Should Intermarried Families Celebrate Christmas?

Messianic Judaism brings together many intermarried families with many different backgrounds and stories. In December, there is an issue which touches the core of what it means to struggle with two heritages, two cultures, under one roof.

Yesterday, in a comment on my post about going off to Chicago-land, in which I mentioned that I am working on a haggadah for the birth of Messiah, Tandi wrote in representing what I would call one extreme position in approaching the question of Christmas. You can see her comment here.

Tandi’s explanation, though it contains several historical inaccuracies (even major ones), is nonetheless essentially true. The customs of Christmas are adapted from Roman and Teutonic holidays and at the root these customs did once involve pagan rites and worldviews. From this, she concludes that Christmas-celebrating families are being deceived into unwittingly practicing pagan worship and imitating the forbidden customs of the native peoples. I cannot go this far.

But it is a good question to raise: should an intermarried family celebrate Christmas?

The Positives
First, it should be noted that adapting pagan customs for the worship of the true God is not only allowable, it is something God himself does. Research and you will find that Sukkot (Tabernacles) is quite similar to the Babylonian and other Mesopotamian rites at the end of harvest. You will find that new moons marked the calendar in virtually all ancient cultures prior to the institution of the Biblical calendar. You will find that Late Bronze temples amongst the pagans were virtually identical in layout to the pattern God showed Moses on Sinai for the Tabernacle and what later became the Temple in Jerusalem. You will find that cherubs, mixed creatures of animal and human features, marked the deities of Egypt and Mesopotamia and yet were included on the Ark and on the curtains of the Temple. I could go on and on, but Tandi and the many critics of Christmas as deceptive-pagan worship need to reckon with the fact that worship customs are shared in common between pagans and Jews and Christians and always have been.

Second, the idea that customs of Christmas (a cut tree, holly, a fire, songs, etc.) are equatable with the customs of the Canaanites which the Torah forbids Israel to imitate has a major problem. The problem is that in context after context, the Torah and prophets give examples of these customs. They involve idolatrous worship, sexual immorality, and even child sacrifice. These are hardly equatable with a family decorating and feasting for a holiday.

More importantly, Christmas represents for many of the non-Jewish spouses of intermarriage a treasured piece of childhood, a family heritage, and a cultural expression that brings fond memories. When a person comes to God he does not strip away heritage or culture, but only wrong-doing and error.

Christmas is for many a connection to extended family, a shared experience that has meant bonding and forgiving and coming together for something good and joyful.

There are positive reasons why a non-Jewish spouse of intermarriage might want to celebrate Christmas.

The Negatives
Yet there are strong reasons to take the opposite approach as well. My family has chosen not to celebrate Christmas for these reasons. I find them compelling.

Celebrating Christmas in an intermarried family will confuse the children. Are they being raised as Jews or encouraged to assimilate and leave Jewish identity behind? Their Christian friends will see them as really Christians and not Jews as will their Jewish friends. At best, Christmas in a Jewish or intermarried home sends a mixed message.

Remembering the birth of Messiah on December 25 is based on a falsehood. The church long ago chose a date which coincided with a Roman feast involving pagan customs. This was not an attempt by the church to deceive anyone. It was a matter of expedience. Everyone was already freed from regular work during Saturnalia and it was a good time for a feast (Christmas feasts were more than one day at that time). Yeshua was decidedly not born on December 25 which means there is always something artificial about Christmas. We have no idea when Yeshua was born (the so-called proof that he was born during Sukkot is baseless and equally false).

Christmas long ago ceased to be a sign of faith, an identity marker of a person devoted to Messiah and willing to take a stand in a Messiah-less culture. Christmas is simply the way of the land, a day that may just as well be about greed and the desire to enrich our lives with baubles and amusements. It is no act of faith to bow to the deities of Walmart and Target and Best Buy.

Very significantly for the Leman family, Christmas detracts from Hanukkah. The materialistic delights of Christmas presents easily outweighs the family fun of dreidl and the telling of the Maccabean story. Why would we want our children to thing of Hanukkah as “that other holiday in December”?

Finally, and also a deciding factor in the Leman home, Christmas will raise barriers with Jewish friends and family. I know, some of you intermarrieds are saying, “But my mother-in-law buys Christmas presents for the kids and she has a tree in her own house.” This is often the case. But even those in the Jewish community who celebrate Christmas know it is a compromise with assimilation. And they look to you, the family that supposedly believes in God and is devoted to him, and they wonder why you are so eager to assimilate. What difference does God make and is faithfulness an issue for you at all? It is better for them if you are not committed and excuses their own surrender to assimilation. Let’s not take God too seriously, shall we?

In Sum
I have said more on this topic than usual. It is an emotional one. As a rabbi over a congregation of mostly intermarried families, I make no comment at synagogue or when I visit a home. I respect either decision, though clearly I favor one over the other.

I know as well as anyone the good side of Christmas as well as the bad side. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of my favorite movies too. The true values of the secular Christmas are not just materialism, but a return to family, goodwill toward all people, and faithful and devoted love. Even without the Messiah story, Christmas has a good side.

I don’t hesitate to say Merry Christmas to friends. I don’t rankle because the store clerk does not say, Happy Hanukkah to me. I simply have made the choice to keep Hanukkah in the Leman home and not Christmas. And, yes, I have succumbed to the temptation to give gifts to my wife and children at Hanukkah. It is a compromise with secular culture, but we give it meaning in our own way.

So, why am I making a Haggadah for the Birth of Messiah and putting it out in December? Stay tuned and we will discuss it tomorrow.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Holidays, Interfaith, Intermarried, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Should Intermarried Families Celebrate Christmas?

  1. amiel4messiah says:

    Derek. This is one of the most balanced arguments on the (emotive) subject of Christmas I have ever read. I applaud your honesty in wrestling with a complex subject. Over the years, my views on the subject have mellowed – I used to be so anti Christmas, that I would (unintentionally) offend fellow-believers. And while I continue to avoid all the usual Christmas trappings (e.g. Christmas Cards, Christmas Tree etc.), I have come to see that there is nothing wrong in attending a Christmas Day Dinner with friends or even wish someone a ‘Happy Christmas’. And yes, I absolutely love “It’s a Wonderful Life” – I always cry my way through that movie.

    In closing, I would like to say that I found your argument compelling on how HaShem ‘transformed’ former pagan practices and incorporated them into Israel. As believers in Messiah we should not be frightened to wrestle with subjects that the liberals have long claimed for themselves. I treasure this blog and the effort you are putting into it – it is a source of rish learning to me.

    As you know, I am a member of the International Messianic Community of Faith. My Rebbe (Dr Les Aron Gosling) always encourages us to shy away from dogma (unless of course we’re talking about the Messiahship of Yeshua for instance) and remain open-minded. A fundamentalist mind-set can be a dangerous one and your blog is such a wonderful source of learning, honesty and desire to share. Thank You!

  2. judahgabriel says:

    Derek,

    Some Messianics have been too harsh in our criticism of Christmas and Christianity. I’ve been guilty of this. You highlight this, and yet you also highlight some real negatives about Christmas. Good balance there. Thanks.

    I call “bogus!” on one thing, though:

    “it should be noted that adapting pagan customs for the worship of the true God is not only allowable, it is something God himself does.

    God adopts pagan customs for Israel? C’mon. Your examples are weak, at best. Other cultures having feasts similar to Sukkot, or worship shrines similar to the tabernacle, or elements like the cherubim does not mean that God, or Israel, borrowed them. You’re going too far down the Biblical-criticism road.

  3. tnnonline says:

    Thank for your dispelling much of the negative rhetoric out there about Christmas in the Messianic world. For many people, Christmas=the birth of Yeshua. In claiming “Christmas” to be pagan, they assume that people are speaking against the Biblical account of the Messiah’s birth as opposed to various traditions. Sensitivity to the needs of others in this has not been encouraged enough. It would be far better if these people simply said, “Christmas was not God’s original intention,” and then being tempered by some grace and reason would carefully explain themselves.

    I understand the challenges that many intermarried couples might face, especially when trying to blend elements of one’s Jewish and Christian backgrounds into a mixed family. Yet most of the intermarrieds that I know do not celebrate Christmas, even though they might meet with extended family during the month of December. Ironically, the Jewish spouse is often more welcome among his/her Christian family-in-law then the non-Jewish spouse is among his/her Jewish family-in-law. Messianic intermarrieds that I know are some of the first to speak against the mean-spirited anti-Christmas attitudes, even though they may not celebrate it themselves.

  4. Dan Benzvi says:

    The problem is not whether one celebrates Christmas. The problem arises when one celebrates christmas on the expense of God’s appointed times.

  5. Judah:

    Moses received the Torah no earlier than 1400 B.C.E (some say later). The Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires predate Israel. If God gave Israel a festival that strongly resembled theirs, then how is it Biblical-criticism to say that Sukkot is God’s adaptation of existing customs of surrounding cultures? Facts are facts. Please show me where I am wrong.

    • tnnonline says:

      I appreciate that Derek is one of the few Messianic teachers out there (besides myself) who will even deal with the ANE background of the Tanach. Too many either rely too heavily on the Rabbinic tradition, or are just fundie, that they can’t even handle the idea of the societies of Ancient Israel having similar religious practices. Yet how do we view these religious practices?

      When I was in seminary, our OT Intro prof told us how Frank Cross did some important work in ANE tent shrines. He relayed to our class how before this, most in the critical tradition thought that the Tabernacle was just the Temple miniturized and read back into the Pentateuch–but other than that they thought it was total fantasy. Cross proved them wrong, noting how other religious groups used similiar traveling sanctuaries. Now, critical scholars have to at least recognize the possibility of some Israelite nomads packing up a tent where they worshipped their God.

      Now can we really assume that the Ancient Israelites, or even God Himself, repackaged previous pagan items? There is a point where practices like animal sacrifice, musical worship, or even prayer, are so common that it is ridiculous to try to argue. At the same time, I would have to be quite cautious in concluding that something like Sukkot or Passover are based in the practices of the surrounding cultures, and not in the unique experiences of Ancient Israel with God in delivering them. Perhaps outsiders looking in could recognize some things, but these would be more common to the overall condition of the human experience (i.e., expressing thankfulness for bounty), as opposed to something specific to ANE religion.

    • judahgabriel says:

      Derek, this logic seems like a non-sequitur:
      –God gave Israel festivals and structure for worship.
      –There are similar festivals and structure in civilizations predating Israel.
      –Therefore, God borrowed festivals, the tabernacle, and systems of worship from these civilizations and their false gods.

  6. Derek, I want to challenge your opener … that Christmas is a big issue for intermarrieds. Speaking as an actual product of intermarriage who grew up in the Messianic movement, I don’t see Christmas observance as a big hang-up for our demographic. It’s resolved rather simply. We do Christmas with our Gentile family, and Jewish holidays with our Jewish family. And at home, our practices range from an amalgam of coinciding holidays, or a total absence of decorations and other obvious signs of the season. Except in those years that Pesach and Easter overlap, it makes travel (and decoration) schedules pretty uncomplicated.

    It seems that Gentiles who are NOT married to Jews but are involved in Messianic Judaism have bigger issues with (and more vocal reactions to) the Christmas issue.

    But seriously, haven’t you heard Christmas carols? There’s a reason why my tribesmen harbor a secret love for them. The goyim really have a patent on joyful winter festivities. Yes, we know that indulging our love for Christmas too heavily smacks of assimilation … but we generally dabble just enough to whet our appreciation for the warm fuzzies, with chestnuts and eggnog.

  7. tandi119 says:

    Needless to say, I disagree with Derek’s views rather strongly. I expected my provocative comment to elicit reaction, and I am very interested to hear the views of other Messianics. It seems in an effort to show kindness and understanding to those who still celebrate Christmas, we grieve and confuse those who are trying to make the break with it. I choose to encourage those who are forsaking the compromise with the world/paganism. It is very difficult for those people as they deal with family get togethers, etc. at this time of year and make the transition to Hanukkah when they hear from Messianic leaders that it really is no big deal about Christmas, and those who object to it strongly are just “extremist” and “mean-spirited” and “falsely accusing others of pagan worship and idolatry.”

    I do not judge others on this matter. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind (Romans 14).

    My husband and I gave up Christmas 25 years ago. Most of my family still celebrates it. We just agree to disagree and resume fellowship in January. It is a difficult time for many families. ‘Tis the season to be grieved for me, not jolly. I’d rather spin a dreidel than join the spending frenzy though. Mall shopping is not something I miss in the least. Too bad families would not agree to get together for reunions at Sukkot. How ironic that God’s holidays are in the pleasant seasons of the year, conducive to outdoor activities, and satan’s substitutes are in the dead of winter and the rainy season, making for difficult travel for families wanting to get together.

    I hope someone will strongly refute Derek’s statement:

    “it should be noted that adapting pagan customs for the worship of the true God is not only allowable, it is something God himself does.”

    This statement contradicts the Scriptures that I brought out in my essay. Adam and Eve knew about proper sacrifices. Noah knew the difference between clean/unclean. So what came first? God’s directives, or pagan ideas? Derek would have us believe that God copied the pagans instead of the other way around.

    If there are historical facts that are wrong in my essay, I would like to know about them. I had limited resources when I wrote this in 1991.

    http://tandi-1964.blogspot.com/2009/11/why-we-dont-celebrate-christmas.html

  8. tnnonline says:

    The ministry I serve has a consistent track record of speaking against the negative rhetoric that some people in the Messianic community display during the month of December. I have not celebrated Christmas since 1995, and although it has not always been easy, Christmas was largely a part of my old family life with my late father who passed away from cancer in 1992. When my mother got remarried and we moved from not only our home in Northern Kentucky, but also the same home where he grew up, Christmas became a part of some very special, but past memories.

    Most spiritual Christians who keep Christmas do so to remember the birth of Yeshua. The birth of Yeshua is in the Scriptures, and as a part of our Bible studies we do need to consider how important it is. I am horrified to see some of the rhetoric out there when Messianic people–at any time of year–start reading from Luke 2.

    We need to learn to navigate through some of the extremes, and also try to put ourselves in the position of others (Philippians 2:3-4). Perhaps it is best that people simply learn to say, “Christmas on Dec 25 was not God’s original intention,” and then move on to showing others a better way without all of the “pagan” rhetoric. Such banter is a blight on our faith community that has to end.

    Our ministry recently released the paperback edition of our Messianic Winter Holiday Helper, available at Amazon.com if you struggle with some of the issues present in this season:

    http://www.amazon.com/Messianic-Winter-Holiday-Helper-Margaret/dp/0982375441/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259681277&sr=8-3

  9. Judah:

    You said: Derek, this logic seems like a non-sequitur:
    –God gave Israel festivals and structure for worship.
    –There are similar festivals and structure in civilizations predating Israel.
    –Therefore, God borrowed festivals, the tabernacle, and systems of worship from these civilizations and their false gods.

    My response:
    -God gave Israel the festivals and structure for worship.
    -They are very similar in some ways and different in others from pre-existing customs of the nations.
    -God’s purpose it would seem is to reveal himself in familiar terms to the people and to modify existing customs in important ways to correct bad theology and promote life and not death.

    I regret that in this short discussion I have not had time to fully lay out what I see happening in the parallels between Ancient Near Eastern customs and Biblical patterns. The differences matter as much as the similarities.

    As for the argument that Noah knew clean and unclean and Abraham kept all the Torah statutes, there is much misunderstanding here. I’d need a lot more space to do it justice but let’s start with Noah. Moses wrote Genesis and used terminology familiar to his generation. This does not mean that Noah knew Leviticus 11 in advance. We do not know how God communicated these commands to Noah specifically. We just know that Moses could use clean and unclean in writing Genesis because his generation understood. As for Abraham keeping the statutes a la Gen 26, it is a dubious interpretation (Judah did not say this, but someone else did) that Abraham knew all the Torah statutes. The language of Gen 26:5 could be taken in other ways (Abraham adhered to the ethical laws known at the time and was faithful to the covenant).

    • judahgabriel says:

      “God’s purpose it would seem is to reveal himself in familiar terms to the people and to modify existing customs in important ways to correct bad theology and promote life and not death.”

      Scripture explains the Tabernacle was modeled after the heavenly Temple, not after existing customs.

      You ought to consider alternate explanations for the similarities.

      • Judah:

        Do you think I am unaware of or disagree with the scriptural idea that the Tabernacle is based on a heavenly pattern? Of course I affirm that. It does not change my argument. There are intriguing issues to think about. (1) Could that mean that the pagans got some things right through memory of earlier godly practices as well as through natural theology? (2) Even if #1 turns out not to be true, it is not difficult to see that God in his foreknowledge of the timing of the Sinai revelation patterned the heavenly worship based on the culture in which he would reveal it.

        We’re talking about God here: omniscient, foreknowing, not subject to our criticism but worthy only of our humble acknowledgement of his ways.

  10. J.K. (tnnonline):

    Very interesting. I’d like to have your Winter Holiday Helper. Is it better for you if I order on amazon or if I buy directly from you? Let me know and I will purchase one. Thank you for being a good moderating voice and an intelligent voice in matters Biblical.

  11. christian4moses says:

    Though you may be aware of it, the Rambam too, is of the opinion that not all things contained in the Bible are novel concepts. Certainly in his time this would have been a controversial idea to hold on to, but one worth of our consideration, I would say.

    Heres a quote from the Guide, its quite long so I’d understand if you delete the quote and cite this link instead.

    […]the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars, as has been explained by us.

    It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner…

    By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them. (III:32)

  12. daviddom says:

    Although I’m not married at all, I ditto Monique. I don’t browse blogs much at all. I have of late and recognize many of the same names and issues in the comments area. I must say that Monique never seems to mind laying it out forthright (that’s a compliment).

    As a sheppherd, Rabbi Leman has to deal with these issues, and I think he does a very sincere job of it.

    Shalom,

    David

  13. Well balanced article.
    A feast not mentioned here is Chanukah. This wasn’t given by the Tenach, but founded by men. Although it hadn’t pagan roots like Christmas, it appears that it is allowed to set up a feast to remember something e.g. I am not happy with Christmas because it has pagan roots, but I wouldn’t say that it is not allowed to celebrate.

    Shalom,
    Jos

  14. michaelger says:

    Derek,

    As I continue to navigate these heady messianic waters, yours is a voice I value for its reasonable path. As an admission I have been an adherent to the “Nativity at Sukkot” line of reasoning for some time. I would very highly value (pending your schedule) a response here or by email with some of your refutation of that line of thinking. Perhaps on a different thread.

    This is the first time that I have ever read of a disagreement with that understanding. I know that not just a few Messianics subscribe to the idea of Jesus’ birth at Sukkot. Your own scholarship would be greatly appreciated.

    Shalom and Blessings,

    Michael

  15. ltverberg says:

    Derek –

    I just wanted to add supporting data to your comment that God did use pagan practices for his own worship.

    Erecting standing stones, masebot, has been a pagan practice for millennia. Stonehenge is one example, the monoliths at Gezer are another. In Deuteronomy God instructs the Israelites to tear down those in the land (12:3) and not to put them up themselves because God *hates* them (16:2). But in Joshua, God specifically instructs the tribes to erect 12 standing stones (masebot) after they enter the land, in order to commemorate God’s action there. (Joshua 4:21-24) And Jacob erects stones at various places where he has an encounter with God, and this is considered an act of faithful worship (Gen 28:18 for example).

    But on the other hand, when a practice that God himself instituted becomes idolatrous, he abolishes it. In the desert, God told the Israelites to construct the bronze snake so that those who looked upon it would be healed (Numbers 21:8). But later in history, the bronze snake was used as an idol, so it had to be destroyed. (2 Kings 18:4).

    In both cases, a ritual’s origins were not a part of the decision as to whether it should be encouraged or stopped. What was important was how it was being used at the time, either to honor God or to worship idols.

    Just before seeing your blog on this, I had put up an article on this called “Standing Stones and Christmas Trees” at this link:

    http://www.ourrabbijesus.com/index.php/articles/standing_stones_and_christmas_trees/

    Blessings –

    Lois Tverberg

  16. The question for everyone is not whether or not to celebrate Christmas. I can find nothing in the Bible that says don’t. What I can find though is a series of dictates to everyone to celebrate God’s festivals. This is what has been missing. The modern Christian puts Christmas on a pedestal over all other holidays, and ignores the ones prescribed by God Himself as His own holidays.
    Feast of Trumpets,
    Feast of Tabernacles
    First Fruits
    Day of Atonement
    Feast of Weeks
    There are others that are specifically for the Jewish people. Passover and Feast of unleavened bread can be celebrated by all. The Feast of Dedication(Chanukah) and Purim are Jewish specific holidays and they do set up a pattern of celebrations that others can follow which Christmas and Thanksgiving fall into.
    So it is not a matter of simply declaring Christmas good or bad, It is a matter of are you doing what the Word stipulates or doing Christmas in it’s place.

    Celebrating the Jewish Messiah that I as a Gentile have taken as my own.

    Pastor Ben Cleveland

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