Traditions Vs Doctrine

Why, it’s TRADITION! (tradition!) (picture Reb Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof).

Remember what April Fool’s Day is like around here, and that we still put a dime in the birthday person’s piece of cake, and New Year’s Dinner MUST have both black-eyed peas and sauerkraut, along with a shiny penny next to each person’s plate. We love family traditions, and that includes a lighted tree, Christmas stockings, packages, presents, ribbons, bows, candles, carols, Dickens, gingerbread, White Christmas, Christmas in Connecticut- the whole nine yards.
We put out pumpkins and fall leaves and gourds in the fall, and we bring in spring flowers in the spring, and we bring in an evergreen and holly in the winter. We are so tradition oriented that two years ago when I spent most of December at the hospital NICU with my eldest daughter and the baby Striderling, my kids got out the Christmas decorations, which are many, and put them up without me, even though they always tease me about having too many decorations.  And this November when I was feeling too blue to cope with it so I was going to ignore the decorations, my 16 year old got out all the Thanksgiving decorations and put them up with Blynken and Nod.  Yes, I have successfully brainwashed them.=)

However, we do not love it when human traditions are mixed up with worship, keeping in mind that Jesus said, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.”  If your doctrine is not found in the pages of the bible, it is a precept of man.

In the Bible we never find Christmas, we never find a command or an example of the first Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus- we do find them celebrating his death, burial and resurrection on a weekly basis, and we find that God was not bashful about mentioning specific dates and times for celebrations he desired in the Old Testament, and, not desiring to go beyond what is written in our worship (which the Bible also commands), we don’t feel comfortable tacking human traditions on to spiritual/religious practices.
I wrote about this is another post a couple years ago. You can read it here if you like.

All that said, this is who we are and what we do.  It’s not our job to worry about what you do, and both our married daughters married men with other family traditions that sometimes mesh well with ours and sometimes done, and they work things out in their own households.  In my household,  we rethink things nearly every year and don’t consider ourselves to have ‘arrived,’ and so we don’t waste our time fretting over what other people might do- we have friends who don’t do anything to recognize any sort of Christmas at all, friends for whom it is only about the birth of Christ (doing the Jesus birthday cake and all that stuff), avoiding all secular traditions altogether, friends who celebrate Hannukah but believe all things Christmas are pagan and anathema- and we feel no need to ‘worry’ about what any of them are doing.

We probably aren’t consistent, but that doesn’t worry me. Few people really are, and all that being inconsistent really means is that we are still working out what we think and know about different things.

Of course, it doesn’t take much this time of year to get me working away at refining my thinking on the topic of Christmas. Christmas is my favorite time of year, but it’s also one of the more complicated times of year for me. I grew up in an extremely religious home where Christmas was never celebrated as Jesus’s birthday- the reason for this is that it simply isn’t. You won’t find anybody in the Bible celebrating His birthday, either, although you will find examples of Christians celebrating his death, burial and resurrection week after week.

Advent calendars were forbidden in my childhood home because of their religious significance, although we did have two or three little nativities (charming gifts from a relative who had traveled to Europe). Christmas was a family celebration, and for me most of its significance is nostalgia- I love the green and red decorations, the sparkle, the glitter, the pine, the cookies, the music, the garlands and tinsel- all the elements and then some of the Christmases of my childhood.

Then I became an adult. My husband is from the same religious background as I, but his family was not nearly so strict as my own. So we began to work our own family’s traditions and practices.

I won’t go into all the whys and wherefores and sidesteps we took along the way, but here are some of our conclusions:
We don’t teach our children that Santa brings them presents in the middle of the night and flies away by reindeer for several reasons- the most important one is that we want them to trust and believe us (we learned this the hard way, but that’s another post). For the same reason we cannot teach them that Jesus is the reason for this season, except in the way that He is the reason for every season of our lives. I cannot mislead my children by telling them Jesus was born in December when the Bible never gives a date, and what information it does give indicates a completely different time. I don’t get worked up about what other people do- that’s not my responsibility. But I want to tell the truth to my children.

So if I can’t celebrate it as a Christian religious holiday, what can I do. Most sources we read will say that many of the traditions I love seem to have stemmed from pagan roots, and this makes many Christians uncomfortable. I wonder though, how many of those ‘pagan’ practices really had more mundane, practical causes that were later prettied up and made spiritual- much like our reasons for not getting a tree until the middle of the month (our kids thought it was because we wanted the tree to be special, so deliberately delayed gratification. The truth is we couldn’t afford a tree until the midmonth paycheck, as the first of the month military paycheck all went to rent). Doesn’t it seem just as likely to you that some housewife of centuries ago, tired of the winter dark and the stuffy fug of unwashed bodies trapped inside for too many months of cold and dark just got tired of it one day and dragged in some pine branches to freshen the place up? And once they were inside, why not dress them up a bit to look like summer? We have a particular corner of woods near our house where the fireflies swarm in summer, and I tell you, it’s like a fairy wood in there. Maybe lights on the tree are really a reminder of the summer months when the fireflies are plentiful (maybe not, but it’s really all just speculation). We don’t worship those pagan gods, and we don’t put a great deal of stock into the claims of anthropologists about what those ancients really meant by all they did.

So we have a tree with lights and all the trimmings, and we have presents and stockings and we sing carols and put candles in the window for wanderers. We do have an advent calendar (just a way of counting down the days to Christmas); It’s a Narnia calendar, plus we have the paper chain kind. WE don’t celebrate the sort of Advent that comes with purple candles preparation for the coming of the Christ Child because he already came and grew up two thousand years ago, and this isn’t the anniversary of His coming.

Meanwhile, our secular friends are singing songs about Jesus and putting up nativity scenes and talking about peace on earth and goodwill towards men, watching the Charlie Brown Christmas show, and even, in the case of our favorite atheists, reading aloud the birth of Jesus account in Luke.

The story of the nativity is an immensely popular one, even with secularists. There are, I’m sure, several reasons for this. One of them is that it is just a lovely story; young strangers traveling far from home, giving birth to a first child in a stable, laying him in a manger, shepherds, angels, music- what’s not to love? It’s a beautiful story. Another reason I read recently is that a baby does not demand anything of us. Secularists who love the birth in a stable story and get all teary eyed over the living creche scenes churches host, and speak warmly of goodwill toward men don’t get quite the same warm fuzzy feeling from the death on the cross and the subsequent empty tomb. There is a vast difference between the helpless babe and the willingly sacrifical king who dies for us all and only asks that we live for Him. That part of the story isn’t very comfortable.

But that’s the most important part of the story. In that interesting discussion Mama Squirrel and I were a part of I shared a wish I have had for years, a wish for a particular type of Christmas decoration in my yard or on my roof. I want a large wooden cut out of scenes representing the whole story- I want the darling baby in the in the manger, and I want the compassionate Messiah breaking the loaves of bread and the little fish to feed the hungry, and I want the King with healing in his hands giving sight to the blind and mobility to the halt- and then I want the heartbreaking scene of the crucifixion and the breath-taking joy of the resurrection- all portrayed in order. There would be a large sign by the crucifixion and resurrection scenes saying “This is the reason that the manger scene matters.”

Because of the conflicts between common practice and what I understand to be true, there are certain carols and traditions that I am not comfortable with. On the other hand, neither do I object to mentioning the birth of Jesus to my children in December through tale and song just because it is December. If I can honestly sing a song or tell a story any other time of year, I am quite comfortable doing the same thing in December.

Which is a very longwinded way of introducing today’s Sunday Hymn Post, which does tell the rest of the story:


When Jesus was born in the manger
The shepherds came thither to see,
For the angels proclaimed that a Savior was born
To save a poor sinner like me.
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner like me.
For the angels proclaimed that a Savior was born
To save a poor sinner like me.

He was wounded for my transgressions,
Acquainted with sorrow was He;
In the garden He prayed, and sweat great drops of blood,
To save a poor sinner like me.
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner like me.
In the garden He prayed, and sweat great drops of blood,
To save a poor sinner like me.

He was brought to Pilate for judgment,
He was sentenced to hang on a tree.
It is finished! He cried, when He suffered and died
To save a poor sinner like me.
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner like me.
“It is finished!” He cried, when He suffered and died
To save a poor sinner like me.

But death and the grave could not hold Him,
He burst them asunder for thee.
On the third day He rose, in spite of His foes,
To save a poor sinner like me.
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner like me.
On the third day He rose, in spite of His foes,
To save a poor sinner like me.

I’m fighting my passage to Heaven,
O’er death I shall conqueror be.
Then to glory I’ll fly, and shout through the sky:
He saved a poor sinner like me.
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner,
To save a poor sinner like me.
Then to glory I’ll fly, and shout through the sky:
He saved a poor sinner like me.
Play this Sunday Hymn Post

This entry was posted in Celebrations/feasts/memorials/high holy days, Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  1. Posted December 2, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I love this post! Our little family is grappling with some of the same choices and I also don’t feel comfortable celebrating it as Jesus’s birthday.

    I think this year we have decided thy for now we will do our Christmas thing with our tree and stockings but we will be putting the focus on why God sent Jesus for the first advent and how the while Bible points to Jesus. Basically a December topical study on why we need Jesus and we are actually ending our advent studies with the cross and the hope of the second advent anyways. We feel you can’t really celebrate Jesus without the whole picture! However we are giving ourselves permission to change our minds (especially since our oldest is all of just-turned-two.)

  2. Posted December 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Much of what you say here resonates with me, too. I don’t mind focusing some on Jesus’ birth in December because although it didn’t happen this time of year (or so they say), it DID happen, and I figure why not have a certain time of year to focus on it? We do read Luke 2: 1-20 daily, but mostly because I want my children to have it tucked into their memory banks in that glorious KJ English. We have a lot of Christmas traditions that we enjoy, but really, I want the focus of our lives to ALWAYS be about Jesus, not just in December. The other stuff is just fun.

  3. Posted December 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Oh yes! This is so very similar to how we approach Christmas. Thank you so much for helping me to articulate it so well. Every December on my blog I try to explain to readers our position on Christmas, and every year I fail. I even get hate mail! After reading this, I’m going to have another try. Thank you again.

  4. T.J.
    Posted December 2, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    What our family has decided is that if we are going to celebrate something called CHRISTmas, then it should be what its name says–a celebration of Christ. We don’t feel comfortable slapping the title of Jesus on a celebration and then insisting it has nothing to do with Him and dragging out a bunch of secular fluff and calling that fluff “Christmas.” We also know many people for whom Christmas is an important day spiritually (none of them are under any illusions that December 25 is the actual birthdate), and to have someone take a ritual that is holy to their personal adoration of God and turn it into a celebration of, well, nothing is offensive to them. So we have decided that the wiser course is simply to find other days to have traditions about rather than getting caught up in controversies over what we do to “celebrate” other people’s holy days.

    I would also disagree with the assertion in this post that the birth of Christ was not celebrated in the Bible. It was celebrated both on Earth and in Heaven when it happened. It is an event worthy of celebration. If it had not happened in the way that it did, Jesus would not have been the messiah. I just don’t believe that celebrating it has to be harnessed to a specific date.

    • Posted December 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      I understood her assertion to be about people celebrating/observing the birth of Christ in years subsequent to his birth–not the actual year of his birth. As in there are no teachings or examples after the beginning of the church (Acts 2) from any of the apostles instructing people to celebrate Christ’s birth as a holiday.

      • Headmistress, zookeeper
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Exactly, Shonya- it was several hundred years before we find any example of professing Christians celebrating the birthday. But from the start, the death and resuurection were celebrated, which we see both in the sacred page and in histories.
        I can’t ignore the instruction not to go beyond what is written, nor the warning that we are worshipping God in vain when we substitute our own thoughts about what’s acceptable for clear scriptural directives.

  5. T.J.
    Posted December 2, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    …and I meant to add but got ahead of myself that I also used to adhere to the “people like Christmas because babies are helpless and they don’t want to think of Jesus as a king who has the right to tell you what to do” theory. But I don’t anymore. I suspect that people in the secular world enjoy Christmas for the same reasons you stated that you do. While I have come across lots of people who love Christmas and that’s all they care to do in the name of religion, most people I know who celebrate Christmas also celebrate the other dates on the liturgical calendar, including the “less comfortable” crucifixion and resurrection.

  6. Posted December 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting summation of your beliefs and practices.

  7. Maggie
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Very nice summary of your position and very thought provoking. I like your idea of the scenes from all of Christ’s life as yard decor. Now, of course, I am Catholic and half of the practices are based on “Sacred Tradition”, so for me to celebrate Christmas as the day of Christ’s birth is not a problem, it’s like having an adoptive child who’s birthday is unknow and deciding to make one up or celebrating the day said child came into the family as a re-birthday. But that is me.

    As far as secular tradition, celebrations at this time of the year are centered around the winter solstice (right?) shortest day of the year and celebration that the days will get longer and come out of the darkness. And being tired of the stinky bodies and bringing in the greenery certainly sounds reasonable. All this is certainly worth celebrating.

    I love reading discussions of how other people view things and celebrate. I aways learn something new, even if it is to explore deeper what and why my Church practices certain things. So thanks for sharing your reasoning and your thoughts. I find them interesting. Have a wonderful Holiday season.

  8. HeatherHH
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Like you, we don’t view Christmas as a religious holiday, but a secular one focused on family, gift-giving, etc. So, we do have a Christmas tree and make cookies for neighbors and presents for family and close friends. We don’t believe that Christians have to celebrate Christmas. However, we are in a church where Christmas is seen as a religious holiday and are living near family that feel the same way. So, we do use December as a time to reread the accounts of Jesus’ birth to make sure that they can follow along with what’s talked about at church and with family members trying to talk with them about Jesus’ birth.

    We believe in the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper, ideally weekly, but our church only does every 2-3 months, and so we observe at home every few weeks as well. A regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper kind of makes any idea of a religious Easter superfluous. And I’ve never understood why a religious Christmas is bigger to so many Christians than a religious Easter or better a regular Lord’s Supper. {shrug}

  9. jdavidb
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Would you believe we have an advent wreath and candles, now? Christmas has been all over the map for us, particularly for me. Still no Santa Claus, although our youngest daughter requested to have her picture made with him this year. Christmas is a bit of pacifism holiday for us. And definitely a family celebration. And a time for good food, and shopping, and celebrating capitalism (I celebrate the fact that Wal-Mart put out the Christmas stuff September 25 this year.) But it’s become religious, partly because we’ve blasted religious carols for years now and grown to love the deep, deep theology in them (“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” — almost nobody writes hymns that say anything that significant anymore), and partly because I’ve been reading for 2-3 years now from an expanded version of the Revised Common Lectionary, and since it covers the birth of Christ at this time of year, so do we.

    Check back in five years and see what I think.

  10. Posted December 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    As a Catholic, I have very different beliefs about the relationship between the Bible and Tradition (not to be confused with little “t” tradition!), but I’ll keep my mouth shut about that. 🙂 What I would like to note is that while I agree that looking at the whole picture – including the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – is important, of course, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we take different holidays as opportunities to reflect in particular on different aspects of this. At Good Friday and Easter, we have a special time to pray and reflect on His death and resurrection, so why not a day to reflect especially on His Incarnation? I think people too often skip over the magnitude of what it means that GOD BECAME MAN. Yes, it’s just the beginning, but what a beginning! It’s certainly a mystery that’s worth taking some time to ponder in and of itself.

  11. Anne-Marie
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    There is one sense in which Jesus certainly is the reason for the season, even for families who don’t celebrate Christmas religiously. Jesus’s birth is the reason for (origin of) the season whether or not it’s the reason for (occasion of) a family putting up a tree. Had it not been for the religious feast and its celebration in Christian Europe and hence the Americas, the holiday season as we know it would not exist: it would be missing many of its features (manger, angels, santas, reindeer, wise men, stockings, carols), whose origins lie with the birth of Christ and associated traditions.
    We might well have some kind of light-in-the-darkness-of-winter festival, as many but not all cultures do, and it would likely involve candles and evergreens and stars and special food. We’d probably give each other presents; I’m sure the commercial forces that operated on Christmas, and that have extended themselves to other feasts such as Hannukah and Diwali, would be at play in this alternative history. But this festival wouldn’t be Christmas if it came about without the historical celebration of Jesus’ birth by Christians.

  12. Anne-Marie
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    On the manger-cross connection, I have seen lovely mediaeval depictions of the Nativity in which the child Jesus is shown lying in the straw with feet overlapping and arms outstretched in the same position as for his crucifixion. Here’s the closest I could find quickly:

    And, of course, there’s the Burning Babe.

  13. Posted December 4, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Also, as far as pagan roots, there’s the spin that C. S. Lewis puts on it: that the pagan rituals were also reflections of the truth. I can’t do it justice just from vague memory, but of course, he wrote it well. 🙂

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      He wrote it well, but not very biblically.

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