Tis the season… to be conflicted if you were reared as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Even today, there is a stark contrast between the joy that the Christmas season generally evokes in children and the anxiety that it engenders in Witness kids.
In my fifth-grade music class, my music teacher’s entire November/December lesson plan was for us to learn several carols to perform at a school assembly. I loved excelling in school and getting praise from my teachers. Additionally, I found the unfamiliar Christmas songs that were being rehearsed to be beautiful. So I learned them with my class for several weeks despite being riddled with guilt at being a part of a Christmas celebration. I finally gathered the courage to tell the music teacher at Rosemont Elementary that I wasn’t supposed to participate in the assembly because of my family’s religious beliefs. I can still recall her irritation. She yanked me by my blouse and marched me to the principal’s office where I had to sit during each music class until the semester ended.
I wasn’t the only kid in my family tempted by Christmas pageantry. My little sister was still a toddler when she became fascinated by the sparkling ornaments on the Christmas tree of a woman with whom my mom was conducting a home Bible study. We gasped when my sister produced a stolen ornament in the car for us all to admire. My mom was equal parts angry and embarrassed, and she spanked my sister soundly.
Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose a holiday that is celebrated in more than 160 countries worldwide? It’s complicated.
1. Ask a Witness and she will piously cite data establishing that it is unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25th. Now, logical people might counter: Well, Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday couldn't always fall on the third Monday of January and what are the odds that both Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays always fall on the third Monday in February? But Americans picked a convenient day and got a couple of long weekends. So, why can’t Witnesses just celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December?
2. Full disclosure: Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate anyone’s birthdays. Not their mama’s nor their children’s? And this is where it gets a lil’ crazy. Witnesses posit that birthdays are inherently evil because only non-Christians celebrated birthdays in the Bible, not Jesus’ disciples. And (wait for it) a long time ago, some people got decapitated on or just after birthday celebrations This is neither satire nor hyperbole:
The Bible makes direct reference to only two birthday celebrations, those of Pharaoh of Egypt (18th century B.C.E.) and Herod Antipas (1st century C.E.). These two accounts are similar in that both occasions were marked with great feasting and granting of favors; both are remembered for executions, the beheading of Pharaoh’s chief baker in the first instance, the beheading of John the Baptizer in the latter.
If you find it difficult to connect the dots from some unfortunate shenanigans from royal celebrations that happened thousands of years ago and simple modern birthday celebrations, try drawing the connection when you’re eight and you have to tell a classmate that Herod Antipas’ decapitation order is why you cannot eat a cupcake!
3. And that brings us to the third and probably most important reason why Witnesses despise Christmas. Many of the traditions and customs associated with the holiday can be traced to celebrations that predated Christianity. Yule logs, evergreens, mistletoe, etc. were all once part of winter solstice holidays. Now for most thinking folks, “pagan” is simply an archaic and culturally insensitive word that describes beliefs held for thousands of years by millions of people. We are respectful of polytheistic religions that revere the sanctity of nature. We are deferential to cultures that are spiritually connected to the earth and all living things. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, labeling a practice as pagan is a doctrinal mic drop. End of discussion.
When most people learn that priests who wanted to convert non-Christians to Christianity would often simply incorporate beloved rites and customs into Christian myths, they think, Wow, that would make a good Jeopardy question.
Others might quip, re-imagining Christianity to be more inclusive is a much better compromise than the whole burning-at-the-stake Inquisition marketing technique.
To Witnesses, however, pagan = verboten. Or does it?
Early in the 20th century, Witnesses did celebrate Christmas. The rejection of the holiday is a rather recent adaptation.
Also, baby showers can be traced to the ancient Egyptian practice of Al Seboo’ or the Greek custom of Amphidromia, both of which predate the birth of Jesus, but Witness women tend to love baby showers.
Ancient Romans exchanged rings at weddings long before Christianity, but Witnesses include this practice in wedding ceremonies. So the vilification of ancient customs is very selective for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Here is what I know:
1. Doctrine of high control religions is often internally inconsistent and contradictory. These doctrines do not survive critical analysis. That is why Jehovah’s Witnesses are only allowed to perform research from “approved” sources.
2. Dogma of high control religions tend to reject mainstream beliefs and practices. This isolates Witnesses reinforcing the idea that everyone outside of the group is suspicious and dangerous.
Side note: As a child, I believed that Armageddon would start during December and that angels of death would single out non-believers who had Christmas decorations up just like the angel did at the first Passover when he slaughtered the firstborn in Egyptian homes who did not have blood on the doorpost. If that sounds like a rather dark musing for a little kid, your bedtime stories did not come from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s My Book of Bible Stories.
More importantly, this I know to be true. There is magic in setting aside a season to focus on joy and peace and family. It feels warm and fuzzy to be included in a worldwide celebration that centers charity and time with loved ones. Also, Christmas decorations are fun, Christmas music is catchy, and opening presents on a Christmas morning is enchanting.
From my family to yours, tis the season to be joyful! Happy Holidays!