On Friday, December 21, Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger published a letter to the editor titled, “Putting Jesus back into the holidays.” Contrary to what one might expect, this was not a plea to make Christmas more Christ-centered; rather, it was an attempt to show that Christmas is inherently unchristian and that Christians should honor Christ by abstaining from it. It seems that this line of reasoning, “Christmas started out pagan, and therefore is irredeemable” has become increasingly popular in recent years. How are pro-Christmas Christians to respond?
1. The case against Christmas
The writer, a Florence resident, summarized his research on the origins of Christmas: “Back in the 300s-400s or so, there was a pope who wanted to add some pagans to the fold. But these pagans had a holiday once called (and maybe then, too) Saturnalia. This holiday had been around hundreds of years and involved exchanging gifts, consuming vast quantities of adult beverages, decorating with red and green, displaying evergreen trees, mistletoe and steamy adult behavior. It celebrated the winter solstice, and Dec. 25 became the official day.”
Though the letter’s tone is, unfortunately, sarcastic in places, the basic facts are true: December 25 was for many years a popular pagan holiday before the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. This is not some great cover-up, but something Christmas celebrators willingly admit. No doubt, much of what was done in celebrating the old festival had a decidedly non-Christian element to it.
The letter raises the legitimate concern that it’s easy to whitewash pagan practices and consider them Christian, allowing them to remain pagan at their core. One hears stories of nominal Christian countries where local deities have been renamed as Christian saints, but the core idolatry of the region seems to have stayed largely intact. As Presbyterian historian Earnest Thompsons said in his book, Through the Ages, “The earliest representations of the Madonna and Christ Child were similar to those of the Egyptian Isis and Horus.”
The letter went on to explain that these pagans were willing to become Christians, but insisted on keeping their holiday, and the pope capitulated. In Kegley’s view, the December 25 holiday is a celebration of Christ’s birth in name only, but in reality is just as pagan as it ever was.
“There is nothing in The Book of Books about celebrating the birth of Jesus,” the letter said said. “Nobody even knows His actual birth date. So my conclusion was Christmas didn’t become secular. It started off that way, just under another name.”
Again, the letter is right in saying that no one knows what day Jesus was actually born on.
Choosing December 25 was, in a sense, arbitrary. Scripture itself doesn’t talk about celebrating Christmas (nor any of the other events on the church calendar, for that matter, such as Lent, Easter, Advent, etc…). Incidentally, this was basically the rationale against Christmas employed by early American Puritans, arguably the first Christians to challenge the celebration of Christmas. Do these facts prove that it’s wrong to celebrate Christmas?
2. The case for Christmas
As C.S. Lewis so often said, everything that was best in paganism finds its true culmination in Jesus Christ. Even old pagan myths, written by people unacquainted with the God of Abraham, foreshadow the incarnation of the Messiah in ways that are eerily similar to the ancient Hebrew prophecies. The defense of Christmas rests on the premise that everything in God’s creation is inherently good, though open to corruption. There was nothing in the old December 25 holiday that was pure evil, through and through. The gaiety, the festivity, the jubilance—all of this is thoroughly consistent with the Christian faith. What the early church did was take all of this excited energy and redirect it. Instead of communicating the message that paganism is fun and festive, while Christianity is stiff and solemn, the church communicated that Christianity is more festive than paganism could ever hope to be because what Christians celebrate is not the sun god, but the true Son of God.
The letter seems to be operating from the premise that it’s fundamentally not possible for pagan things to be Christianized and used for good purposes. Scripture’s silence on the topic of Christmas would only pose a problem if one believed that it was inherently wrong to do anything not expressly, explicitly commanded by Scripture. Of course, in reality no churches operate strictly on that principle. Even churches that refuse to use musical instruments on the grounds that the New Testament doesn’t command them put up church signs and use microphones, although Scripture is equally silent on these things as well.
Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter have long been valued as a way of assisting worshippers to walk through the life of Christ year by year, commemorating the most significant events of his life. These are “Scriptural” holidays in that they are consistent with what Scripture teaches us about Jesus. Everything Christ ever said or did is worth celebrating, and it wouldn’t be wrong if the church had a holiday 365 days a year commemorating some facet of Christ’s earthly ministry. Can these extra-Biblical ceremonies be abused? Yes. But that doesn’t prove they can’t be used correctly. People can overindulge in food and thereby hurt themselves, but this doesn’t prove that eating in and of itself is inherently wrong.
The letter concludes by saying, “The pope tried to steal a pagan holiday and make it Christian. Which means you can’t put Christ back into Christmas, because He wasn’t there at the beginning. But you can put Him in there by modifying the customs you follow.”
Historically, the letter errs by making it sound like Christmas was introduced singlehandedly by a Middle Ages pope. In reality, Christmas began to be celebrated long before the schism between Eastern and Western Church, and long before the Bishop of Rome wielded the degree of influence he was accorded by the First Vatican Council. The transition of December 25 into a Christian celebration was something all of Christendom was involved, not something foisted onto the church by one bishop.
Unfortunately, the letter doesn’t go into detail about how Christ-followers could put Christ into their celebrations by “modifying the customs”. Which customs, and how could/should they be modified? While Christ wasn’t in the original December 25 holiday, he has been in the holiday known as “Christmas” since the beginning. The big question, to this pro-Christmas writer at any rate, is not how was December 25 observed in pre-Christian times, but how should Christians observe it today?
Assuming that everything God has created is good, and can be received with thanksgiving, it’s consistent with Christianity to have festive occasions and to be celebratory. God becoming incarnate as a Man is an event that, more than any other event in world history, deserves to be celebrated. Assuming that it’s acceptable to celebrate good things, even things Scripture doesn’t command us to celebrate, what are Christ-honoring ways of celebrating his birth in Bethlehem?