A Messianic Jew Reflects on Christmas

By Michael Brown Published on December 17, 2017

Is Christmas a holiday with pagan origins? Is it wrong to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th? And what about putting up a Christmas tree? Is that a direct violation of Jeremiah 10?

As a Jewish follower of Jesus (a “Messianic Jew”), I do not relate to the Christmas season the way many Christians do. Especially those who were raised in a home where Christmas was celebrated. Yet I do not have a problem with the Christian celebration of Christmas, as long as the spirit of the celebration is right. If Jesus is being adored and his birth is being commemorated, the date of that commemoration is not a concern to me.

What’s in a Day?

It is true that there is no biblical holiday that marks the birth of Jesus. Nor is there a command given to celebrate it at a later time. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong for the later Church to develop the Christmas tradition.

To be sure, some traditions are negative and destructive, going against the Scriptures and even making void what the Bible teaches. And Jesus actively opposed such traditions. But other traditions are neutral. Still others can be positive. If, over time, Christians felt it important to remember the birth of the Messiah along with his death and resurrection, what harm is there in doing so?

It is true that the evidence appears against Jesus being born on December 25th. Though, there were early Church leaders who did believe he was born at that time.

More importantly, December 25th was a pagan holiday. And many believe that the Church adopted this day to celebrate Christmas as a capitulation to paganism. While this is certainly possible (as a Messianic Jew, I don’t relate to Church history the way many Christians do), it’s also possible that this was not the case at all.

Regardless of why this date was chosen to mark the Messiah’s birth, it’s as good a day as any to celebrate it, should you be so inclined to do so.

As the recently departed theologian R.C. Sproul explains,

It just so happens that on the twenty-fifth of December in the Roman Empire there was a pagan holiday that was linked to mystery religions; the pagans celebrated their festival on December 25. The Christians didn’t want to participate in that, and so they said, “While everybody else is celebrating this pagan thing, we’re going to have our own celebration. We’re going to celebrate the thing that’s most important in our lives, the incarnation of God, the birth of Jesus Christ. So this is going to be a time of joyous festivities, of celebration and worship of our God and King.”

The whole gospel story is a story of redemption. Since God owns every day of the year, why not redeem a day set apart for pagan worship and use it instead to glorify the Lord?

Regardless of why this date was chosen, it is the date on which hundreds of millions of Christians do mark the Messiah’s birth. And it’s as good a day as any to celebrate it, should you be inclined to do so.

Celebrating the Birth of Jesus

Many Messianic Jews celebrate the birth of Jesus (whom they call Yeshua, using his Hebrew name) during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), which takes place in September or October. They believe an argument can be made that he was born at this time of the year. They point out that this is already a time set apart on the biblical calendar as holy to the Lord. They also point to John 1:14, which states that “the Word” (speaking of Jesus) tabernacled among us.

Personally, I think that’s wonderful as well. But I also believe it’s fine not to celebrate the birth of Jesus on any particular holiday. Let every day be a celebration of his birth!

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At the same time, since the gospels describe these important events in great detail (historically, in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, and theologically in John 1), it’s fine to mark this with a special, annual celebration. It’s fine to read these texts again and sing familiar hymns like “Joy to the World.” Hope remains alive because God sent his Son into the world.

I’m aware, of course, that there’s no evidence that the earliest disciples specially marked the day of his birth. And I’m aware that in early American history, the celebration of Christmas was actually banned, primarily through Puritan influence. But once again, I believe the spirit of the event is what matters most. Not the questions of date or timing.

What About Christmas Trees?

What about erecting a Christmas tree? Does this have anything to do with the birth of Jesus? Obviously not. Does it have pagan origins? There are arguments for or against such origins. Let each one decide for himself or herself.

Is it a violation of Jeremiah 10:2-4? Certainly not.

The text in Jeremiah reads,

Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.

This is talking about making an worshiping an idol, and nothing more. It is not referring to putting up a Christmas tree in your home!

As noted on the CARM website,

If people were praying to their Christmas trees or worshiping them as deities, these passages would certainly apply. But that is not, nor has it ever been, how Christmas trees are used. Christmas trees were never appealed to for blessings nor incorporated into religious rituals or acts of worship. While the exact origin of Christmas trees is unknown and highly disputed, the tradition seems to have come into existence as late as the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation in Germany. There is no evidence that Christians ever used them as anything other than home decorations for the holidays. There is nothing in this tradition that is innately idolatrous or in any way contrary to the biblical prohibitions against carving trees into false gods.

My personal perspective on Christmas trees is this. If it’s just a fun family tradition that has no religious significance, there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. And if the tree is decorated in such a way that it reminds a family about the birth of Jesus, I see no reason to be critical.

Even though I, as a Messianic Jew, don’t appreciate “the spirit of Christmas” the way many Christians do, I can affirm other believers who set this time of the year aside in a holy way.

On the other hand, if the tree is the center of a hyper-materialistic, greed-driven celebration, it’s best to separate this from the miracle of the incarnation (the Son of God becoming flesh), lest we degrade his birth into an excuse for carnality.

Let There Be Liberty

So for me, as a Messianic Jew, even though I don’t appreciate “the spirit of Christmas” the way many Christians do, I can enjoy Christmas in a non-religious way (a fun time for the family to get together). And I can affirm other believers who set this time of the year aside in a holy way. I can enjoy singing the special hymns too.

Let there be liberty here as long as Jesus is being exalted.

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  • Oh, a “Messianic Jew.”

    Jews for Jesus.
    Baptists for Buddha.
    Mormons for Mohammed.

    Why not just call yourself a Christian and be done with it?

    • Howard Rosenbaum

      So Chuck, whats your real gripe w/ “evangelical Christian doctrine” that you can’t seem to get over? As one who has embraced a “biblical world view” I find your comments on this site typical of those who ( for whatever their reason’s ) take some kind of conciliation in exposing their displeasure w/most things ” evangelical Christian”.
      So in other words, what is that “cake” that seems sufficiently out of your reach ?
      You know, the one you have yet to taste , yet alone satisfy your seemingly insatiable appetite with …?

    • Jim

      Why is it even your concern? “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things, charity.”
      I’m pretty sure that you will have more than enough to keep you busy working out your own salvation in fear and trembling without trying to work out someone else’s. Just join the angels in rejoicing over a lost sheep that came home.

    • Patmos

      A Messianic Jew is a significant distinction, it describes a modern Jew who believes Jesus was the Messiah. So not only is there a tie there, unlike your poor example of Buddha or Muhammad, but it also means that a person is breaking away from fairly staunch tradition by Jews to not consider Jesus as Messiah.

      Then you have the fact that Jesus himself was Jewish, and still is. Also Paul said that Gentiles who believe in Christ are grafted into Judaism.

      But why consider history when you can just spit venom instead?

      • Elliot J. Stamler

        Read my detailed comment in this column on this point.
        You are, like Brown, wrong!
        You wrongly write that the Jewish belief that Jesus is not the messiah is a “fairly staunch tradition.” Wrong! It is much more than a “tradition” and your comment exemplifies your ignorance of Judaism as a religious faith.
        Judaism absolutely and fundamentally rejects Jesus as the Christ, the messiah..it is an absolute tenet of our faith..not just a tradition because traditions are often revisable and transitional.
        Jews, as distinct from Judaism per se, regard our fellow Jew, Jesus, as a very important historical, religious figure and a fine, believing rabbi who was cruelly put to death and who in his life preached much of Halacha—Jewish religious law, with force and great eloquence. But he is, to us, no more the messiah than any of us are nowadays. Moreover the fundamental Christian belief in the Trinity is absolutely rejected theologically by ALL Jewish denominations.
        Quoting St. Paul further shows your religious ignorance…it was Paul who fundamentally set forth that Christianity was separate from both Judaism as a religion in many ways and from the Jews as an extant people; that Christians need NOT adhere to Mosaic laws in many respects. Gentiles who adopted Christianity did NOT become Jews.

    • Elizabeth Litts

      Why is it any of your business what he calls himself? He is a follower of Jesus the Messiah, like you claim to be. Like Jesus said to Peter-“what is that to you? You follow me!”

    • Elliot J. Stamler

      Please see my detailed comment on this exact point elsewhere within this column.

  • Kathy

    Thank you, Michael, for clarifying the Christmas celebration from a Messianic Jewish perspective. After all, Yeshua came for the Jew first, then the Greek (Gentile).

    I hold a special affinity for your faith, having attended a Messianic synagogue as a Christian. My husband and I learned a great deal about our Jewish roots, which many Christians tend to overlook. Very unfortunate, since our Lord Himself was a devout Jew along with His disciples, including the apostle Paul. They never converted to Christianity as we know it today, as so many people tend to believe.

    • Dant e

      Indeed, belief in the finished work by faith of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only conversion. Romans 11

  • Howard Rosenbaum

    As a believer coming from a not so atypical secular Jewish heritage Christmas for me was little more than a demonstration of capitalism cloaked in dubious religiosity. Sure that take on this celebration of light, color & festive familial cheer was a bit cynical. So not unlike most Jews at this time of year, Christmas was little more than a few days off from school or work.
    Today, there are still some remnants of that concept lingering around the peripherals of my mind. My heart however tells of a very different take on Christmas. Not December 25th but as Mr Brown implies each & every day that grace transcends both the traditions of men & the wiles of the enemy. Christmas to me is something of a reminder that there are those who place perhaps greater emphasis on all the holiday trappings ( such as they are ) than on the “reason for the season” cliche’ as that is. It is a call to remember that in spite of the relatively” light”afflictions we who would honor the true “spirit of Christmas” on occasion may be faced with …. joy is waiting in that most unlikely of places. A barnyard shed perhaps. A less than an accommodating environment. One that in spite of the scenery leaving something to be desired, was in that moment the “greatest show on earth” ….

  • azsxdcf1

    JOY TO THE WORLD, THE LORD HAS COME! LET EARTH RECEIVE HER KING..It is Christmas Time! Let us rejoice; whether we self-identify as Messianic Jew, Baptist, Pentecostal, or Episcopalian… Christ died for redemption and everlasting life for all! JOY TO THE WORLD!

  • Patmos

    You also have the commandment of not having other Gods before me, and if you’re integrating any sort of pagan traditions you are basically building the golden calf.

    People will say, but yeah it’s in the spirit of Christ, and done with a good heart. Well, the golden calf was built with good intentions too.

    I think modern Christians definitely underestimate the importance of the Torah, and by doing so turn grace into license. The reality is Jesus preached a more strict version of God’s law, saying not only do not kill but also to not harbor hate, and not only do not commit adultery but do not look at a woman with lust.

    But as Paul wrote, “The love of Christ constraineth us”. God’s love by grace is stronger and serves better than any of his laws.

    “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” 1 Corinthians 1:21

    • Red Pete

      But the golden calf was a clear replacement focus for worship and idolatry, a Christmas tree is an attractive decoration in the corner of the room.

      • Patmos

        There is evidence to suggest the Christmas tree and the ornaments on it have roots in paganism. If so then it’s no different than the building of the golden calf: A people holding on to a tradition because they didn’t know any better, because they had been immersed in paganism so long they didn’t know the difference.

      • Josh Cowan

        Brother Pete, the sin of the golden calf does not rely on the placement of the idol. The sin of the golden calf is refusing to observe God’s feasts as written in the Bible, and instead replacing God’s feasts with a counterfeit that man has declared is holy. God created man in His image, and ever since man has been attempting to create God in man’s image. God declared what is “good”, and ever since man has been attempting to redefine what is “good”. Based on history, God knows what’s best, and man is at his best when he obeys God’s instructions rather than his own!

        • Daisy

          We are also commanded to “come out from among them”, “touch not the unclean things”. God said “remember” and “do not forget” about his feast days and celebrations so many time, yet those early people forgot. We forget. You are right Mr. Cowan, we forget and do not understand that satan likes to immediate God, but cannot, so he counterfeit whatever he thinks christians will fall for: for example, christmas, easter, sabbath, even marriages. My goodness, there are so many counterfeits out there, we must know the truth in order to id them. thanks for sharing Mr. Cowan.

  • Melissa

    Which traditions would you specifically categorize as being negative and destructive? That statement seems too broad.

  • Elizabeth Litts

    Thank you for a balanced view Dr. Brown. It is my opinion that all this ‘pagan’ ballyhoo that some ‘christians’ put on others is just another excuse to appear holier than thou! and forcing legalism. I believe that Paul said somewhere to let each one esteem the day as they see fit. If I choose to celebrate the birth of my Messiah on December 25 and you don’t, fine-but at the same time I am not going to look down My phaseecal nose at you and try to put you under my ‘law’.

    • Good for you for not letting anyone bully you into following their rules! I’m curious… what do you mean by “legalism”?

  • Josh Cowan

    Do the following activities suggest idolatry? Getting down on one’s knees and bowing down before the tree to retrieve gifts (blessings) from under the tree. Composing and singing songs glorifying trees (Oh Christmas Tree). Taking offense when someone questions whether the tree is appropriate. Idol worship, as defined by Jeremiah 10, doesn’t require any other action beyond (1) cutting down a tree, (2) fixing it so that it doesn’t move and (3) decorating it. Lastly, what is more important… conceding to the traditions of ancient Greece, Rome and Germany (during the season of Hannukah when we celebrate Israel’s victories over her oppressors) or following the biblical mandate of making a distinction by refusing to mix and mingle what God has declared holy with what man has declared holy?

    • bfast

      Going down on one knee is definitely not an act of worship in itself. See Judges 7:5. So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.”

      I looked up “o christmas tree lyrics” on Google. One verse says:
      Let us all remember
      In our gift giving and our merriment
      With our family and friends and loved ones
      The real and true meaning of Christmas
      The birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

      The christmas tree, properly, points to Christ not to itself.

  • bfast

    When I think of the christmas tree, I think of the cross. I envision that the tree that was hewn down was a much younger tree when Jesus was born. In the same tenor as Michael Brown’s well though prose, I agree that if Christ is not at the center of Christmas, we have it all wrong. For many of us Christians, Jesus is the only reason for the season.

  • Try this test next year and see which causes the greatest uproar in your home:
    a) Tell your spouse and kids that none of you are going to church or putting up the crèche/nativity display this year for Christmas.
    b) Tell your spouse and kids that none of you are going to put up a Christmas tree/lights/decorations or receive gifts this year.

    This question reveals the true focus of Christmas (especially for children): materialism. Christmas is primarily about getting stuff.

    In contrast, Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and
    follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24)

  • Elliot J. Stamler

    Once again, Michael Brown, sex-hating fanatic and political fascist, misrepresents himself.
    He calls himself a “Messianic Jew.”
    In our free country one may call themself whatever they please…and others have as I now do, the right to expose and denounce them.
    There is NO SUCH THING AS A MESSIANIC JEW and I write this fact..FACT, not opinion, as a believing Jew.
    What Michael Brown is is an apostate to Judaism and a fundamentalist CHRISTIAN. He can properly describe himself as one of Jewish heritage, blood, background…those appellations are true. But he is not a Jew..of any kind.
    As Jackie Mason said in his successful lawsuit against the apostate group JEWS FOR JESUS, “one can not be a table and a chair” when they outrageously misappropriated Mason’s image in their ads.
    Christianity is the daughter religion of Judaism but it is separate and distinct from it; both faiths share the same exact ethics and of course the Old Testament but there are irreconcilable theological (not ethical) differences between them. Every rabbi in this country will affirm what I write…you can be a disbelieving, partial believing, unobservant or whatever Jew and still be a Jew..BUT YOU CANNOT JOIN ANOTHER RELIGIOUS FAITH AND STILL BE CONSIDERED A JEW..BY JEWS AND JUDAISM.
    Michael Brown, an advocate of political fascism and authoritarian prudery, is therefore a poseur and a liar…he has renounced his former faith and should describe himself honestly as what he is: a committed fundamentalist Christian.

    • davidrev17

      Mr. Stamler:

      I take it, from the obvious tone of your post, that you’re somehow exemplifying the ancient scriptural principles in say, Deuteronomy 6:4 & Leviticus 19:18?? Do tell, please. Because as a representative individual of God’s chosen people the Jews – of whom comprise that supernaturally preserved nation Israel, of which G-d clearly intended to be “a light to the nations” – you surely make a wonderful spiritual example, for this “Christian” Gentile follower of Yeshua of Nazareth to emulate sir.

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