Christmas–pagan or Christian?


In the past many Adventists in the Netherlands (as well as in a number of other European countries) had a rather troublesome relationship with the Christian feasts, such as Christmas and Easter. These feasts had a pagan origin, it was argued, and people who wanted to take the Bible seriously were not supposed to celebrate them. I remember from my childhood days that no Adventist congregation in he Netherlands  dared to have a Christmas tree in its church. Some ministers were determined to preach during the Christmas season about some Old Testament passage that could not in any way be linked to the birth of Christ.

Fortunately, the elementary school that I attended had a real Christmas gathering with a real tree—with super-dangerous real candles. This was always held in the Christian Reformed Church of the village where I lived. For weeks I would look forward to this event—and not just because I would get a huge orange and a book from some Dutch author of pious, or at least quite moralistic, books. There would be another Christmas event in the Dutch Reformed Church, to which my grandfather belonged, and where I often attended the Sunday school. Here also I could be certain of an orange and a book! And thus I was able to butter my bread on both sides.

At home there was, however, hardly any special attempt to create a Christmas atmosphere. But this changed gradually.  First some pine twigs appeared with some Christmas ornamentations. Somewhat later the Christmas tree made its entrance, with some glitter, a dozen or so Christmas balls and about 15  candles in small metal holders. As a measure of prevention a bucket with water and a wet sponge was kept nearby.

Since then a lot has changed. A few days ago I retrieved our Christmas stuff from our storage space and my wife has been quite busy to create a real Christmas sphere in our home—and, as always, she has been quite successful. Nowadays in most Adventist churches a special Christmas service is held on the Saturday just before December 25, or at some other suitable time in the last week before Christmas.

But the uneasiness about participating in an originally pagan ritual has not completely disappeared from all Dutch Adventist minds. I discovered this when recently, I stayed on a bit after the service, as most members do, for coffee or some other drink, I talked to a few of the members of that local church. One of them asked me what I thought about keeping the Jewish feasts. In answered that I did not feel much attracted to this idea. I am not a Jewish Christian, I told them, but a Christian from the gentiles (to use Pauline terminology). However, I added that I might want to celebrate these Jewish feasts if I were living in Israel—making every attempt to connect these festive occasions with my Christian beliefs. I  compared that  with the fact that as a Christian living in the Netherlands, I would want to join my fellow-Dutchmen in celebrating Christmas, even though I try to avoid the blatant commercialism that we see all around us, and would emphasize the Christian content. This answer did no satisfy my conversation partners, for celebrating Christmas, they felt, was still a very dubious thing for a Bible-believing Christian.

In my view this standpoint betrays a confusion regarding the principle of form and content. Forms usually depend on culture and may be adapted in other cultures and other times, as long as it is filled with appropriate content. Adventists have done so from the inception of their movement.  A very interesting example is the Sabbath school—the Bible study period at the beginning of the church services on Saturday morning. Contrary to what many Adventists think, this feature is far from unique. Several American denominations in the nineteenth century adopted the Sunday school model, with ‘classes; for adults, youth and children. This was a form Adventists did not invent but were eager to use for themselves, after filling it with new content! Many other examples might be mentioned how forms were adopted and then filled with new content. Admittedly Christmas may in its forms betray some pagan elements, but it can be filled with a superb content: Immanuel—God with us!