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Halloween costumes, Christmas decorations, Easter bunnies. Where did those traditions and practices come from, and why are they celebrated as Christian holidays?
Jack-o-lanterns, originally carved from turnips instead of pumpkins, were part of an ancient Celtic celebration at the beginning of winter. The Druids believed the barriers to the supernatural weakened at that time of year and the souls of the dead roamed the land. They built large bonfires to frighten the spirits off, sacrificing animals and even people to appease them. The jack-o-lantern represented a soul caught between the two worlds and served as a warning to ward off the bad spirits.
Halloween, observed on October 31, is still looked to by some as All Hallows' Eve—the night before the Catholic All Saints' Day, a supposedly holy occasion. Yet with all its ties to the occult and dark forces, Halloween is anything but holy, and it's now shunned by many professing Christians.
What is today thought to be a celebration of the birth of Christ began as a pagan midwinter festival. The Druids in ancient France and Britain staged a 12-day celebration at the time of the winter solstice. They believed it was the high point of an annual battle between an ice giant, representing death, and the sun god, representing life. (L.W. Cowie and John Selwyn Gummer, The Christian Calendar, 1974, p. 22).
Decorating with green plants in late December through the beginning of January was one of the ways Druids "honored and encouraged" the sun god at the time of the winter solstice. Families commonly cut down an evergreen tree to bring into their home, where they decorated and displayed it in a prominent place.
In the Middle Ages, this ritual of paganism persisted and was eventually adapted and given a Christian label, as Roman Catholic missionaries worked to convince people to worship the Son of God rather than the sun god.
Even Easter, which many assume was instituted to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is steeped in traditions connected to paganism. The name "Easter" ultimately derives from the name of an ancient Chaldean goddess Astarte, who was known as the "Queen of Heaven." Her Babylonian name was "Ishtar." Since most languages pronounce "I" as ee, it's not hard to see how eesh-tar and its linguistic variants could eventually become Easter (see Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, New Testament Section, p. 192, "Easter"). As the goddess of love and fertility, Ishtar's symbols were eggs and rabbits! (Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p. 509, "Gods, Pagan").
The idea that people have immortal souls was first taught in ancient Egypt and Babylon. The Greeks also taught that at death the soul would separate from the physical body (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1941, Vol. 6, pp. 564, 566, "Immortality of the Soul"). That idea was merged into Christianity from Greek philosophy. It did not come from inspired Scripture.
The ancient Egyptians developed the concept of going to heaven when you die. In their mythology, the god Osiris was killed, then raised back to life, before going to a distant heavenly realm. The Egyptians concluded if Osiris could do this, then human beings could follow (Lewis Browne, This Believing World, pp. 83-84). This heavenly reward was a central teaching of several ancient mystery religions—but not the religion of the Hebrews or early Christians.
Babylonian mythology regarding Ishtar claimed that she had a son named Tammuz. He died each year, but then would be reborn again in the spring. The Babylonian veneration of both the mother and child influenced later versions of Christianity that deified Jesus' mother Mary as much as Jesus Himself (Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1993, p. 326). This stands in contrast to Scripture, which honors Mary, but reveres no ordinary human being—only Christ.
Human logic might say that one can do anything to show personal religious faith as long as the intent is to worship God. The Bible, however, reveals God has a much different view. When He gave the ancient Hebrews instructions about how to worship Him, He also told them not to borrow or copy the practices of pagan cultures around them. He said, "Do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I will also do likewise.' You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way" (Deuteronomy 12:30-31). Christ repeated a similar admonition in Matthew 15:8-9.
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