I am beginning a new series on holidays, focusing especially on Christian holidays. This will give me the opportunity to explore the origins of some of our major holidays and share reflections on them from a Christian perspective. Learning about the historical background behind some of our holidays can help us understand the origins of some of our holiday customs and provide perspective to evaluate our holiday practices.
Our English word “holiday” comes from “holy day.” In medieval Europe the primary occasions for taking time off work and celebrating were religious festivals. Many of our major holidays have a Christian origin, but they have also incorporated elements from pagan practices. For example, the date on which we celebrate Christ’s birth just “happens” to coincide with a pagan Roman festival. Was that a brilliant evangelistic move or dangerous compromise with the world? It’s not always easy to make that determination, but I hope that you will carefully consider both possibilities.
I will begin this series with Advent, because according to the traditional liturgical calendar used in the Western church Advent is the beginning of the Christian year. The “Western church” refers to Catholics and Protestants in distinction from Eastern Orthodox churches which follow a different calendar. Obviously the terms “east” and “west” here are used from a European perspective.
In the early church, the most important Christian festival was Easter. Christmas began to receive more attention somewhat later, and these two major holidays along with the periods leading up to them formed the most important portions of the Christian year. In addition to these, early Christians began to honor martyrs by holding a feast on the day of their death. Churches that follow the liturgical calendar often use a lectionary, which is a list of Scripture passages to be read each Sunday.
Some Protestant churches follow the liturgical calendar, although they don’t recognize nearly as many saints days as the Catholic church. Some Protestant churches recognize only Christmas and Easter, while others also include Advent and Lent. Since none of these things are commanded in Scripture we have the freedom to shape our practice according to biblical principles to edify the church.
For further reading:
- Seasons of the Christian Church (Nazarene perspective)
- The Liturgical Year (Wikipedia)
- The history of the Christian year (Catholic perspective, the first few sections are helpful)
I have no problem with days becoming holy days celebrating the gospel. On the other hand, it’s always a concern when Christmas becomes a day to drink too much alcohol rather than to hear the holy gospel and feast appropriately in church and outside of church.
Can’t we do the days and celebrate Christ in them without real compromise? I mean, there are certainly grey areas with regional customs, but merely picking a certain day seems rather a good way to proclaim the gospel without importing the ways of other gods. The idolatry discussion’s always there anyway, so it’s nothing new for holidays.
We struggle to celebrate Christmas as a holy day rather than a pagan festival. C.S. Lewis’s essay on Niatirb comes to mind. I will mention that in my next post in this series.
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