In 1957, the acclaimed children’s author Dr. Seuss penned a beloved classic, the tale of a grumpy green monster whose shoes and heart were too small or too tight to tolerate the evil holiday known as Christmas. Oh the commercialism, the singing, the stockings, the gifts…it was just too much, and he had to stop it.
The Grinch was his name; ending Christmas was his game.
As the story unfolds, the Grinch schemes to impersonate Santa Claus, dresses his dog as a reindeer, then sets off with his sled on a mission to take back all the presents that Santa worked so hard to distribute. Just like that, Christmas was gone. Or was it?
While hauling all the gifts to the top of a nearby mountain, the Grinch heard something he was not expecting – singing! He heard the sound of joy and happiness, despite the fact that he had stolen everything – the stockings, the bicycles, the popcorn, the drums, even the Christmas tree!
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so? It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! – “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”
In the end, the Grinch had an awakening, a revelation that enlarged his heart and enabled him to see that the holiday he once hated so badly was not so bad after all, and he finally understood what it meant to the community. He gave back all the stolen gifts, rejoined his community, and even carved the Christmas meal with his new friends.
It is sometimes said that life imitates art, and for millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses past and present, there was a modern-day Grinch who stole Christmas from their lives. Only this time the Grinch stayed the Grinch.
If you are one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, you are among a unique group of people who have transitioned greatly over the past century. Within your own lifetime you might not have seen radical change. But viewed historically, the organization has morphed into a highly controlling religious hierarchy that has banned every celebration commonly accepted in our civilized world. The penalty for celebrating Christmas or any other holiday is severe: complete banishment from association with all other Jehovah’s Witnesses. Celebrate Christmas, and you will be shunned.
This may not seem significant to the great majority of mankind, but if most of your family and friends are Witnesses, let me assure you the punishment is devastating.
Why did this happen?
In the late 1800s, a man by the name of Charles Taze Russell initiated a religious movement that was based on an ultra-literal interpretation of the Bible. Despite the fact that “Pastor” Russell had no advanced schooling, no theological training, and no education in Hebrew or Greek, he was able to parlay his business earnings into the printing and distribution of an endless stream of books and magazines focusing on the invisible, apocalyptic return of Jesus Christ. Once initiated, this “Bible Student” movement became self-perpetuating – collecting dollars, real estate and members as the years progressed.
One of those members was a man by the name of Robert H. Barber.
ROBERT H. BARBER – THE GRINCH
For matters of clarification, Barber is not to be confused with Nelson Barbour (the Adventist once associated with Russell) or Carey Barber (deceased member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.)
There is limited information available regarding R.H. Barber, but we do know that he became a loyal follower of Charles Taze Russell by the turn of the 20th century, writing glowing reviews of Russell’s books. These letters to Russell were published in the pages of the Watchtower.
Barber apparently made quite an impression on Russell, and just before Russell’s death in 1916 he was listed among key public speakers at the July 1916 Newport Rhode Island convention of Bible Students. He shared the platform with A.H. Macmillan, C.J. Woodworth, R.J. Martin, W.E. Van Amburgh and other well-known Bible Student speakers and writers.
Barber managed to survive the turmoil that erupted following Russell’s death in 1916 and the subsequent takeover by attorney Joseph F. Rutherford. In fact, at the annual meeting held January 4th 1919, R.H. Barber received the 3rd highest number of votes for an elected officer of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract society, eclipsed only by C.A. Wise and the Watchtower president himself, J.F. Rutherford. Clearly Barber was becoming an influential presence within the organization.
On October 1st 1919, two of Barber’s colleagues (mentioned earlier), Clayton J. Woodworth and Robert J. Martin began publishing a new magazine called The Golden Age (now titled Awake!). This journal served to supplement The Watchtower, examining both current events and politics along with doctrinal opinions.
The Golden Age became an added platform for Barber, who was already touring the United States, gaining steam as the organization continued to grow. In 1924, the Watchtower organization added a radio station to its list of assets, and R.H. Barber became a regular preacher, delivering broadcast sermons such as “Why is the World Still Unconverted and Who is to Blame?” and “The Real Christian and the Hypocrite.”
By 1928, Joseph Rutherford had become nearly as prolific a writer as Charles Taze Russell, but he was not satisfied with just publishing his doctrinal and political opinions; he became obsessed with organizational allegiance and separating the Bible Students from the mainstream religions of Christendom. If C. T. Russell had been thought of as a religious cult leader, J.F. Rutherford took it to a whole new level. And his right hand man R.H. Barber was about to change the lives of every person ever associated with, or descended from, the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
As written in the Jehovah’s Witness organization’s most recent history summary titled “God’s Kingdom Rules!,” R.H. Barber delivered a speech in December 1928 that officially condemned the celebration of Christmas as an unchristian, pagan celebration inspired by Satan, and used as a tool to dishonor God and his Son. From this point forward it would no longer be considered acceptable to take part in this celebration or any related festivities. In fact, page 102 of this 2014 JW history book displays a photo of the final Christmas celebration at Brooklyn headquarters.
Seated prominently at the end of one of the long tables is the Grinch himself, R.H. Barber (circled, by Watchtower, in the image below from the God’s Kingdom Rules book.)
Further embedding the ban on Christmas permanently into Jehovah’s Witness theology was The Golden Age article published on December 12th 1928. The article was titled “Christmas, Its Origin and Purpose.”
THE INFLUENCE OF ALEXANDER HISLOP
Much has been said about the differences in belief between Charles Taze Russell and his successor J. F. Rutherford, but one quality they shared was a singular hatred for the Catholic Church.
The origin of much of this disdain for the Catholic Church and its practices stemmed from the writings of a man by the name of Alexander Hislop (1807-1865). Hislop was a Scottish minister known for his denunciation of the Catholic Church, and whose most notable work was the book titled The Two Babylons, The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife.
The Two Babylons was originally published as a pamphlet; then by 1919 it had emerged as a 330-page book, complete with illustrations. This book served as the touchstone for a multitude of Jehovah’s Witness teachings, including the elimination of the cross and the ban on holidays such as Christmas and Easter. It was considered so important to Jehovah’s Witnesses that the organization bought thousands of copies and received permission to sell and distribute the book. Watchtower sold this book to Jehovah’s Witnesses all the way through to 1986.
The JW connection to Hislop has not gone unnoticed by the religious community at large. In 2014 the website steadfastlutherans.com criticized the exaggerated claims of Hislop, pointing the finger at Jehovah’s Witnesses for adopting his questionable research:
The 40 day fast does not come from the so-called “weeping of Tammuz” as claimed by the radical anti-Roman Catholic writer Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons. Hislop made up myths and connections out of thin air because of his hatred for Roman Catholicism. Hislop’s views were adopted whole cloth by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who continued to republish Hislop’s book until 1987. Hislop’s book was cited in 22 different issues of the Jehovah’s Witnesses periodical The Watchtower from 1950 to 1978, and several times in the 1980s. From 1989 the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped referring to Hilsop’s book, but they have kept Hislop’s teaching and use other sources.
CHRISTMAS AND YOU
The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christmas might seem interesting to some, yet completely useless to others. The background only matters if it matters to you.
It matters to me, but not by choice. In the mid 1960s my parents had just married, and by 1967, the year of my birth, they had been converted to the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This meant that I never experienced a Christmas tree, Christmas gifts, or any of the holiday traditions associated with December 25th. I was instructed as a child to declare that the celebration of Christmas was “against my religion.” This, along with the complete abstinence from all other holidays including Easter, Halloween, even Thanksgiving, rendered me an instant outcast from my classmates. I was different, thanks to R.H. Barber, Alexander Hislop, and Joseph “Judge” Rutherford.
By the time I reached middle and high school, I was expected to deliver a well-rehearsed explanation for why I would not engage in any holiday celebrations, not even politely wishing my classmates a Merry Christmas or Seasons Greetings. Driving home this indoctrination were the yearly issues of the Watchtower and Awake magazines, which reminded all Jehovah’s Witnesses that Christmas (and other holidays) were offensive to God. Cards and gifts were not to be given or received. Gifts could not be exchanged. Any participation in such “pagan” holidays would result in a judicial meeting, disfellowshipping, and subsequent shunning by all family members and friends.
I was baptized in 1984, the year Jehovah’s Witnesses declared (yet again) that “this generation” would not pass away until all Bible prophecies about “the last days” were fulfilled. By the end of that year the Watchtower had driven yet another spike into Christmas, declaring it a “dangerous” holiday.
In retrospect, I never really thought of Christmas as dangerous. In fact, I secretly admired the ritual nature of this holiday, as it seemed somewhat joyful and positive, and not god-dishonoring at all. To the extent that I was able, I secretly enjoyed Christmas music and Christmas-themed movies. Was this a secret sin? I suppose it was, according to the Grinch.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE GRINCH?
Next year will officially mark 90 years since Jehovah’s Witnesses banned Christmas. The Grinch, Mr. Barber, is long gone, along with all the men who drafted the holiday bans on Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Hanukkah, Mother’s Day and Father’s day, and so on.
Yet the inertia of this belief continues. In the final issue of the 2017 Watchtower, the question is raised once again “Is Christmas for Christians?”
After all these years, we must ask ourselves if readers are really writing into the Watchtower magazine and asking this question? Obviously, they are not. Everyone knows Jehovah’s Witnesses are barred from celebrating this or any other national holiday, yet Watchtower presents this issue as if there is some ongoing debate. The reality is, they need to repetitively recycle the same articles and arguments year after year to maintain their tenuous beliefs, which exist within the realm of the absurd.
How many times will Watchtower attempt to tell us that Jesus was not born on December 25th? Does the Watchtower organization really think that anyone believes this is the birth date of Christ, and that their arguments to the contrary have any value whatsoever? The truth is, if they wish to debate dates and years, they have a far greater task in attempting to reconcile the Biblical timeline of history against the actual history of mankind. Stay tuned to JW Survey for more on that subject.
So, what about you? Do you condemn Christmas as a “pagan” holiday, with Satan pulling the strings? Or do you view it for what it is – a yearly secular celebration among so many other holidays? For those who are believers, there is no evidence that Christmas is hated by God. And for those who are non-believers, the holiday is enjoyed without any religious significance. it is simply there to be enjoyed.
Dr. Seuss might just have the final word. When the Grinch was about to destroy all of the Christmas gifts, he paused for just a second and listened to the distant sound of singing coming from the townspeople of Who-Ville. He had stopped and used his critical thinking just long enough to understand that Christmas was not evil, and it was not about the gifts. It was about life, and family, and the common bond of humanity.
He was cured.
From everyone at JW Survey, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!