By Michael Ervolina
(Originally printed in the November/December 1996 MCOI Journal)
It’s the day after Thanksgiving. You’re pulling out the decorations from the attic and setting up the tree when you hear the doorbell. You mumble something about how this always happens when you’re busy. Arriving at the door, you are met by two smiling faces. You think to yourself, “Great, I ran all this way just to hear from some Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“Hi,” they begin, “We’re a couple of ministers in your neighborhood and we’re asking people about the real meaning of Christmas …” They proceed to give you the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s spiel about the pagan roots of Christmas: how it came from Roman sun worship and therefore it is wrong for Christians to celebrate it:
You might be surprised to learn that Christmas was not instituted by Jesus Christ nor was it celebrated by him or his first-century disciples. In fact, there is no record of a Christmas celebration until 300 years after Christ died.
“Many people living in those days worshipped the sun, as they felt a strong dependence on its yearly cycle. Elaborate ceremonies accompanied sun worship in Europe, Egypt, and Persia. The central theme in these festivals was the return of light. The sun, because of its seeming weakness during winter, was implored to return from ‘distant wanderings.’ Festivals included merrymaking, feasting, dancing, decorating homes with lights and ornaments, and gift-giving. Do these activities sound familiar?
“Sun worshipers believed that the unburned wood of a Yule log had magic powers, that bonfires could give the sun-god strength and bring him back to life, that houses decorated with evergreens would scare away demons, that holly was to be worshipped as a promise of the sun’s return, and that sprigs of mistletoe could bring good luck if worn as charms. What celebration are these items associated with today?
“December was a major festival month in pagan Rome long before Christmas was introduced there. The week-long Saturnalia (dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture) and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) took place at this time. Also, December 25 was regarded as the birthday of Mithras, the Persian god of light.
“Therefore, true Christians today do not celebrate Christmas. While their position may seem strange to others, they view traditions as did Jesus.
When asked: ‘Why is it your disciples overstep the tradition of the men of former times?’ he replied: ‘Why is it you also overstep the commandment of God because of your tradition?’ And he added: ‘You have made the word of God invalid because of your tradition.’-Matthew 15:2, 3, 6
“True Christians today manifest unity with Jesus by practicing ‘the form of worship that is clean and undefiled,’ untarnished by the pagan traditions of men.-James 1:27” (“Why Christmas Is Not for Christians.” Awake!* 12/8/91:12-13)
You begin to wonder if they’re right about this issue. Are they right? Must we reject any and all customs or practices with “pagan roots”? In the interest of fairness, we thought we would let the Watchtower Society answer the questions for us (really!)
Question #1: Is a custom, holiday, etc., to be rejected if it was first practiced by pagans?
“Some customs that were once religious in nature no longer are in many places For example, the wedding ring once had religious significance, but in most places today, it no longer does. Hence, many true Christians accept the local custom of wearing a wedding ring to give evidence that a person is married. In such matters, what generally is influential is whether a practice is now linked to false religion.” (Italics in original.) (Watchtower**. 9/1/92: 30)
So, even though wedding rings are of pagan origin, they are “OK” because their origin is not important. What is important, says the Watchtower, is how wedding rings (or other customs) are viewed now.
Question #2: Does a religious practice that has false religious meaning in another contemporary culture mean that Christians have nothing to do with it?
‘The fact that the bull was an object of worship in the Northern Kingdom of Israel did not make the bulls at Solomon’s temple idols. Similarly, the fact that various creatures, plants and heavenly bodies -all part of God’s creative works- have been and still are being given veneration would not in itself make them unacceptable for decorative or ornamental purposes. Many things that were at one time worshipped by the ancients have lost their idolatrous significance and are generally regarded as being merely ornamental.” (Italics in original.) (Watchtower, 5/15 72:295)
This Watchtower brings out an interesting point on the similarities/differences of religious customs In the Northern Kingdom, bulls were an object of false religious worship and in the Southern Kingdom they were a part of true worship. Here the Watchtower presents us with a case of contemporary similarity; the same symbol, the bull, being used in similar ways by both true and false worshippers within the same historical time frame. Historical similarity, as in the case of Christmas, wedding rings, etc. is when a present-day custom has some commonality with a past culture.
“It is thus seen that the precise origin of the wedding ring is uncertain. Even if it were a fact that pagans first used wedding rings, would that rule such out for Christians? Not necessarily. Many of today’s articles of clothing and aspects of life originated in pagan lands. The present time divisions of hours, minutes, and seconds are based on an early Babylonian system. Yet, there is no objection to a Christian’s using these time divisions, for one’s doing so does not involve carrying on false religious practices.
“Really, the question is not so much whether wedding rings were first used by pagans but whether they were originally used as part of false religious practices and still retain such religious significance.” (Italics in original.) (Watchtower, 1/15/72:63
Here the Watchtower brings out that many things had their origins in paganism. However, pagan origination does “[n]ot necessarily” rule out its use. What is important is whether such a practice still retain[s] such religious significance.” This, of course, directly contradicts the Watchtower of 5/15/72, as quoted above, which based evaluation of a practice on each culture’s view of the practice and not if it had “religious significance.”
Question #3: What about other practices with pagan origins? Are Christians duty bound to reject them?
On other’ pagan” practices, such as flowers at funerals, the Watchtower reasons as follows:
“When someone dies, is it proper for Christens to give flowers to the family or to send flowers to the funeral home? In some lands it is customary to do so. But using flowers at funerals has at times had a religious meaning. So let us examine the matter in some detail, especially since there are other customs that may seem to have similar links to false religion. Note comments from The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987):
” ‘Flowers are connected to the sacred realm through their association with gods and goddesses. Flora, the Roman goddess of springtime and flowers, brings beauty and fragrance to blossoms … Deities may be appeased and worshipped … through the offering of food and flowers. The association of flowers with rituals of death occurs all over the world. The Greeks and Romans covered the dead and their graves with flowers. The souls of dying Buddhists in Japan are carried upward on a lotus, and the gravestones in cemetaries may rest on carved lotuses … Tahitians leave bouquets wrapped in ferns by the body after death and then pour floral perfume over the corpse to ease its passage into the sacred afterlife … Flowers may also be present at sacred times in the form of incense or perfume.
“Flowers are part of God’s good gifts for the living to enjoy. (Acts 14:15-17; James 1:17) His created floral beauty has been used in true worship. The lampstand in the tabernacle was decorated with ‘flowers of almond … and blossoms.’ (Exodus 25:31-34) Engravings in the temple included garlands and palm trees. (1 Kings 6:18, 29, 32) Clearly, pagan use of flowers or garlands did not mean that true worship[p]ers always had to avoid using them.-Acts 14:13
“It is similar with some funeral customs. Egyptians customarily embalmed the dead. The faithful patriarch Joseph did not automatically react, ‘This is a pagan custom, so we Hebrews must avoid it.’ Rather, he ‘commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father,’ evidently so that Jacob could be buried in the Promised Land. (Genesis 49:29-50:3)
“Recall from the encyclopedia that some ‘leave bouquets wrapped in ferns by the body after death and then pour floral perfume over the corpse to ease its passage into the sacred afterlife.’ That there might be such a custom does not mean that God’s servants must shun anything similar.
“Still, all kinds of objects, designs, and practices have, at some time or place, been given a false interpretation or have been linked with unscriptural teachings. Trees have been worshipped, the heart shape has been viewed as sacred, and incense has been used in pagan ceremonies. Does this mean that a Christian must never use incense, have trees in any decoration, or wear heart-shaped jewelry? That is not a valid conclusion.
“Would following a custom indicate to others that I have adopted unscriptural beliefs or practices? The time period and location could influence the answer. A custom (or design) might have had a false religious meaning millenniums ago or might have such today in a distant land. But without going into time-consuming investigation, ask yourself: ‘What is the common view where I live?’ -Compare 1 Corinthians 10:25-29.
“Pagans have long used floral incense in their ceremonies, but it was not wrong for God’s people to employ incense in true worship.” (Watchtower, 10/15/91: 30-31)
So use of flowers for funerals, though clearly a practice with pagan origins, is not avoided by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Likewise, embalming of the dead, another pagan practice, is not avoided. The above Watchtower’s comments are worth noting again:
“The time period and location could influence the answer. A custom (or design) might have had a false religious meaning millenniums ago or might have such today in a distant land. But without going into time-consuming investigation, ask yourself: ‘What is the common view where I live?’ ” (Ibid.: 31)
So the Watchtower argues that it is NOT the origin of the practice but its meaning in the present culture that should determine its acceptance or rejection by Christians. To sum up the points:
1) Wedding rings, even though of pagan origin, can be used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, because the meaning of them in the present culture is different.
2) Symbols used in pagan worship can be used because their significance has changed over time. In the case of contemporary symbolism (in the case of bulls), it is how the symbol is viewed by the culture, not the symbol itself.
3) Flowers at funerals, again of clear pagan origin, are allowed by Jehovah’s Witnesses if the practice is accepted in the culture.
4) Embalming of the dead is allowed. This is a religious practice originating in Babylon and engaged in by Joseph. On this the Watchtower comments:
“Egyptians customarily embalmed the dead. The faithful patriarch Joseph did not automatically react, This is a pagan custom, so we Hebrews must avoid it.1 Rather, he ‘commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father,’ evidently so that Jacob could be buried in the Promised Land.” (Watchtower, 10/15/91: 30)
This quotation is one of the more interesting ones, because here the Watchtower rightly points out that pagan practices were taken up by God’s people, without their having to consider the origins of such practices.
5) Use of practices similar to paganism in worship is okay. Of this the Watchtower said:
“Pagans have long used floral incense in their ceremonies, but it was not wrong for God’s people to employ incense in true worship.” (lbid.30)
So, if we employ the Watchtower’s criteria to Christmas, we would say, “A custom (or design) might have had a false religious meaning millenniums ago or might have such today in a distant land. But without going into time-consuming investigation, ask yourself: “What is the common view where I live?’ And, with regards to the pagan practices associated with Christ we would say, “The faithful patriarch Joseph did not automatically react, “This is a pagan custom, so we … must avoid it.”
The Watchtower presents good and valid arguments regarding wedding rings, flowers, pagan symbols, embalming of the dead, and the use of incense. However, for some reason, they refuse to apply the exact same arguments to Christmas and other cultural celebrations. At best, the Watchtower’s position is inconsistent. At worst, it’s a case of hypocritical legalism.
So, when the nice Jehovah’s Witnesses interrupt your setting up the Christmas tree, take a break and reason with them. Consider it your “contribution” to their work.
“One man judges one day as above another: another man judges one day as all others; let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes a day observes it to Jehovah.” (Romans 14:15,16a, New World Translation)
The Journal would like to thank Michael Ervolina, a former third-generation Jehovah’s Witness, for untangling this issue’s “Spider’s Web.’ He and his wife both left the Witnesses in 1967 and accepted Jesus as ‘ their personal Savior. Michael is involved in active discussions with Witnesses on the Internet and is involved with a national ex-Jehovah’s Witness support group. He and his wife are both active in the Episcopal Church as Sunday School teachers. They often start celebrating Christmas in February, just to make up for lost years.
Joy notes that no discussion of pagan roots would be complete without considering the pagan roots of the WTBTS Pyramidology, phrenology, astrology, numerology, ecology (oops!) … if Charles Taze Russell was not a pagan, we’ll have to apologize to King Tut!
*Awake! is a bi-weekly publication of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, a.k.a. Jehovah’s Witnesses.
**Watchtower is a bi-weekly publication of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, a.k.a. Jehovah’s Witnesses