Some Christians say there is nothing wrong with having meals with Muslims during Ramadan or enjoying a sugar skull for the Day of the Dead. Other Christians claim that Christians should not participate in other religions’ holidays at all. Basic to the issue is whether or not it is possible for a Christian to participate in a non-Christian holiday or festival without endorsing the beliefs behind it.
We first need to distinguish between participating in a cultural festival and a religious festival. Some festivals are simply expressions of a particular culture and a celebration of that culture’s people, history, and contributions to society at large. There is nothing inherently wrong with attending an Irish Fest, for example. A Christian can wear green, sample some colcannon, and clap along with a reel without embracing Catholicism. Learning about and enjoying a different culture is morally neutral.
On the other hand, participating in a religious festival is fraught with spiritual danger. Honoring a false god is always a sin. “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). If any part of a celebration involves actions that honor or pay tribute to a false god, then Christians should not participate. There is no room for compromise in this area. Paul asks a rhetorical question: “Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? . . . The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:18, 20). Partaking in non-Christian religious festivals cannot be justified. We “cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (verse 21).
The difficulty arises in the fact that religion is often an integral part of culture. In many cases it is impossible to extract the religious element from what would otherwise be a purely secular event. For example, the bonfires and colored powder of India’s Holi celebrations seem innocent enough, but they are inextricably tied to Hindu mythology: the bonfires represent the burning of the female demon Holika, and the throwing of colored powder honors the god Krishna—depicted in Hindu art as having blue skin—and his paramour Radha. Christians in India avoid participating in the Holi festival because it is acknowledged to be a pagan and idolatrous celebration.
In other cases, the religious significance of certain celebrations has diminished over the years, to the point that many participants are unaware of the spiritual history behind the occasion. We see this even in modern Christmas celebrations, as the day honoring the birth of Christ is considered more and more to be nothing but a cultural festival in Western society. China’s Lantern Festival, or Yuan Xiao Jie, is another example. The festival began long ago as a religious observance but now is often seen simply as a new year’s celebration of traditional Chinese culture. There’s also the traditional Hawaiian hula dance, which began as a form of worship to Laka, the goddess of love, forests, and plants. Sacrifices and prayers to Laka accompanied ancient performances of the sacred hula in temples. Today, most observers—perhaps even most hula dancers themselves—are unaware of the pagan origins of the dance. Can a Christian attend a Chinese Lantern Festival or a luau featuring hula dancing, given the fact that most of the religious undertones have vanished? The issue may be a matter of conscience rather than a set biblical principle.
If a Christian is invited to attend a festival overtly celebrating another religion, it is his duty to respectfully decline the invitation. An explanation of why would be appropriate, and it may even open the door to sharing the gospel. It may also be fitting to suggest another time, unrelated to the religious ceremony, to meet.
We need discernment in this and many other areas. Participating in a purely cultural festival is fine, but attending a religious festival gives the impression of tacit approval. Determining one’s level of participation in a cultural festival with religious roots requires wisdom; for the sake of one’s own conscience and the integrity of one’s witness, such decisions should only be made after prayer, a study of the culture, and the solicitation of godly advice. Whatever we do, we need to do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).