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

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20 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:

  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:

  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:

      • 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. 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

  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

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