Friday, December 23, 2016

Falsely Accused? You Decide

All I wanted to do was leave this place and not come back. Not until January. Heck, maybe not until March, the way this day was going.

But I couldn't get to the door in time to escape the red-headed woman who was following me down the hallway.

"Excuse me," she said. "I heard what your daughter said in there. That she didn't have a Christmas tree. I assume it has to be a financial issue. Would you let us buy you one?"

I burst into tears for the second time that day. The first time had been only five minutes earlier, when I walked into a classroom to find my tearful, stammering child rejecting a gift from her beloved teacher - a glittery teal ornament - because she didn't have a Christmas tree to put it on. And she wasn't having a pity party. No, she wasn't sure that she wanted a tree. Or whether she should want one. Or whether she could trust this bubbly blonde teacher who unknowingly stumbled over the elephant in our living room.

Or maybe it was the lack of the elephant in our living room, so to speak. We had already decided that being thankful for Jesus' birth was acceptable for Christians. We had purchased a few modest presents to help smooth the transition. We had understood for some time that Jeremiah 10 did not refer to Christmas trees. But we were just not ready to welcome this long-demonized symbol into our home.

We eventually made peace with Christmas trees, after a lot of reading, praying and soul-searching. Ironically, now I spend many Decembers days reassuring troubled Christians who've just discovered that some believe their beloved tradition to be filthy paganism. But I feel it's a worthwhile discussion to have, since Christmas is one of the main issues that leads sincere mainstream Christians into cults like Armstrongism (the Churches of God) or the Hebrew Roots movement.

Every year, I get the chance to dig a little deeper, learn a little more and share what I've found on As Bereans Did and in my face-to-face relationships. This year, I've learned:

  • Claims that Christmas trees came from Germanic paganism usually force any loose association with tree worship into the Christmas tree, regardless of the species or specific mythical significance. Some arguments are circular. Others ignored the historical record or even disregarded the historical timeline. Overall, they lack credibility. 
  • Christmas trees most likely came from Christian mystery plays in medieval Europe. Many experts believe the Christmas tree came from the Paradise Tree – a prop used in plays that recounted the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Paradise Play, which featured the Paradise Tree, was traditionally linked to December 24. Paradise Trees were decorated with apples, as were many early Christmas trees – which first appeared outside the meeting halls of trade guilds responsible for performing the plays each year.
  • Christmas trees became more common around the time of the Reformation. Many believe that Protestants who were no longer welcome at Catholic Christmas mass capitalized on the tradition to transfer the focus of the holiday celebration to the home. This theory is bolstered by the fact that most German Catholics rejected the Christmas tree as a heretical Protestant invention until the late 1800s. It also deals a crippling blow to those who claim that Catholics appropriated the tradition from ancient pagan practices. There is no record of Catholics accepting Christmas trees throughout the Middle Ages, then purging them from their celebrations in the 1500s.
  • National Socialist leaders capitalized on the tree as a historic German tradition when they rebranded Christmas in their efforts to rid Germany of Christianity. Nazi propagandists gradually divorced Christmas celebration from the story of Jesus' birth. They resurrected legends about Yule, Woden and sun worship. Eventually, the Third Reich even distributed Advent calendars that boldly proclaimed “Christmas is the Solstice.” These allegations didn't originate with the Nazis, but they certainly worked tirelessly to cement them as truth in the minds of Germans. Many of whom have been quoted as reliable sources on the origin of German Christmas traditions for decades after the war. 

    Regardless of all this, I know that many of you will never be able to shake your negative feelings about Christmas trees. Well, guess what? 

    I couldn't care less if you ever have a Christmas tree. No, seriously. I'm offended by outspoken leaders who make arrogant, demeaning pronouncements and simplistic claims. But I'm not offended by sincere individuals who aren't - and never will be - comfortable with Christmas trees. I know it's a hard step to take. It's not commanded. It's certainly not a matter of salvation. Please, stick to your houseplants. I don't mind. 

    I don't even care if you ever celebrate Christmas. I know many of ABD's readers have adopted the Hebrew holy days. I understand your reasoning and know that you have sincere, noble intentions. I disagree with your reasoning, and believe it has hidden spiritual dangers. No, we don't have any carbon dated evidence or time-stamped video surveillance of the nativity. There are good reasons that ancient scholars pinpointed December 25th, largely based in Semitic cultural ideas to which we can't relate. But again, Christmas isn't a command. And it certainly isn't a matter of salvation.


    So what do I want? 

    I want you to think for yourself. I want you to consider something other the canned, reheated history offered by those who still embrace the rantings of a Depression-era ad-man. Who plagiarized from the rantings of a 19th-century Scotsman. And possibly bought into Nazi propaganda. A lot of discoveries have been made in the 175 years since Alexander Hislop compiled his volume, and even in the 75 years since Herbert Armstrong first, um, borrowed them.  

    More importantly, I want you to fully appreciate why the birth of the Savior was so significant - why even the angels felt it was a reason to rejoice. Some groups downplay discussion of Jesus' birth because they say it's His death that was significant. That's partially true - even conservative Christian groups that put on elaborate Christmas productions continually point to the Cross.

    The difference is, in most groups that downplay Christ's birth, His grace really isn't sufficient. Focusing entirely on His death allows these groups to preach that His sinless, righteous state was what qualified Him to rule as King of Kings. Likewise, they teach that it is the righteousness of our walk after accepting Christ's sacrifice that maintains our qualification for His Kingdom

    This sounds good on paper. After all, is grace license to sin? Certainly not, wrote Paul. The New Testament is full of commands for the Christian walk, and faith without these works is dead. Who would argue that a Christian's conduct doesn't matter? 

    Here's the problem. The Bible also tells us that these positive works and attributes are fruit of God's involvement in our lives. The evidence that we have been justified in God's sight. They are not a checklist  of items that coax His involvement, or our eventual victory. Unfortunately, most cults twist this misguided teaching to their own ends. They abuse it to control behavior and threaten those who object with shunning and loneliness in this lifetime and damnation in the next, making many followers vulnerable to depression and even suicide

    There is a subtle, but important, difference between obeying because you have favor with God and obeying in order to obtain favor from God. In the theology of the former, we are led by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to God's glory. In the latter, we try to scrub ourselves clean of sin in hopes that we might obtain His glory.

    Be honest. No one else is looking. Raise your hand if, deep down, you think you will ever be able to eliminate enough sin from your life to qualify for God's Kingdom.

    (I'll pause and give you a minute to think).

    That's what I thought. Behavior modification isn't easy. I know, I'm a mom. But even if you got all your bad behaviors under control, it wouldn't change your heart.

    (Matthew 15:17-20, NIV) "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts - murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them."

    The children of Israel had been trying to modify their behavior for centuries. It didn't work. Not with any lasting effect, anyway, because it didn't change their hearts. And it won't change yours, either. Only He can. Your only hope is placing your full faith in Jesus, in the gift of regeneration and eternal life, confirmed by the New Covenant in His blood.

    This is why the birth of Jesus was such good news. It's good news this Sunday, next Tuesday, February 18th, June 23rd or any other day of the year. Understand who you are and Who He is. Appreciate the full measure of what He did for you. And give thanks, whenever it is that you're comfortable, just give thanks that Jesus came.

    That's all I want. And you don't need a tree to do that.



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    It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
    Acts 17:11
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    6 comments:

    Black Ops Mikey said...

    To improve the disposition of your readers and offer some seasonal cheer, I hope that you can take a look at:

    I'm Dreaming of a Racially Ambiguous Holiday!

    The best part is Animalia when you get to "The Kingdoms of... become the...". Don't be eating or drinking at that part! I was laughing so hard I thought my sides would split!

    They are absolutely amazing.

    Please enjoy.

    Black Ops Mikey said...

    "Be honest. No one else is looking. Raise your hand if, deep down, you think you will ever be able to eliminate enough sin from your life to qualify for God's Kingdom."

    There are at least two that we know of, one a prophet / apostle (?) and an evangelist, both of whom claim they have not committed a MAJOR sin since baptism.

    It's a case that they don't have to eliminate sin from their lives to qualify for God's Kingdom, it was never there in the first place!

    And we're not certain, there seems to be a third one. If we find out for sure, we'll get back to you on that.

    It must be wonderful to be so assured. Aren't we all supposed to assume that we WILL be in the Kingdom, or is it something which can slip away?

    Ekklesia said...

    I haven't read all your articles on this, but why would someone incorporate the tree in their worship of Jesus and celebrating His birth? They do have connotations when paired with worship of God. Druid, Norse, Germanic, etc. And, the plays hearkening back to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil seems odd.I'm certainly not bent out of shape by it, but it does seem strange and introduces themes that I don't care to have associated with the birth of the Messiah.

    If you addressed these things specifically, just point me to where and/or which article.

    Thank you.

    xHWA said...

    Ekklesia,

    Links to the other articles in this series have been added to the post. Can't believe I forgot to do that.

    Here is the highly abridged version:
    It developed organically over time as things changed in Europe. The Christmas Tree tradition appears to have roots as a prop in religious plays. The prop started as a single representation of the two trees in the Garden of Eden. It gained significance with Jesus because one such play was held on December 24th. In the 1400's we see the first records of what can be called a Christmas Tree. It was basically an advertisement. Then when the Reformation happened the German Protestants adopted it as part of their increasingly de-centralized worship in their homes. In the course of a few centuries the Catholics adopted it too (they prefer nativity scenes). It made its way to England, the US, and here we are.

    Logan said...

    I've read the whole series. One thing though I'm trying to get my head past is the so-called Iranian celebration called chelleh which involves a tree. I have read that the ancient Iranians would be afraid of the winter solstice prior to the introduction of Islam. They considered it an inauspicious night and would perform rituals to keep evil away, one of which was the tree. In Jer 10: God said do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven. That could be a reference to the Iranians fearing the winter solstice. In my newfound strain of thought, God is saying don't observe the winter solstice when he says learn not the way of the heathen and then speaks against the tree in verse 3. I had no intention of coming up with such an explanation but when I read that ancient Iranians were afraid of the winter solstice this explanation just immediately manifested in my mind. By the way I am not a person who is against Christmas, just a normal Christmas celebrating guy who wants to sift out truth from fiction who believes you all can help me out with this problem. Thank you all. Love.

    xHWA said...

    Logan,

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I wouldn't worry about Yalda. There really isn't anything that I know of to link Yalda to Christmas.

    I have yet to find the end of the claims that every known ancient thing became Christmas. But when I dig down, I see that the vast majority of these claims are nothing more than a modern person with a modern perspective and a fraction of the facts was wishing beyond hope that their holiday is older than someone else's holiday. Is that supposed to make it more legitimate? I don't know.

    Rather than tell you all about Yalda to demonstrate why Yalda is not a precursor to Christmas, I'll just tell you the super-abridged version of Christmas.
    In the 100's AD, as a reaction to Gnostic claims, Christian scholars began to emphasize Jesus' humanity and therefore His death and birth. In the mid to late 100's, various Christian scholars identified various dates for these events. Two popular times for Jesus' birth were May and November/December. In 202-211 AD, a person named Hippolytus of Rome wrote a commentary on Daniel in which he concluded that Jesus died on March 25th. Due to an ancient Jewish custom, Hippolytus associated the date of Jesus' death with the date of His conception, and thus concluded Jesus was born 9 months later on December 25th. That's how we got the date. It had nothing to do with Saturnalia, which was December 17-19th. It was not due to any Sol celebration as Sol wasn't introduced to Rome until 218 AD. It has nothing to do with the solstice, which wasn't on December 25th in that century (nor either was it on December 21st in that century). There is no evidence that Rome had a solstice celebration in the early 200's. It was due to a calculation. Or even a miscalculation.

    You can read much more about this in our article "The Plain Truth About December 25"

    I notice that you mention Jeremiah 10. We have an article, "Jeremiah 10 and Christmas Trees", that may help you understand what Jeremiah was really saying in this chapter. I think you may agree with us after reading it that God isn't talking about a tree for a tree's sake or a tree for a celebration's sake. The chapter is about taking a tree and then carving it into an idol god to worship in place of the real God. So, God isn't talking about any holiday or its decorations. There is nothing in the chapter that can be interpreted as having anything to do with a solstice or winter. It is possible that someone may have done you a disservice by planting the idea in your mind that Christmas, or some ancient precursor, is being spoken about.

    We do hope to help you sort this out. Feel free to ask anything you wish.