By J. Parnell McCarter




The topic of “holy days” recently came up on an internet list, as it quite often does during the month of December.  Here are excerpts from the discussion:


[This question was posed: why is it all right to observe Thanksgiving but not Christmas or Easter?]


Here was my response:


You pose a good and pertinent question.  Let me briefly try to answer your question, but then encourage you to get the full scoop from a variety of excellent reformed books that have been written on the topic of ‘holy days’.


I would first draw your attention to Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) chapter 21’s summary of Biblical doctrine concerning worship:


“… But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.


V. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as, also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: besides religious oaths, and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasion; which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.”


All acceptable worship must be prescribed by God, explicitly or implicitly, in His word.  There is implicit prescription of “solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasion” (such as Thanksgiving is) [note the prooftexts in the Westminster Confession as illustrative scriptural evidence], but there is no prescription of any kind to celebrate Jesus’ birth every December 25.  Indeed, there is no good evidence that Jesus was even born on December 25.  Rather, there is evidence a pagan holy day was simply Christianized, and that God reveals in scripture He detests such Christianization of that which is pagan, and without scriptural warrant.  Eg, consider how God detested worship on the high places in the Old Testament.


Now with respect to commemorating the Lord’s resurrection, we are implicitly commanded to do that every Lord’s Day per scripture, and not simply one Lord’s Day out of the year.   Keeping Easter as such is not rooted in Apostolic Christian practice, but in pagan practice.  The word Easter itself is originally a Saxon word (Eostre), denoting a goddess of the Saxons, in honor of  whom sacrifices were offered.   She was the Teutonic goddess of Spring, and this is in turn related to Ishtar worship.  Again, we have here a Christianization of a pagan practice.  Biblical Christian practice is to commemorate the Lord’s resurrection weekly on the first day of the week, not annually in spring.


[Next a gentleman named Peter posed certain questions and counter-points.]


Peter, let me try to address your points:


You write:

>I have no problem with not keeping an annual resurrection festival (I keep a weekly one, and an annual one is not commanded), but I think that to argue about it on the same basis as about Christmas (with regard to its pagan origins) is decidedly uncertain!


Peter, as a matter of historical fact and not uncertainty, neither “Christmas” nor “Easter Sunday” (nor that associated with “Easter Sunday”, like “Good Friday”) is rooted in **Apostolic** Christian practice.  Rather, both are rooted in a later “Christianization” of pagan winter and spring rites, to make Christianity more appealing.  The Apostolic church no more observed Easter Sunday than it observed Christmas.  With respect to observing the Jewish Passover, it has passed away, along with new moons and other Jewish feast days (Colossians 2:16-17).


As a matter of confessional fact, the Westminster Directory for Public Worship forbids Easter as well as Christmas observance:

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord's day, which is the Christian Sabbath.  Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.  Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God's providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.”

By “festival days” or “holy-days” it refers to Easter as well as Christmas.  If you do not believe me, I can take you through the history of Church of Scotland legislation and English Puritan literature.



You write:

Ø      Ø      an annual one is not commanded


Exactly, and as the Westminster Confession rightly says, that which is not commanded (either explicitly or implicitly) in worship, is forbidden:


“the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”


You write:

Ø      Ø      I think the Eostre thing (specifically) is only in Northern Europe.


Not really, because the Eostre thing in Northern Europe is genetically related to the earlier Ishtar thing of the Middle East, as I alluded to previously.  To quote:


“The name "Easter" originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and God. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 CE.) a Christian scholar, first asserted in his book De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre). She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe.  Similarly, the "Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility [was] known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos." 1 Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: "eastre." Similar Goddesses were known by other names in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean, and were celebrated in the springtime. Some were:


Aphrodite from ancient Cyprus


Ashtoreth from ancient Israel


Astarté from ancient Greece


Demeter from Mycenae


Hathor from ancient Egypt


Ishtar from Assyria


Kali, from India


Ostara a Norse Goddess of fertility.



What we really have in “Easter Sunday” commemoration is 2 traditions – one Jewish and one pagan Gentile - flowing into 1 wrong-headed, syncretistic “holy day”.  Let me explain.


During Old Testament times the Jews rightly kept the Passover (Pesach) and other Jewish feast days based upon Old Testament command, but during the Apostolic era such was being phased out for Jewish Christians, and altogether to be ignored by Gentile Christians (Colossians 2:16-17).  Nevertheless, evidence suggests some Jewish Christians continued to cling on to Passover (Pesach) observance (celebrated on day after 14 Nisan), with some Gentile Christians even wrong-headedly joining in (as implied by such passages as Colossians 2:16-17 and Romans 14:5).  As stated previously, in the Apostolic Church Gentile Christians were not to observe Passover at all, nor were they to participate with pagan Gentiles in observance of  spring rites genetically related to Middle Eastern pagan worship of Ishtar.  That was the situation as it stood in the first century AD.


Now in the second century AD, in the East, there continued to be those Christians who wanted to observe the Jewish Passover (celebrated on day after 14 Nisan), while in the West there were those who wanted a more “Christianized” Passover, to be observed on the Sunday following 14 Nisan.  So disputes arose over an issue that should not have been an issue, because there was no command of God for such a spring rite. For instance, in AD 197, Victor of Rome excommunicated those Christians who insisted on celebrating Passover on the day after 14 Nisan instead of the Sunday following 14 Nisan. 


In following centuries, not only did disputes continue to arise over an issue which could not be resolved based upon the Bible, since the Bible never commanded a “Christianized” Passover for some special day in spring, but over time more and more aspects of the pagan Gentile spring rites were added to the celebration, to make Christianity more attractive to the pagan Gentiles.  So, for example, the Germanic peoples could keep their spring Easter rites with only slight modification.  In addition, once the Easter invention had begun, other inventions (“Good Friday”, Lent, etc.) began to be added in its train, as time went on. For instance, though the “Christian Easter” earlier was a single celebration, in the 4th century Good Friday became a separate commemoration of the death of Christ, and “Easter” was thereafter devoted exclusively to the resurrection.

Either we nip such invention in the bud, as the historic Presbyterian church did, or the weed will tend to grow and take over the yard, as it has done in the Romish Church.  For those who allow such, undermine the Regulative Principle of Worship.



You write:

>You mention proof texts for special days of thanksgiving etc. How do we know that they were not just part of the more complicated worship of the Old Testament,


Because they bear not the marks of being part of the Levitical/Temple system of worship which expired.  That system of worship was explicitly repealed in the New Testament (Hebrews chapters 8ff ).


Indeed, the propriety of a magistrate calling “solemn fastings and thanksgivings upon special occasion”, “as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God's providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people”, was never even exclusively Jewish, much less limited to the Levitical/Temple system of worship.  For example, the king of Nineveh in response to Jonah’s preaching is commended for calling such a solemn fast of the people, to stay the wrath of God.



You write:

>as, for instance, the Scottish churches claimed instrumental music was?


Peter, not just “the Scottish churches claimed instrumental music was” to be prohibited in the public worship.  So did John Calvin and many continental reformed.  And so did the Christian church for *at least* the first 4 centuries of its existence.  And so have virtually all of the Eastern churches.  And so does the FPCS rightly today.


There were 2 parallel systems of worship in the Old Testament economy for the Jews:


1. The Levitical/Temple system of worship/organization which expired in the New Testament.  That system of worship was explicitly repealed in the New Testament (Hebrews chapters 8ff ).  This had animal sacrifices, appointed Levites to play appointed musical instruments, the Temple, certain candles, etc.


2.  The synagogue system of worship/organization was never repealed, but rather developed according to divine prescription to become the Christian church.  This never had musical instruments nor those appointed to play them.


The first was repealed in the New Testament, but the second was not.  The principle is this: that continues which is not repealed.


The reality is that the Westminster Standards accurately outline the chief doctrines of scripture.  IMO they shall be the confessional standards of the millennium- when the Jews have been converted, the Papacy extirpated, and the nations reformed consistent with the Establishment Principle.





Peter later questioned whether “Easter” had any pagan origins, but simply Judaistic origins.  My response was as follows:


Peter, with respect to the 'holy day' of an annual spring rite celebrating the resurrection on Sunday (“Easter”), it is evident it was not merely a Judaizing tendency, for the Jews did not keep such a rite in that way on that day.  If it were kept on the day after 14 Nisan like the Jews kept it, then I would say it was a mere Judaizing tendency.  And in the churches of the East during the second century that keeping of Jewish Passover seems to have been something of a problem.


It is evident it was not an attempt to be faithful to scriptural Apostolic practice, because there is not a shred of a hint of evidence that it was such a practice. 


So we are left to deduce that it was a “Christian” accommodation of historic Gentile practices rooted in pagan spring rites.  Further evidence is supplied by the fact of the pagan elements added to the day.  As noted at http://www.askoxford.com/languages/culturevulture/italy/italianeaster/ :


Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi" as the Italian proverb goes - "Christmas with your relatives, Easter with whomever you want". In Italy at Easter, with the first signs of Spring leading the way, travel is in the mind of millions. With Pagan roots and Christian additions, Easter is full of national and local traditions to enjoy at home and away.  Whether following the Christian calendar with la Quaresima, or the movements of the moon after the Spring equinox, all roads lead to Pasqua. On Venerdi Santo there are often parades through the centre of major Italian cities to commemorate la via della croce, Christ's carrying of the cross to Calgary Hill. After the pause of Sabato Santo the celebrations begin on la Domenica di Pasqua celebrating the Resurrection, and the coming of Spring in local fusions of Christian and pagan events.”


Keeping of “Easter” subtly feeds into Romanism, for we must look to the Pope to tell us when and how we are to keep this feast day, since scripture is totally silent concerning it.  But if scripture is sufficient and the Regulative Principle is true, then we will reject “Easter”.




World Magazine, most of whose leadership claims to be reformed, recently ran an editorial by a contributing writer which argued that Christmas’ origins do not trace back to an accommodation of the pagans.  It went on to conclude that Christmas observance is appropriate for Bible-believing Christians.


But historical facts contradict the case made in the article. There is a double crime in Christmas observance:


  1. Violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship, since Christmas observance is nowhere in scripture either explicitly or implicitly commanded.
  2. Syncretism with paganism, since Christmas observance is a “Christianizing” of an essentially pagan rite.


Consider the following information from various sources-


1.http://ancienthistory.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?zi=1/XJ&sdn=ancienthistory&zu=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cs.utk.edu%2F%7Emclennan%2FBA%2FOM%2FBA%2FSF%2FWinSol.html%23saturnalia :


The winter solstice is 25 December in the ancient Roman astronomical calendar, but 21 December in the modern calendar. December is under the protection of Vesta, and the Greek month Poseideôn (mid-Dec.-mid-Jan.) is under the protection of Poseidon.

This is a time of rest and celebration after the last sowing, and so agricultural deities, such as Saturn, Ops and Consus, are especially honored. Generally speaking, Graeco-Roman festivals of this season are more concerned with raising human spirits and reviving the crops than with the return of the sun. [PFA 97, 103; SFR 199, 205, 209, 212]

Saturnalia (Rom., Dec. 17-23; ancient: XVI-X Kal. Jan.)

This most joyous of festivals was called "the best of days" (Catullus 14.15); at various times in the past the festivities have lasted three, five or seven days, during which normal business and many prohibitions are suspended. The Saturnalia (which has much in common with the Kronia, c. Jul. 30) is preceded by the Festival for Tellus and the Consualia and is followed by the Opalia, Angeronalia (Dec. 21), Larentalia and Festival for Sol Invictus, resulting in a holiday season lasting from Dec. 13 to Dec. 25 (the ancient Winter Solstice).

The festival begins with a formal sacrifice at the temple of Saturn (whose name was derived from satus = sowing), which is conducted Graeco ritu (by Greek rite), that is, with uncovered head. First the woolen bonds are untied from the statue of Saturn. Next there is a festive banquet at which people dress informally, wearing the synthesis (perhaps a light dressing-gown) and pilei (soft caps), which may be made out of paper (Guhl & Koner 481). At the end of the banquet everyone shouts, "Io Saturnalia!"

At home it is a period of general relaxation, and in ancient times, the master waited on the servants at meal times. The household chooses the Saturnalicius Princeps (Master of the Saturnalia), the "Lord of Misrule," who is free to order others to do his bidding. On the last day it is common to exchange small gifts, such as sigillaria (small pottery dolls) for the children and cerei (candles) for adults.

Of the Saturnalia, Statius said, "Time shall not destroy that Holy Day, so long as the hills of Latium endure and Father Tiber, while your city of Roma and the Capitol remain" - and indeed it has not been destroyed, only disguised. [OCD s.vv. Saturnus, sigillaria; SFR 205-7]

Festival for Sol Invictus (Rom., Dec. 25; ancient: VIII Kal. Jan.)

The cult of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) was a comparatively late (3rd cent. CE) arrival from the East (Syria). It became the chief imperial cult of the Roman Empire, until it was replaced by Christianity. In the old calendar the winter solstice (Bruma = shortest [day]) fell on Dec. 25, so this was the day on which Sol proved Himself to be yet unconquered. [OCD s.v. Sol; SFR 212]


2. http://www.clarkplanetarium.org/FilesPermanent/SolsticeWinter.html :


…Prior to the Christian era a Roman solar cult had its major festival on the winter solstice. In 46 B.C. the solstice was on December 25 in the calendar Julius Caesar established in Rome. The date became so traditional that it was retained through calendar reforms, so that Dies Natalis Invicti, the Roman date of the Invincible Sun, remained December 25, now two to four days after the solstice. Later on, Christians also accepted this as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus…


3. :

…Ancient Rome had a major festival in honor of Saturn, their god of farming, on the winter solstice. The solstice occurred around December 25 on the Roman calendar.  About 1,600 years ago, Pope Julius I of the Catholic Church decided that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25, so that a Christian holiday would replace the ancient Roman one…”


The reality is that Christmas feeds into Romanism, which represents the unwarranted fusion of paganism and Biblical Christianity.  We must resist such.