The following article is a guest post by Dr. Michael LeFebvre, Pastor of Christ Church in Brownsburg, Indiana, author of Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms, and Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary Board President.
Several years ago, I wrote a post for Gentle Reformation called “Holidays and Holy Days” (link here). In that article, I described the roots of the Christian Calendar—including holidays like Easter and Christmas—in the Levitical holy days of the Old Testament. The point of that article was to explain why some churches like the RPCNA uphold the Lord’s Day Sabbath (which the New Testament continues to exhort) while not observing extrabiblical holy days like Christmas. The New Testament does not institute Christmas as a holy day, and in fact the Old Testament Levitical festivals (on which the “Christian Calendar” was based) have been discontinued in the New Testament. With due respect for the sincerity with which many hold Advent worship services each December, there is actually significant reason to question the celebration of Christmas as a church holy day.
That being said, there is every good reason to affirm the place of Christmas in the calendar of American, civic holidays. And to celebrate it as a civic holiday (but not a church holy day) along with the other federally appointed American holidays. In this article—as a sequel to that previous post—I want to offer an important biblical example of civic celebration days, and to illustrate their difference from religious holy days.
A helpful example is provided for us in the book of Esther. While the traditional title for this book highlights the role of the story’s heroine—Esther—the real focus of the book is on the origin of an annual day of celebration called “Purim.” At the end of the book’s main narrative and just prior to its epilog, the book reaches its climax with the appointment of Purim as an annual day of celebration (Esther 9:20–32). There are several details about this passage worth our attention as a pattern for civic celebration dates.
First, the day of Purim was not a “holy day.” Many of our English translations use the confusing English word “holiday” for Purim in Esther 9:22. “[Mordecai appointed] the days … that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday” (ESV). The English word “holiday” is a contraction of “holy day.” To call Purim a “holiday” might, therefore, imply that it was a religious festival. However, Purim was not a “holy day,” and the above translation is misleading.
The Hebrew word typically used for Israel’s holy days is not used in Esther 9:22. Israel’s holy days were mo’adim (the holy feast days) on which the people were called for a “holy convocation” to worship (Lev. 23:2). Esther 9:22 uses a different designation for Purim. The Hebrew term translated “holiday” in this text is actually a two word phrase that literally means “a day of goodness” (yom tov). Thus, the term used to describe this celebration distinguishes it from the holy days of Israel. It is not an addition to the calendar of holy feast days (the mo’adim), but a “day of good” or a “day of gladness” (yom tov).
Second, the day of Purim did not include a gathering to worship. Unlike the true “holy days,” Purim was not a day for worship. Instead, it was a day to gather in private homes—and, perhaps, in synagogues or public spaces—to feast and celebrate and remember what God had done for them. It was a day “of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). But it was not a day to call the congregation to gather for worship. There was no sacrifice tied to this day. There was no liturgy for this day. It was just a time to feast, give gifts, and rejoice together.
Third, Purim was appointed by political authority and not by Temple authority. In fact, the Temple rulers (back in Jerusalem) had no authority to add new holy days into the sacred festivals appointed by God. The holy days of Israel were appointed at Mount Sinai, and they were not to be modified or added to by any later priests or Levites (Deut. 12:32). But Purim was not added into the worship calendar of Israel by any religious authorities. It was appointed by political authority—indeed, under the authority of the Persian crown! “And Mordecai [at this point, the king’s prime minister] … sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasueras, both near and far, obliging them to keep the fourteenth day of the month of Adar… Then Queen Esther … [with] Mordecai the Jew gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim” (Esther 9:20–29). Both Mordecai and Esther were Jews and worshipers of Yahweh. However, neither of them were of priestly authority. Purim was a civic “holiday” appointed under (Persian!) political authority.
Fourth (and related to the above point), Purim was only appointed for the Jews living within the realm of the Persian king. Mordecai sent the Purim proclamation “to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus” (Esther 9:20). Now, the Persian Empire ruled quite a large swath of the known world at that time. But the way the text identifies the distribution of Mordecai’s declaration further illustrates its political (rather than religious) authority. It was a celebration day appointed for a particular, political domain.
By these features, Purim illustrates the character of a civic celebration as distinct from a religious holy day. And the example in Esther shows us the propriety of God’s people rejoicing in those celebrations of God’s goodness enshrined into human law for the various societies in which we sojourn.
What makes this distinction confusing for many, is the fact that a civic celebration like Purim is focused on something great that God did for his people. Many people today assume that any celebration of God’s deeds belongs in church as a holy day, while civic celebration days are only for “secular” events. But is there really any noble, “secular” event in which we as Christians ought not to give praise to God? On the contrary, it would be wonderful if the American government would give greater recognition of God’s goodness behind our nation’s manifold experiences of his undeserved mercies. We need more national “holidays” that point to the deeds of God in the world, rather than limiting civic holidays to so-called “secular” events.
The distinction between a civic celebration day (a so-called “holiday”) and a religious festival day (a “holy day”) is not whether God is involved in our reason for rejoicing. The distinction is whether there is a divine “call to worship” attached to the day. A “holy day” is a day appointed by God for “holy convocation” (lit., “holy assemblies”; Lev. 23:2). And the only voice with authority to call the people to worship is the voice of Jesus our King. When a pastor or elder issues a “call to worship” at the beginning of a worship service, he does so as Christ’s minister in his authority. And it is only the sabbath day that has divine warrant for such a regular, calendrical, commanded gathering to worship. The Lord’s Day Sabbath is our only “holy day” in the New Testament Church. But the Purim example reminds us of the suitability of celebrating God’s goodnesses, as experienced at all different periods of history, in various civic celebrations.
In centuries past, Protestants generally refused to celebrate Christmas. This was because, in centuries past, Christmas was strictly a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church holy day based, as noted above, on the “Christianization” of the Levitical festival days. In past centuries, Christmas was called by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches and was not appointed by civil government. Under those circumstances, there would be no more place for Protestant Christians to celebrate Christmas than to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. But today, Christmas has been adopted by civil society as a public holiday. With proper governmental sanction, it is proper for Christians to participate in this social celebration of God’s goodness to send his Son in human flesh. Not every holiday appointed by civil government is automatically good, but certainly a political acknowledgment of the birth of Jesus as the King of Nations—however conflicted and confused the political understanding of what that means may be—is a matter to be celebrated!
As a Reformed Presbyterian, I am keen to see the reign of Jesus over the nations acknowledged politically. In my view, we Reformed Presbyterians especially ought to embrace each opportunity to promote these small but meaningful instances where our national government admits the profound social importance of Christ as the one born to be King. I and my elders will not be introducing an Advent liturgy into the month of December nor calling a church worship service on Christmas Day. But I certainly am looking forward to this important celebration, and I am pleased to wish you all—