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What do you celebrate—and why? Has today’s mainstream Christianity obscured vital truths about the biblical feasts and celebrations God gave His people? The truth about God’s own Holy Days can bring you closer to your Savior and change your life forever!
Everyone loves a holiday—at least most of us seem to. Holidays may give us a break from the routine of our busy and tiring work schedules. We may be able to spend time with friends and relatives we haven’t seen in a while. There may be special food prepared for a holiday meal. We may have the opportunity to reflect on a historic national event, or to honor a famous individual who sacrificed much for our nation. And there may even be special public events—perhaps a parade or a sporting event we like to watch.
Of course, there can be another side to the holidays. We may face the stress of crowded airports, traffic jams, and old hurts rekindled at family gatherings. And, this year, we face the added stress of the pandemic. How many who enjoy large family gatherings are finding themselves alone on days that once promised fun and fellowship? How many introverts who used to dread the bustle of the holidays now wish they could have at least a little more contact with friends and loved ones?
Perhaps this year more than ever, we are reminded that there ought to be more to a holiday than just an opportunity for fun. How many across the world, this year, spent their nation’s Independence Day reflecting quietly on blessings rather than partying with friends? How many have spent days off from work alone, feeling gratitude for the privilege of good health and the ability to work at all? And how many will spend a lonely Thanksgiving Day reflecting on the many blessings that remain in their lives even in times of national distress?
Holidays, of course, are not just national events. Many religions celebrate “holy days”—in fact, that’s where the English word “holiday” comes from. But what makes a day holy? How can we know that a day is holy? In scriptural terms, something “holy” is “set apart” from that which is not holy. In a secular sense, Veteran’s Day, Labor Day, and other similar days are “set apart” from ordinary days on the calendar. But a Holy Day in the biblical sense is something very particular—a day God Himself set apart for His people. Your Bible lists several special days that God sets apart as Holy Days.
But what are those days God has set apart? Many are surprised to learn that the Bible never even mentions “Christmas” or “Easter,” though the King James Version mistranslates the Greek pascha as “Easter” in Acts 12:4, rather than the correct “Passover.” Many more are surprised when they discover the days the Bible does set apart as holy. Amazingly, several popular “Christian” holidays have roots not in the Bible, but in pagan traditions—even though God tells His people to reject the traditions of their pagan neighbors (Deuteronomy 12:29–32; Jeremiah 10:1–5)!
God’s command to reject pagan ways does not mean we are forbidden to observe appropriate national or federal holidays. Jesus Himself observed a national holiday kept by the Jewish people. We read in John 10:22–23 that Jesus participated in the Feast of Dedication. This is not one of the biblical Festivals God commanded of ancient Israel but, rather, was in many ways an equivalent to a national Jewish “Thanksgiving Day.” (Over time, it evolved to become the national holiday the Jewish community calls “Hanukkah.”)
Today, many nations have a Thanksgiving Day. On October 3, 1789, U.S. President George Washington made a thanksgiving proclamation. He stated, “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor” (“Thanksgiving Proclamation, 3 October 1789,” Archives.gov). Since 1942, the U.S. has celebrated Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November, following President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s order fixing that date. Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving Day on the second Monday of October.
Originally, Thanksgiving Day was established as a time to express our deep gratitude to God, but do we truly recognize God as our provider? Or do we look to our personal possessions and power for security? Thanksgiving is a good time to reflect on our blessings, our purpose, and our future, both individually and nationally.
Yet God has given us another day on which we can thank Him and reflect on our blessings.
The Fourth Commandment tells God’s people to keep holy the seventh day of the week.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it (Exodus 20:8–11).
God set apart the seventh-day Sabbath at creation. That’s why we are told to “Remember the Sabbath day.” But should New Testament Christians observe that day as their weekly day of worship? If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read “Who Changed the Sabbath to Sunday?” in the July–August 2020 Tomorrow’s World magazine.
Put simply, no human being can change God’s chosen day of worship. It was the Roman church that declared Sunday worship mandatory. Not until the fourth century AD did the Roman emperor Constantine enforce Sunday worship throughout the Roman Empire. Formerly an official worshipper of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), he gave the following edict in 321 AD: “Let all magistrates and people of the city, and all who work as artisans, rest on the venerable day of the sun” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1911, vol. 11, p. 147). In doing so, Constantine enforced a practice alien to Jesus Christ and His first-century Church.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, on the topic of “Sunday,” admits that “Tertullian (202 [AD]) is the first writer who expressly mentions the Sunday rest: ‘We, however (just as tradition has taught us), on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection ought to guard not only against kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude, deferring even our businesses lest we give any place to the devil’” (1912, vol. 14, p. 335). That was not until 202 AD, more than 170 years after the beginning of the New Testament Church!
Yes, the Roman church asserted such a change! In the middle of the fourth century AD, the Council of Laodicea declared, “Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s day they shall especially honour, and, as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If, however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ” (A History of the Councils of the Church, 1876, vol. 2, p. 316). In other words, Christian Sabbath-keepers who continued to follow the personal example of Jesus Christ and His original disciples were declared to be heretics and anathema to Christ.
And on what authority did the Roman church assert such a change? In 1876, the noted Catholic theologian James Cardinal Gibbons wrote this bold statement: “But you may read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and you will not find a single line authorizing the sanctification of Sunday. The Scriptures enforce the religious observance of Saturday, a day which we never sanctify” (The Faith of Our Fathers, 1917, p. 97).
In other words, Gibbons is saying that if the Bible is your authority, you have no basis for observing Sunday. The Scriptures, as he states, “enforce the religious observance of Saturday.” We agree with this statement. Do you? The Roman church presumed to have the authority to move God’s Holy Day from Saturday to Sunday! But, as Christians, we are told in Scripture to follow Christ, and to follow the apostles as they followed Christ. So, will you do what Jesus did? Will you follow His example as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28)?
Jesus faithfully observed not only the seventh-day Sabbath, but also the seven annual Holy Days that God the Father ordained for all of His people. These annual Holy Days were also observed by the early New Testament Church. The Bible does not show us Jesus or His disciples observing the festivals of foreign nations, but they did keep the Holy Days listed in Leviticus 23—both the weekly Sabbath (v. 3) and the annual Holy Days (vv. 4–43).
Many who call themselves Christians do not realize that the Apostle Paul told Gentile Christians to observe the Days of Unleavened Bread—the annual Festival that comes right after the annual Passover observance—which Jesus also observed, as should Christians today. Paul commanded, “Therefore let us keep the Feast [of Unleavened Bread], not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). The second chapter of the book of Acts demonstrates that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples were still observing the Holy Day of Pentecost. Another confirmation that Jesus kept the annual Holy Days is found in John 7, where Jesus told His brothers to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles (v. 8) and, shortly afterward, went Himself (v. 14).
We rejoice in the resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. And we rejoice in the fulfillment of Bible prophecies of the birth of the Messiah—documented in the gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. But does the “Christmas” holiday accurately celebrate that awesome event? Any reputable historian will say, No! Rather, consider what the Encyclopaedia Britannica article “Saturn” tells us about the role of the pre-Christian Saturnalia, which…
… became the most popular of Roman festivals, and its influence is still felt throughout the Western world. Originally on December 17, it was later extended to seven days. It was the merriest festival of the year: all work and business were suspended; slaves were given temporary freedom to say and do what they liked; certain moral restrictions were eased; and presents were freely exchanged. The influence of the Saturnalia upon the celebrations of Christmas and the New Year has been direct (Micropaedia, 1974, vol. 8, p. 916).
Not only did Romans worship the god Saturn; they also honored a sun god called Mithras, which was honored as the patron of the Roman Empire. You can find that in the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on “Mithraism” (Britannica.com, February 5, 2020). Romans celebrated the birth of the sun god—but when? Notice this, also from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “December 25—the birthday of Mithra, the Iranian god of light, and a day devoted to the invincible sun, as well as the day after the Saturnalia—was adopted by the church as Christmas, the nativity of Christ” (“Feast,” Britannica.com, February 7, 2019).
In the fourth century AD, the Roman church competed with the pagan festivals and practices of the Saturnalia and the December 25 worship of Mithras. The church sought to win converts by “Christianizing” a pagan festival—and win converts it did. Notice this, again from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Christianity… was the religion that prevailed in the Roman world. It satisfied the emperor Constantine’s impulsive need for divine support, and from AD 312 onward, by a complex and gradual process, it became the official religion of the empire…. For a time, coins and other monuments continued to link Christian doctrines with the worship of the Sun, to which Constantine had been addicted previously. But even when this phase came to an end, Roman paganism continued to exert other, permanent influences, great and small…. The ecclesiastical calendar retains numerous remnants of pre-Christian festivals—notably Christmas, which blends elements including both the feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra (“Roman religion,” Britannica.com, May 2, 2016).
Yes, history testifies that Roman paganism shaped the ecclesiastical calendar, particularly holidays such as Christmas. And this long-ago compromise with paganism persists among hundreds of millions of worshippers today!
Celebrations of Easter Sunday vary around the world. But not only is there no Easter observance in your Bible, Jesus rose from the dead on the seventh day of the week, not the first! We know that Jesus spent three days and three nights—72 hours—in the grave. He foretold this Himself, and this sign of Jonah was the one proof of His Messiahship He gave His adversaries in advance!
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38–40).
There is no way to reconcile a “Good Friday” crucifixion and Sunday resurrection with the 72-hour “sign of the prophet Jonah” that Jesus gave. And, in fact, there is no need to! Our Savior was crucified on the day before a Sabbath—but it was on the Wednesday before an annual Sabbath, the First Day of Unleavened Bread, and not the day before the weekly seventh-day Sabbath! We read, “Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31). The term “high day” indicates an annual Sabbath distinct from the weekly seventh-day Sabbath, and we know that in 31 AD, the first Day of Unleavened Bread began at sunset on a Wednesday.
Then, on Sunday, what did Mary see when she came to Jesus’ tomb?
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:1–2).
Notice that it was still dark on Sunday morning, and Jesus had already left the tomb! He was not resurrected “Easter Sunday” morning, according to your Bible!
To make matters worse, many customs and symbols surrounding this invented, unbiblical celebration are taken straight out of pagan rites! What do rabbits and eggs have to do with each other? Nothing, except that they both represent fertility—a common theme of pagan springtime festivals! As Gerald E. Weston writes in his powerful work Easter: The Untold Story (p. 2):
Easter is nothing more than another spelling for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, but where did this goddess originate? The New World Encyclopedia suggests a connection between Eostre and Easter with the very popular and ancient goddess Ishtar: “Scholars likewise speculate that Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring whose name later gave rise to the modern English ‘Easter,’ may be etymologically connected to Ishtar” (article “Ishtar”).
Interestingly, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church admits this about the origin of the name Easter, but gives a slightly different spelling from that of Ishtar. Our modern English word “Easter” comes from Old English, and referred originally to the Norse goddess of fertility, Istra—who was symbolized by a rabbit.
Why would people who call themselves “Christian” celebrate the resurrection of Christ in the name of a pagan goddess? Even some Protestant churches have noted the profane connection to the supposed resurrection of Christ and no longer celebrate Easter Sunday; they now call it “Resurrection Sunday.” But by doing so, they avoid only part of the pagan pedigree, as they still commemorate Christ’s resurrection on the wrong day, since He was not resurrected on a Sunday!
Historian Will Durant gave this analysis in his work The Story of Civilization:
Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life in the theology and liturgy of the Church; the Greek language, having reigned for centuries over philosophy, became the vehicle of Christian literature and ritual; the Greek mysteries passed down into the impressive mystery of the Mass. Other pagan cultures contributed to the syncretist result…. [orthodox] Christianity was the last great creation of the ancient pagan world” (1944, vol. 3, Caesar and Christ, p. 595).
Dear readers, are you practicing pagan traditions in the name of Christianity? Remember Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees and scribes concerning certain religious customs: “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:9).
Some people may ask, What difference does it make? So what if there is a little paganism in our celebration? The answer lies in a very significant biblical principle, one for which religions, churches, and individuals are going to be held accountable: “Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them… and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (Deuteronomy 12:30–31).
There is an even more significant reason why God wants Christians to observe His annual Holy Days. Not only do they follow their Savior’s example of true worship and obey God the Father by doing so, they also live out a series of days that picture God’s wonderful plan for all of humanity.
The annual, biblical Holy Days, listed in Leviticus 23, begin a day after the observance of the Passover on the fourteenth day of Nisan, the first month in God’s sacred year. They are:
(Note that while days of the Gregorian calendar begin at midnight, days of God’s calendar begin at sunset. God’s Holy Days each begin at sunset on the evening before the Gregorian calendar day listed.)
The annual Holy Days are a subject rich with meaning for followers of Jesus Christ. If you haven’t already done so, please read our booklet The Holy Days: God’s Master Plan. You can read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org or request a free printed copy from the Regional Office nearest you, listed on page 4 of this magazine.
Yes, God’s annual Holy Days are full of meaning and truth—qualities we do not find in the man-made Christmas and Easter traditions. So, which will you observe—mankind’s invented, pagan, false religious days of worship, or God’s own weekly and annual Holy Days, the same days observed by Jesus Christ, by the apostles, and by His faithful disciples from the first century to this day in the true church of God? We at Tomorrow’s World pray that you will make the right choice!