As an educator, you are confronted with a challenge that educators in previous centuries seldom faced—religious diversity.
THROUGHOUT the Middle Ages, citizens of the same country usually practiced the same religion. As recently as the end of the 19th century, Europe was familiar with only a few major religions: Catholicism and Protestantism in the west, Orthodoxy and Islam in the east, and Judaism. Diversity is, without doubt, much more common today in Europe and throughout the world. Unfamiliar religions have taken root, either adopted by some in the native population itself or introduced by immigrants and refugees.
Thus, today in countries such as Australia, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, we find many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. At the same time, Jehovah’s Witnesses, as Christians, are actively ministering in 239 lands. In each of 14 countries, the number of active Witnesses is over 150,000.—See the box “Jehovahʼs Witnesses—A Worldwide Religion.”
The diversity of local religious practices may present challenges to the educator. For example, some important questions may be raised concerning popular celebrations: Should all observances be imposed upon every student—regardless of his or her religion? The majority may find nothing wrong with such celebrations. However, should not the viewpoint of families belonging to a minority group also be respected? And there is another factor to be considered: In countries where the law separates religion from the State and religious instruction is not to be included in the curriculum, would not some find it inconsistent to make such celebrations obligatory in school?
Misunderstandings may even arise with celebrations that appear to have few, if any, religious connections. This is true of birthdays, celebrated in many schools. Although Jehovah’s Witnesses respect the right of others to celebrate birthdays, you are no doubt well aware that they choose not to share in such celebrations. But perhaps you are unaware of the reasons why they and their children have decided not to participate in these celebrations.
Le livre des religions (The Book of Religions), an encyclopedia widely distributed in France, calls this custom a ritual and lists it among “secular rites.” Although considered to be a harmless secular custom today, birthday celebrations are actually rooted in paganism.
The Encyclopedia Americana (1991 edition) states: “The ancient world of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Persia celebrated the birthdays of gods, kings, and nobles.” Authors Ralph and Adelin Linton reveal the underlying reason for this. In their book The Lore of Birthdays, they write: “Mesopotamia and Egypt, the cradles of civilization, were also the first lands in which men remembered and honoured their birthdays. The keeping of birthday records was important in ancient times principally because a birth date was essential for the casting of a horoscope.” This direct connection with astrology is a cause of great concern to any who avoid astrology because of what the Bible says about it.—Isaiah 47:13-15.
Not surprisingly then, we read in The World Book Encyclopedia: “The early Christians did not celebrate His [Christ’s] birth because they considered the celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom.”—Volume 3, page 416.
With the foregoing in mind, Jehovah’s Witnesses choose not to share in birthday festivities. To be sure, the birth of a child is a happy, glorious event. Naturally, all parents rejoice as their children grow and develop with each passing year. Jehovah’s Witnesses also find great joy in demonstrating their love for their family and friends by giving gifts and having good times together. However, in view of the origin of birthday celebrations, they prefer to do so at other times throughout the year.—Luke 15:22-25; Acts 20:35.
Christmas is celebrated worldwide, even in many non-Christian countries. Since this holiday is accepted by the majority of the religions of Christendom, it may seem rather surprising that Jehovah’s Witnesses choose not to celebrate it. Why is that so?
As many encyclopedias clearly state, Jesus’ birthday was arbitrarily set as December 25 to coincide with a Roman pagan festival. Note the following declarations taken from different reference works:
“The date of Christ’s birth is not known. The Gospels indicate neither the day nor the month.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III, page 656.
“Most of the Christmas customs now prevailing in Europe, or recorded from former times, are not genuine Christian customs, but heathen customs which have been absorbed or tolerated by the Church. . . . The Saturnalia in Rome provided the model for most of the merry customs of the Christmas time.”—Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh, 1910), edited by James Hastings, Volume III, pages 608-9.
“Christmas has been celebrated on December 25 in all Christian churches since the fourth century. At that time, this was the date of the pagan winter-solstice festival called the ‘Birth (Latin, natale) of the Sun,’ since the sun appeared to be reborn as the days once again became longer. In Rome, the Church adopted this extremely popular custom . . . by giving it a new meaning.”—Encyclopædia Universalis, 1968, (French) Volume 19, page 1375.
“The development of the Christmas festival was influenced by the contrast with the pagan celebrations of the Sol Invictus (Mithra). On the other hand, December 25, being the day of the winter solstice, was identified with the light that broke forth into the world through Christ, and the symbolism of the Sol Invictus was thus transferred to Christ.”—Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, (German) Volume 20, page 125.
When learning the facts about Christmas, how have some reacted? The Encyclopædia Britannica observes: “In 1644 the English puritans forbad any merriment or religious services by act of Parliament, on the ground that it [Christmas] was a heathen festival, and ordered it to be kept as a fast. Charles II revived the feast, but the Scots adhered to the Puritan view.” The early Christians did not celebrate Christmas, nor do Jehovah’s Witnesses celebrate it today or take part in activities that are associated with Christmas.
The Bible, however, speaks favorably of giving gifts or inviting family and friends for a joyful meal on other occasions. It encourages parents to train their children to be sincerely generous, instead of giving gifts simply when socially expected to do so. (Matthew 6:2, 3) Children of Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to be tolerant and respectful, and this includes recognizing the right of others to celebrate Christmas. In turn, they appreciate it when their decision not to participate in Christmas celebrations is respected.
Jehovah’s Witnesses take the same position on other religious or semireligious holidays that occur during the school year in various lands, such as June festivals in Brazil, Epiphany in France, Carnival in Germany, Setsubun in Japan, and Halloween in the United States. With regard to these or any other specific celebration not named here, Witness parents or their children would surely be happy to answer any questions you may have.