Living in the Philippines, Christmas is a big event. It has at least as much noise, food, gifts, parties, songs, and fellowship as the United States.
But there are two major groups here (groups that draw from a common Christian heritage) that do not celebrate Christmas. One of these is “Jehovah’s Witness” while the other is a locally grown group “Iglesia ni Cristo”. Within Evangelical circles they would be considered cultic groups… or more precisely “Christian-based religious groups with heterodox Christologies”. The arguments: we don’t know when Jesus was actually born, that Christmas has, in part, “pagan” roots.
I personally believe that Christmas is a good thing. The fact that Jesus was almost certainly born at a different time (perhaps in April) shouldn’t be overly important to anyone except those that believe that tying a celebration to an exact birth day is important (astrologers perhaps?) But the second issue is important missiologically on a much broader scale than simply about whether to celebrate Christmas. The question is whether non-Christian elements make a Christian celebration impure or whether Christ purifies non-Christian elements.
Consider a few examples:
1. Christmas is “Christianization” of a pagan event, Saturnalia. When Romans became Christians, the question was whether one had to reject the festivities of Saturnalia. The result was that the celebration of Christ’s birth was used as a replacement.
2. In India, a very big celebration is “The Festival of Lights” or Diwali. Houses are decorated and it is very festive. One way of knowing that a family is Christian is that they have the undecorated houses. Some have suggested that a good Indian and Christian can find a way of joining his culture in celebration without falling into a paganistic trap.
3. In the United States, there has been a resurgence in the Native American “Pow-wows”. At one time a pow-wow, or native dance was clearly and only tied to paganistic beliefs. Now, however, some groups do it as a way to connect to their culture, but do it as a celebration to Christ. Some pow-wows are even evangelistic in being used to share the Christian faith.
4. Philippines Example #1. In the Cordillera Mountains (where I live) there are animistic groups and a number of tribes. One of the biggest cultural activities is the canao (pronounce it kan-YAO). It is a festival with dancing and other activities. Some local Christians join in. Many refuse. Some Christian groups have even used the canao as part of their celebration to God. A large church near us uses traditional instruments and dances to worship God. Curiously, many “American-style” local churches complain that they are using the devil’s instruments and dances. What is double curious is that those same churches that are complaining use electric guitars, drums, and rock-style music to worship. Why is that curious? Because 50 years ago, those instruments and style were considered devilish by many if not most Christians. <Cultural bigotries are a funny, funny thing.>
5. Philippines Example 2. Most towns and barangays here have fiestas. They are often Catholic in origin (often with animistic roots) and have icons, a patron saint, and other aspects that are extremely uncomfortable to Protestants. Some feel they can find a way as Evangelical Christians to celebrate fiestas as part of community solidarity, while others do not.
6. Pope Gregory (in 601) recommended that missionaries to the Britons accommodate as much as possible the local celebrations of the people. However, they should steer them to replace pagan gods with saints and other Christian elements. This concept of “accommodation” has been a fairly common element in Catholic missions to this day. Is this healthy or syncretistic?
I don’t plan to give an answer here. Obviously, the extremes in this area are problematic. Simply “blessing” the behaviors of all cultures is often to bless evil. William Carey, the “father of modern Protestant missions” often sought to find the best in Indian culture and literature. Yet he strenuously fought “suti” or widow-burning. One must oppose aspects of a culture that undeniably violate God’s will.
On the other hand, even those groups who are most vociferous in fighting the celebration of Christmas or other things with “pagan” elements, cannot and do not apply this consistently. The use of wheat or rice is not attacked because it has been used in pagan celebrations and practices for millenia. Few would say that the Greeks of the first century church would have to cease to be Greek (a clearly pagan culture) and become Jews. That was answered in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council.
Paul provides a more nuanced approach in the Bible when he speaks of meats sacrificed to idols. He said:
-Meat sacrificed to idols is no better or worse than other meats since the idols have no power. So don’t ask… it has no power for evil over you. You are safe to eat.
-If you are with someone who is weaker in the faith, don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols since that person may become confused and be led astray. The power is not in the idols, but in the confusion of the other person.
Taking this into account… (1) one does not need to reject celebrations with pagan roots. Such roots has no power over a Christian. Christ can redeem all things. However, (2) there are some things that must always be rejected. And (3) there are always some people of weak faith who may need to be carefully nurtured.
The balance of these three truths will always make the contextualization of Christianity to other cultures a challenging and controversial thing.