Saturday, December 28, 2013

Of Holy Days and Holidays by David R. Kenney

Of Holy Days and Holidays

by David R. Kenney

Returning to the New Testament involves giving up customs
and traditions established by men without divine sanction.

Who does not love a holiday?  Holidays can become sad occasions for some because of a tragedy; however, we love special days when we can turn our focus from the routine to celebration. I love holidays and celebrate many of them.  So writing an article with some critical points on holidays, I run the risk of being labeled a killjoy. 

 “Holy days” and “holidays” come from the same Old English word: haligdæg, which meant both “religious festival” and “day of recreation.” 1 Because the terms are so closely related, one should distinguish exactly what he is celebrating. It seems that the conflict concerning whether a Christian should celebrate holidays arises when the two terms overlap in our increasingly pluralistic society – special days from secular sources or religious sources outside of New Testament Christianity.  We have holidays set aside by the government in order to observe certain events such as Labor Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, etc. Other nations have similar days. Do governments have the authorization to create such holidays? Yes (cf. Romans 13:1-7). 

Most people do not seem to have an issue with secular holidays unless there is an overlap with religious sources. Of course, if a holiday is designated commemorating something that contradicts God’s will, then the Christian must abstain (cf. Acts 5:29). But what about holidays that some view religiously while others observe them without religious connotations? 

Although the Old Testament enumerated both “holy days” and “holidays,” there is not a comparable listing of such days in the New Testament. Is there any day a Christian observes as a holy day? Yes – the Lord’s Day or Sunday (cf. Revelation 1:10). This is the only holy day one finds in the New Testament, but this should not diminish its importance. The Lord’s Day receives its prominence from the One it honors: the Lord!
The Christian Calendar
Writing about the development of the “Christian Calendar” around A.D. 311–600, Philip Schaff commented about the propensity of religious people, with noble intentions, to create special days for remembrance of key events or people: “Gradually the whole calendar was filled up with the names of saints. As the number of martyrs exceeded the number of the days of the year, the commemoration of several must fall upon the same day, or the canonical hours of cloister devotion must be given up.” 2  This holy day/holiday building process would continue and evolve to where the  Catholic Church once  required/encouraged parents to name their children after a sanctioned saint prior to being “christened” in order to foster some type of spiritual  connection between the child and the deceased saint. An examination of the development of the Christian Calendar leads one to appreciate the call to go back to the New Testament and abide by its precepts! Returning to the New Testament involves not only giving up false teaching and creeds but also giving up customs and traditions established by men without divine sanction.

Christmas and Easter
When some people hear that Christmas and Easter are not considered holy days in the New Testament, they sometimes become offended or concerned about the matter. These two holidays, which some religions observe as holy days, are not authorized in the New Testament.  May a Christian observe a day as a holiday that has been recognized as a holy day by religious groups but without the religious trappings?  Yes. Wayne Jackson noted an interesting parallel: “Consider the practice of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols previously – a very lively issue in the first century. Here is the background:  A meat sacrifice would be made to an idol. After a certain portion was consumed in sacrificial flames (or by the priests), the balance would be sold as common food in the market. The controversy, therefore, arose: is this meat contaminated simply because it had some connection with an idol? Paul’s answer is no (see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). If one has ‘knowledge’ – i.e., that an idol is ‘nothing’ – and his conscience is not offended, he may eat of that meat. It is not contaminated merely by its former association.” 3
So if one can partake of meat that previously had been used for idolatrous worship, then it seems that one ought to be able to partake in a holiday that previously had been observed religiously.  We often observe days from religious sources but for nonreligious purposes. For example, some celebrate St. Valentine’s Day with special treatment for their loved ones. We ought to realize that the days of our week and months are in fact rooted in paganism; e.g., Thursday is derived from the Norse god named Thor.

What about Christmas? Consider these questions: Where is the New Testament authority to celebrate the Lord’s birth with a special holy day/holiday?  Where is the New Testament authority designating Dec. 25 as the Lord’s birthday? Do you realize that various dates have been used to celebrate this event in times past: Jan. 2 and 6, March 28, April 18 or 19, and May 20? 4

The Old English word for “Christmas” means “Mass of Christ,” showing Catholic influence. Clearly some Catholic elements are in this day, but there are pagan elements as well. Can we participate in the traditions of the holiday without indulging in Catholicism or paganism?  Certainly. 

What about Easter? Although Easter is celebrated closer to the actual date of the event it celebrates than Christmas, there still remains no New Testament authority for the observance. While some view Easter as a memorial of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, Christians observe these events each and every Lord’s Day. Can we observe Easter as a day to celebrate spring with decorated eggs, jelly beans, new dresses and bonnets? Sure.

A growing conflict is occurring between secularism and theism in our land as seen in the debate over the greeting “Merry Christmas.” Some on both sides of the “Merry Christmas” fight associate the holiday as a religious holy day of Christianity. Although I am certainly opposed to the assaults of atheists, I am equally concerned about adopting unscriptural aspects of a holiday in order to join the fight. Some are so concerned about the assaults on religion they are willing to condone or overlook inaccuracy and lack of New Testament authorization to score points against secularism. We should carefully consider such matters.

More alarming is the growing practice of using unauthorized holy days/holidays as a means to draw people to Christianity. Others view holidays as an opportunity to capitalize on people’s emotions and bring them to services when Christians should know that Dec. 25 is not the date of His birth. There is no authorization to celebrate such a day, and it is inappropriate to sing “Happy Birthday, Jesus."
Employing unauthorized holy days/holidays to bring people to services is an action under false pretenses, is it not? In the advertising world, such would be labeled “false advertising” and subject to prosecution. The world will not be fooled, or converted, by such means. We must be careful, whether individually or congregationally, to be truthful and not deceptive or misleading to others.

David R. Kenney is the minister at the Wadsworth Church of Christ in Wadsworth, Ohio. He may be contacted by email at

1 Douglas Harper, “holiday,” Online Etymology Dictionary, 20 Sept. 2013

2 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 311-600, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950) 446.

3 Wayne Jackson, “May Christians Observe Holidays?” may-christians-observe-holidays.

4 Albert H. Newman, “Christmas,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 3 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1909) 47-48.


This article originally appeared in Gospel Advocate, Vol. 155, No. 12, December 2013, pp. 18-20.

1 comment:

John, Texas said...

This is another excellent article. I appreciate your logical approach to delineating the difference between holy days and holidays. It is something that most christians don't contemplate much less teach their children. We tend to just accept them as religious because our culture views them as such.

However, I found one statement you made to be inaccurate. You state, "Returning to the New Testament involves not only giving up false teaching and creeds but also giving up customs and traditions established by men without divine sanction." There is no such New Testament prohibition against all human designed traditions, or else we, as christians, could not celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, etc. If you alter that statement to read "...but also giving up religious customs and traditions established by men without divine sanction" then it becomes accurate and clearly supported by the New Testament writers (and express what I believe you may have meant).

Thank you for sharing it on your blog. I have found a number of them useful and thought provoking. Keep up the good work.