Witnessing to JW's - What about Christmas?
There is little doubt if you are on the local Jehovah’s Witness (JW) street circuit, you face the issue of Christians and Christmas, particularly around the festive season. So what should our response be? Should we vehemently defend the practice of celebrating Christmas as part of our heritage or concede that it is a commercial enterprise based on a pagan holiday?
Whenever the silly season rolls around, JW’s inevitably commence their annual Christmas witnessing campaign. That is not what they call it of course, but it’s a fair description. Naturally, at that time of year, Christmas is topical so it’s the perfect opportunity for witnessing.
This causes a dilemma for many Christians because we share a variety of opinions about Christmas and this influences any response we might make. So is there a standard answer we can give which faithfully represents the Christian position on Christmas? What should we go to the wall on & where should we concede ground? How do you work the gospel into this discussion?
I grew up in a house where Christmas was celebrated in all its fanciful glory. At least I thought it was until got married & then I realized my family were only pretenders. My wife’s family took it to a whole new level.
For us, Christmas was the most exciting night of the year. We had visited Santa in the shopping centre, sat on his knee, told him what we wanted & put our pillow slips out in expectation. We even left some cake & soft drink out for Santa and he dutifully left a few telltale crumbs behind.
We were up early on the big day, unwrapped a heap of presents before the sun was coming up, had breakfast & went to Church. It was usual for all the kids to show their presents during the service and it would not have been unusual for the Minister to ask what “Santa” brought the adults with smile & a wink. The day continued with lunch or dinner at either the in laws or the outlaws, with the other on boxing day or soon after.
None of this is even remotely Biblical, but from what I can work out it was fairly normal for young Australian families in the 1960’s & 70’s. My wife’s family, however, went overboard. Presents were wrapped & put under the tree for everyone in the house including the pets. Not only were Santa’s dietary needs catered for, but so were those of the reindeer. Carrots & cherries for Rudolph & co. They left behind little specs of silver tinsel to show where they had been. It was magic dust or something.
So when I get married and start having children, you can imagine the discussion. The in-laws are over to set up for the big night and we enter this strange world of make believe. “What is the tinsel for?” I ask. My attempt to put a stop to it was met with a swift verbal uppercut, so being the head of the house I shut up and let Christmas take its course.
Sorting through the issues
What I discovered through all that is because of my upbringing, I had drawn a line which I was uncomfortable crossing. Why was I content to pass the Santa myth along but not the reindeer dust? Obviously it’s because that’s the way I was brought up and my parents were solid Christians so I did not see a problem with it. The same goes for my wife.
Today I suppose I put up with it more than promote it. The way it has panned out, Santa is only related to the present giving part of Christmas day and that is a part we are happy to draw a big line around. If Christmas has become anything, it has become a commercial enterprise driven by the world of materialism and we all fit too easily into that, so when Christmas rolls around, we as a family are very careful to tell our children that it’s good to be generous, but Christmas is not really about presents, but about the birth of Jesus.
So what is Christmas?
And here is the problem. If it turns out that Christmas is not really even an accurate celebration of the birth of Jesus, then what are we doing even mentioning it? Surely if it is that far removed from reality we would be far better off keeping out if it & using our time concentrating on something else.
I think the first thing we can say, however, is that no matter what our society has done with Christmas, it is fair to say it has been traditionally been the day we have put aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We’ll get to the specific date in a moment, but December 25th is the day we have decided will be the commemoration date for his birth, much like the Queen’s birthday weekend (which is not Queen’s birthday at all).
Our society has butchered Christmas to the point where you would hardly know Jesus was a part of it. Now it’s about St Nicholas who a generous soul and gave presents secretly to those he came in contact with, thus giving birth to the Santa myth.
In fact, if we’re honest, Jesus has been made to fall into line with this myth & the only reason he gets mentioned at all is that part of the Jesus story fits neatly with the whole idea of gift giving, peace on earth & being nice to people. Jesus has been filtered through the world’s prism & the only bits which get through at Christmas time are the ethical values we still desire.
The Church has become the last bastion of upholding the teaching about Jesus at Christmas time and I fear it will not be long before even that disappears. The news channels still go to Bethlehem on Christmas day, but that’s only to capture any violence between Jews & Palestinians or perhaps to do a story on how the Christmas spirit has brought them together (why either group wants to be in Bethlehem on that day is an interesting story on its own!).
A cultural perspective
In Australia, Christmas is still fairly high on the public conscience. There are still those who only go to Church at Christmas & Easter and this presents tremendous opportunities for the preaching of the gospel to non-believers sitting in our pews. That is a rare thing these days, even if we suspect many regulars in our Churches don’t really know the Lord.
On Christmas day, Churches fill up with people who never go at any other time. For them, it’s a tradition. For us it’s an opportunity we don’t want to lose. It may be the only time we get to preach the gospel to a congregation made up of so many non-believers. Imagine totally wiping Christmas off the calendar. Would these people get to Church anyway? It doesn’t seem likely.
There is also matter of Carols by candlelight services. The Church I attend still holds a Carols service at the local village green and it is very well attended. There is no Santa Claus and the songs are carefully selected for their Christ-centred content. We spend a few moments preaching the gospel directly to the crowd. It is very well attended by the local population who, I must say, we have trouble meeting any other way.
This may not always be the case, but I think it’s fair to say at the present time, Australia is in the mood to hear the Christmas story every December. Sure, some parts of it come on too strong for many, but there is a certain ‘permission’ given for the public proclamation of the Bible’s account of Jesus’ birth.
In fact, in recent times, it has even been defended by the secular population. This was particularly apparent when various focus groups, retail outlets and Councils began toying with the idea of banning all references to Jesus at Christmas because it was deemed offensive to Muslims. In response to this we saw Aussies who rarely darken the door of a Church protesting en masse that our heritage was under attack. Odd, don’t you think? Non-Christians demanding that our nation’s Christian heritage be defended!
This is why I say Australia gives permission for the Churches to do a bit of evangelizing at Christmas time. It’s what we have always had and it’s to be expected. Our challenge is to get people to stop thinking only about baby Jesus and start thinking about the saviour who was crucified for our sin and rose again. Christmas gives us a rare opportunity to do this to a secular nation which willingly gathers for the occasion.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christmas
Jehovah’s Witnesses understand Christmas completely differently. As I have said, they tend to use it as an opportunity to prick the conscience of the population and show what a disaster Christmas has become in our society. They don’t find too many sympathetic ears for the reasons just given, even if many people agree it has become a time of greed and excess.
JW’s must abstain from everything associated with Christmas; the day of celebration itself, the holiday, wrapping paper, any reference to Santa and probably even Christmas pudding. In fact, JW’s deliberately mark the calendar and use Christmas day for witnessing. Many times they will turn up at Christmas luncheons and chat to the hosts about their views.
What fuels all this is the Society’s teaching that Christmas is part of the world’s false religious system, seen particularly in the first book they give to new converts, You Can Live Forever in Pardise on Earth p. 212 (see below)1
It’s a familiar method of arguing known as a syllogism. A syllogism makes two statements and then draws a conclusion based on them. For example I could say, “Our company only hires one of the sexes,” then “Frank is one of our employees”. The conclusion is obvious; the company only hires men. The two strands of evidence leave room for no other conclusion.
However, syllogisms can be used wrongly. I could say, “Cats are animals and dogs are animals, therefore cats are dogs.” The reader knows I have left out some important information when drawing my conclusion.
Now think of a situation where the person hearing the argument knows nothing about dogs & cats, for example a two year old child who has never seen or heard of animals. It is possible I could convince them that cats are dogs. If they know no other reality, then this teaching would become their truth.
The Society has done much the same thing with Christmas. Their line of reasoning is, 'The world is full of pagans, these pagans celebrate Christmas, therefore Christmas is evil'.
My response is that Christians are not instructed to celebrate Christmas in Scripture, however that is far different to saying the Bible forbids it. And, as we have discussed, Christmas remains one of the few occasions in society where the Church is given more licence than usual to preach the gospel. It’s as though the world is in the mood for a bit of Bible at that time of year. Is there anyone among us who would not take such an opportunity?
To then give society Santa, commercialism and gluttony are far different. What a shame it is to see Christians given such an incredible opportunity and waste it with that. Surely this is a time when the Churches should be warming up their congregations for gospel opportunities.
The Watchtower Society has a strong argument against the celebration of Christmas in one main area; that Jesus told his followers to observe a memorial of his death, not his birth. (See You Can Live Forever in Pardise on Earth p. 213 below)2
The problem with such a hard line view is that it robs people of the legitimate joy found in Scripture at the birth of Jesus. This birth was of momentous importance & was regarded as such by the angels who announced it, the shepherds in the fields and the Magi.
An angel appeared to shepherds on the very day of Jesus’ birth and said,
"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
It sounds like something worth celebrating. The angels certainly thought so because they immediately joined in with a song of praise. It was a great moment and Scripture describes these events at great length for our benefit.
In the case of the Magi, their worship of Jesus was nowhere near the actual date of his birth. In fact Jesus could have been anywhere up to two years old by the time they arrived. When they had the opportunity, they “bowed down and worshipped him” (Matt 2:11). Forget about the date, they wanted to worship asap.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, are instructed not to worship Jesus because that is reserved for Jehovah alone, as is shown in their book Make Sure of All Things - Hold Fast to What Is Fine (see below, left column, second bottom paragraph). 3
Because the Watchtower Society teaches that Jesus is both a man and an angel, then worship of Jesus is forbidden. And this is the real nub of the problem.
As evangelicals, we are lukewarm on the whole Christmas thing because it has become distorted, but JW’s won’t have a bar of it because it means worship of Jesus. And there is our opening. If we insist that the person and work of Jesus remains central at Christmas time, we will both honour him and find witnessing opportunities.
Hypocrisy at the top
As usual with the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, you don’t have to dig too deep to find contradictions in their teaching. Over the years many of their Presidents and magazine editors have issued teachings which directly contradicted those of previous generations. Christmas is one of the more obvious examples.
In 1904, the Watchtower magazine taught that it was a good idea to celebrate Christmas along with the rest of the world and that it was an appropriate way of “celebrating the grand event” (see below).4
Their hypocrisy gets to comedic levels in 1919, when in the January 15th edition of The Watchtower, the Society’s second President, Judge Rutherfod, thanks his loyal subjects for all their Christmas presents! “I am overwhelmed by your expressions of love, dear brethren,” he says5. Not a hint that their “expressions of love” have plunged them into idolatry. One moment the President is ripping paper off with the kids at dawn, the next you are not even a real Christian for doing so.
To give you an idea of the magnitude of this backflip, consider the testimony of David A. Reed. Reed is perhaps the most prolific author on the subject of witnessing to JW's.
A former elder himself, Reed recounts the time he was on a judicial committee which had to discipline a member for contravening their laws on Christmas. The offence? The non-witness wife of a newly married JW hung a green Christmas wreath on their apartment door.6
In the November 15th 1907 edition of The Watchtower, the Society recommended its own books for purchase as “Christmas gifts”. Readers would not want to leave it too late because they might miss out. In fact, “many secure their Christmas presents several months ahead” and the society’s books are ready to go, making them “such a reasonable in price gift”.7
I would not want to tell Christians they should celebrate Christmas as such. That would be to fall into the same legalistic error we have seen in the JW’s. But it is interesting that in Luke 1:14, when the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, his comment was,
He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. (Luke 1:14-15)
This was in reference to the birth of John the Baptist. It seems to me that if it appropriate to rejoice because of the birth of John the Baptist, you could hardly then say the subsequent birth of the messiah was not worthy of celebration.
My approach when discussing the matter with JW’s would be to avoid debates about December 25th being the real date (for a discussion of December 25th, see footnote8) or getting confused with the commercialism of our society’s ‘retail Christmas’.
The best approach I think is to explain to JW’s that every year there are two celebrations going on. One is the world’s distorted Christmas with all its shopping, gluttony and drunkenness. The other is the quiet celebration of Jesus’ birth by faithful Christians the world over.
Here you will find common ground because JW’s see themselves as the remnant of faithful believers who are attempting to point people to Jehovah while they indulge in a pagan celebration. Christians are doing much the same thing as we try to open up our Christmas services to the un-Churched and reach the population through our Carols services.
The only time things like shopping, food, drink and holidays are crucial is when they become excessive and distract us from the real issue at stake. Buying presents is not sinful in itself, but it could become sinful depending on how it’s done or how all encompassing it is.
The same goes for food and drink. I might eat and drink on every other day of the year, but am I going to deliberately abstain on December 25th because it’s “pagan”? Of course not, but my eating and drinking could definitely be a stumbling block to others and perhaps even to my own relationship with God. Of course, I might choose to witness on December 25th by abstaining & that would be Biblical too, but it’s a different matter to legalise such a thing.
The main thing
Stick to the main issue when discussing Christmas with JW’s. Sure, we have all gone overboard at times when the silly season comes around. We’ve spent too much & overindulged at the dinner table. And the date is not important to us, but the true meaning is.
For us, Christmas represents the time when God delivered on his promises given multiple times over many centuries in the Old Testament. As Paul put it,
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)
Now that is worth celebrating!
1. You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1982, p. 212
2. ibid., p. 213
3 Make Sure of All Things - Hold Fast to What is Fine, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1965, p. 249.
4. The Watchtower, December 1st 1904, p. 364
5. The Watchtower, January 15th 1919, p. 31.
6. Answering Jehovah's Witnesses Subject by Subject, Reed, David A., Baker Books, 1996, p. 75.
7. The Watchtower, November15th 1907, p. 351.
8. Regarding the date December 25th being Jesus' birth date, most Christians simply reject it as not likely. The traditional story is that the Roman empire's Winter Solstice holiday was simply 'Christianized' when Christianity became the official religion of State. The most common 'proof' (which I have even offered myself) is that shepherds would not have had their sheep out in the fields during winter. This is given even by the Watchtower Society as a reason to reject Dec 25th (see again footnote 2). However, the Jewish scholar of th 1800's, Alfred Edersheim, defended the date in his incredible volume The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah. His fascinating discussion of the issue is found in the appendix article titled ON THE DATE OF THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD which has now been made available online here. Edersheim calls the rejection of Dec 25th based on shepherding practice as an "often repeated, but very superficial objection" which "must now be dismissed as utterly untenable". This was a challenge to me because I regard Edersheim as one of the greatest Christian scholars of all time. He rejects the theory and the JW's use it!