritical, and be sensitive to a Believer whose faith is hurt by these customs.