The Merry season is upon us and amongst the mulled wine, traditional carols and rampant shopping, we once again have the voices of those who claim that Christmas is rooted in paganism and, therefore, Christians shouldn’t celebrate it. Is this true?
The first part is. Many of our Christmas traditions are rooted in paganism. But the second part involves a colossal leap in logic and a profound misunderstanding of Christian theology. It’s exactly because many of the traditions are rooted in paganism that we should be celebrating it. First some, historical background.
I doubt that it’s news to my readers that early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. Paul’s letters never mention it. Only two gospels describe Jesus’ birth. The amount of persecution that the early church received during the first 300 years of its history resulted in a strong doctrine of the resurrection – not the birth – of Christ. They focused on the victory of Christ over death and honoured the many martyrs killed by the Roman authorities. Also, early Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays – they were seen to be wholly pagan affairs. (The only birthday parties described in the Bible are those of wicked men – like Pharaoh and Herod – and usually resulted in someone being killed. Rather, the early church celebrated the day of a Christian’s death – his birth into eternal life.) That being the case, the early Christians saw little reason to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.
The first hints of a Christian winter holiday come from the East, where Epiphany was celebrated on the 6th of January. In the fourth Century, we see Christians beginning to celebrate the ‘Feast of the Nativity’ on 25th December. In 567, the Council of Tours proclaimed the period of 25 December to 6 January to be Christmastide – or ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. Nicolas – a generous fourth Century pastor from Turkey – died, became ‘St.Nic’, and his church contributed some traditions to the season as well. Not that all Christians have celebrated Christmas ever since. The Puritans didn’t. But for most Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, it is a major event on the calendar.
The Christmas dates were not randomly chosen. Societies have had winter celebrations of light and food to help get them through the dark winters since time immemorable. Somehow the souls of men in these Northern societies needed to know that light would once again triumph over darkness when there was so little sunshine and such harsh conditions. Evergreen trees and candles were held as symbols of resistance against the dark and icy season. Unsurprisingly, various mythologies – such as Yule and Saturnalia – grew up around such celebrations and the 25th December was one of them long before Jesus came. But mythology is not religion. Religion is the prophet dogmatically saying, ‘It is so.’ Mythology is the poet wishfully saying, ‘Why can’t these things be?’ The cruel and lightless winters stirred a longing in mankind for the world to be reborn.
If our various Christmas dates and practices originally came out of pagan practices, should we reject it outright? Let’s ask a different question first. Rock, jazz, hip-hop… where did they come from? The electric guitar? Drums? Were they first used in the context of Christian worship? Or, were these various instruments and styles used elsewhere – to serve other purposes? The latter, of course. Why do many churches use these instruments or employ these musical styles today? Because as Christians, we are a movement that believes in redemption. If we were to empty the church of everything that had godless roots, the people would be the first to go. We are all born pagan – worshipping something in creation rather than the Creator – and need to die and be born again. But God’s goal isn’t just to redeem some inner, invisible part of us (our ‘hearts’). Rather, God seeks to make everything new. Our money, our houses, our art, our music, and our holidays – that is, all of our culture – is something that we can see redeemed – just as Christ has redeemed us. So, even though hip-hop music may have originally focused on sexual immorality or drug abuse, we believe the music can be redeemed to communicate something wholesome – and even preach the Good News. The winter holidays may have originally been connected with various mythologies, but as Christ changes us, we change our holidays to give them new purpose – a new direction. We now celebrate – that in Christ’s coming – the long winter of sin and death has met its match in the form of a refugee baby. Christmas celebrates the fulfilment of all those dark winter longings. The wish has become fact – the myth has become history. This baby is the true light of the world – the evergreen that will never wither.
Let’s celebrate Jesus big during the Christmas season. Otherwise, we are bound to have unrealistic and unmet expectations from this holiday, leaving us with post-Christmas blues. Christ redeems mankind – not Christmas. We may hope that the various scrooges in our lives will be changed by gently falling snow and that our difficult family members will be alchemised into kind hearted people through the consumption of holiday cider. But we can’t baptise them with eggnog as much as we may long to. No, we are just gathering selfish sinners together indoors and giving them lots of toys, food (and maybe alcohol). Hey, what could go wrong?
We need to retain the gospel as central for such a large holiday, but we should not get rid of the stuff. Sin is not resident in the stuff – it is resident in the sinner. So, eat turkey, drink what suits your fancy and buy gifts. We are not materialists and gluttons – but neither are we scrooges. Historically, Christians have remembered God’s generosity in this season – giving the extravagant gift of his own Son to the world. So let’s not be glum this season nor modest in our celebrations. May our lives smell like good news. Let’s give great gifts to others – even those who don’t deserve it – and bake and eat and share what we have as if we serve a God who is generous beyond all imagination – for we do.
Joshua D. Jones is a writer, mentor and preacher based in Nottingham, England. He is author of the book, Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical gift of male-female friendship. He loves sharing good coffee with his family and close friends.