This is a fascinating question. If I’m honest, I haven’t given it too much thought. But, I could say a few things.
First, I love your desire to think through how you live your life. I’ve always thought that the way we live our lives tells a story about what we fundamentally believe about the world, life, and God. James, the brother of Jesus, made the same case when he said, “Faith without works is dead!” (2:14-26). So, keep thinking through things like this - especially if it’s primarily about your witness to the culture.
Yet, I wonder whether you could clarify a few things for me:
- What do you mean by “true holidays” over “pagan” ones?
- What’s your issue with the Gregorian calendar? Do you imagine an alternative, like the Julian?
- What do you mean by the Hebraic holidays? Do you mean events like passover, the festival of unleavened bread, etc?
I’ll respond more broadly now, but if you could clarify the above things then we can converse with a bit more detail
- Defining Pagan
I’d like to point out the the word “pagan” has a lot of negative cultural baggage, which we would be wise to dismiss. Paganism is, most broadly, a catch-all term for cultural spiritualities outside the Abrahamic faiths. The moment we make that clarification, we are able to see that the negative connotations often associated with the term are unwarranted. Mostly, this is because paganism isn’t a unified system. It’s just a descriptor of those spiritualities (whatever they look like) which are not Abrahamic.
That aside, pagan spirituality is obviously very different to Christian spirituality. Pagans uncover their spirituality in this earth; Christians discover their spirituality in God. Pagans emphasise spirituality at the expense of doctrine and dogma; Christians emphasise truth with the joy of that truth being the person of Jesus. All that to say, our differences are huge but we should be slow to infer negativity upon anything called “pagan,” for the same reason we would be slow to infer anything negative upon other aspects of culture which don’t necessarily have a label.
Within this definition, Bank holidays are “pagan.” Or even holidays which celebrate the founding of nations (like Australia Day, or Inependence Day). They’re pagan because they’re not Abrahamic, per se, and so we should be slow both to adopt them or reject them. We need to think critically.
- My Personal Formula
When I think about cultural engagement - with any topic - I usually sift it through the “Reject, receive, redeem” filter.
i. Reject : Something is completely at odds with Christianity. There is no way around it. Things within this category we might explicitly label “sin,” or they are acts which an onlooker might use to completely disassociate you with the name Jesus. Christians would reject these types of things. The caution with outright rejection of things in culture is this: always be aware with how your rejection of something might affect somebody else. God’s injunction to love our neighbour, although it doesn’t mean capitulate to their culture, does mean that even as we disagree we might take the time and effort to journey with them so they understand (and maybe even be attracted to the reason for which we make any decisions in the first place - that is, Jesus).
ii. Receive : Something is completely harmless toward Christianity. Take, eat - enjoy!
iii. Redeem : Something is ambiguous, with both negative aspects and positive aspects. Christians should think about how they can engage it with intentionality and purpose.
Something I find interesting is that, the more I think about it, the more I realise that everything outside of blatant sin needs to be not simply rejected or received, but redeemed. Take any good thing, receive it excessively and you’ve spoiled it. Take any questionable thing, reject it outright and you might close the door to a hearing of the Gospel - and, you could give people the impression that Christians are superstitious and nervous about things for which we need not be. But, take something questionable and redeem its function and engage it in a way that witnesses to Jesus’, and you’ve become an active participant in the Lord’s prayer - that is, you’ve responded to God’s invitation to be someone who does on earth what will be in heaven.
- Christmas Holiday
So, take Christmas for example. The early church never celebrated Jesus’ birth. Historically, the two main celebrations of the church were for (1) Epiphany - which commemorated the arrival of the Magi after Jesus’ birth - and (2) resurrection Sunday. It’s not exactly clear when Christmas began being celebrated, but the best case is for the 4th century. This was after Constantine came to power. Many people think that Christians in the 4th century replaced the pagan festivals of sun-worship with the Christian commemoration of Jesus’ birth. This is probably the case, but it’s really not that important.
What is interesting is that long before the Christian celebration of Christmas began being held, pagans would hold celebrations around December 25th. To get through the wet, the cold, and the night of the never-ending winter, pagans would hold parties and feasts. But, once the Winter solstice was over – 21st of December; shortest day of the year – they would begin celebrating the lengthening of the days. They’d do this by lighting big bonfires to mimic the return of the sun .
So, here’s the question: Should we reject, receive, or redeem Christmas? And I think the answer is, clearly, redeem it.
In one way, the historical institution of celebrating Jesus’ birth itself is a redemption of a pagan holiday. Whereas those in Rome wanted to celebrate the sun, Christians wanted to celebrate the Son; whereas pagans wanted to worship the return of warmth, Christians wanted to remember the presence of God; and whereas pagans wanted to pretend they had hope because winter was over for another year, Christians wanted to remember their hope that the winter of the soul would never come again.
In another way, Christmas today has many things wrong with it. The consumerism, the idolatry of family, the anxiety, the placing of our hope in rest and relaxation, and even the centring of our lives around earthly joys. But it also has many things good about it: family, though not God, is good; gifts, though not ultimate, are expressive of genuine loves between people; rest, though not final, is participatory in Sabbath and is best done in community.
Historically, December 25th was a day when pagan holidays were celebrated. Today, it’s when Christmas is celebrated. The problem we face isn’t whether it’s legitimate because it was historically a time when people worshipped the sun (the fact that early Christians replaced that with Christmas is a good thing!). The problem we face is how we have let our Christian holiday now become pagan, again - by centring Christmas Day on things other than Jesus. We all need to redeem Christmas, I think.
Anyway, please do come back to me on those questions I asked at the beginning. It’d be great to hear how you’ve engaged this question for yourself, Elizabeth.