We wish you a pagan Christmas.
That’s an oxymoron, right?
Christmas, by its very definition, originates from the person of Christ, the name says it plainly. And doesn’t that rule out paganism?
The answer is more complicated that it might first appear.
A couple of my Facebook friends and I have had brief discussions on the topic after my post on Halloween and I said I would need to do a little research to formulate my final answer. Here goes.
Getting right to the point, many of the traditions and decorations we enjoy at Christmas did not spring from a holiday about the birth of Christ from but from other origins. I discovered more about the history of other ancient civilizations from my reading and found it so interesting that heathen religions also had their annual feasts built around the worship of their gods. Maybe this was Satan’s attempt to copy the Lord Jehovah who commanded His people to keep His feasts days and covenants in honor of Him. At any rate, the early Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Babylonians and Greeks all had celebrations related to the harvest and the New Year and the winter solstice. The Latins or Romans conquered many of their neighbors and simply incorporated their festivals into their own, forming a conglomerate of worship and holidays. Some of these customs have some bearing on Christmas practices today – charity, goodwill to others, giving gifts – especially toys to children, feasting, baking, eating nuts and fruit and cakes. In 274 A.D., the emperor Aurelian set December 25 as a celebration of the “birthday of the unconquered sun.”

The earliest followers of Jesus did not keep any commemoration of His birth, so far as we can tell. Author Patricia Bunning Stevens remarks that a very strong reason might have been that they lived under the constant threat of persecution. They did honor the days on which martyrs died for their faith. Some felt it was not proper to celebrate Christ in a festive way as Origen wrote in the third century A.D., “as though he were a king Pharaoh.” But as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire and the Western World, persecution lessened and the climate became more amiable to Christ-centered celebrations. It is recorded that in the year 336 A.D., Christians in Rome celebrated His Birth on December 25. This was after the Emporer Constantine had grated tolerance to Christianity in 313 A.D. It seems then that Christians began to try to redeem the pagan holidays and, as Stevens put it, “build bridges” to their unbelieving neighbors. For a while, it seemed the Christian focus would be swallowed by the other cultures but gradually, Christmas took on a more holy atmosphere and believers began to accept December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity.

Looking to the various cultures helps us understand what they have contributed to our modern image of Christmas: The European peoples originated the tradition of the Yule Log (burning this massive chunk was believed to bring good luck the next year and protect the house from fire). The Germans contributed the boar’s head stuffed with an apple after the pig itself was sacrificed to ensure good crops the coming year. The Anglo-Saxons gave us the wassail (or punch) bowl tradition – in medieval England, wealthy households brought out a silver bowl and filled it with a steaming brew which was then given to the poor who came door-to-door ((wassailing morphed into caroling). The Romans brought us the custom of candles at Christmas – a natural sign of joy and hope during winter days, a sign of welcome in the window and redeemed by Christians to refer to Christ, the Light of the World. The idea of gifts, started by the ancients in their festivals, was carried on by the peoples in Europe and eventually passed on to us. The first Nativity Scene was probably instituted by St. Francis of Assisi who was concerned that the fact of Christ’s birth was being lost in the all the pagan remnants of the festivity. He and some friends created a “new Bethlehem” in December 1223 and that tradition continues to this day after being brought to america by the Moravians who founded the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1741. France and Germany and England all contributed songs for the season – carols, noels. The Celts started the tradition of using mistletoe – their name for it means “all-heal” and some think that the act of kissing associated with it might mean an early ritual of forgiveness. (not too romantic, huh?) And of course, many cultures have given us pieces to the character today we know as Santa Claus – St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, even the saint Lucia. But that is a topic for another day.
The best known symbol of Christmas to us is also shrouded in controversy in its beginning. The Christmas tree probably did not begin as a Christ-centered custom. The early Germans were a forest people and some worshiped trees. The Romans also valued the life-giving symbolism of evergreens. Sometimes they brought them inside as good luck omens. Some Europen people brought cherry tree limbs inside and did their best to force them to bloom as a talisman. An apple tree was used in the early German celebration of the Paradise Play – about Adam and Eve. Some homes in the Middle Ages began having a Christmas pyramid – hung with candles, branches and pretty decorations – that shape suggests a tree as well. A snipped from a diary written in Strasbourg Germany in 1605 describes a “Christmas fir tree” which was decorated. Sometimes in Germany, the tree was hung upside down, at other times, right side up, but always suspended from the rafters. Later on, it was set on the floor. The early Christmas trees in Germany were table-size and the first one using candles is recorded in 1708 by a woman describing Christmas trees from her childhood. There was a terrible risk of fire. The custom of the Christmas tree spread to other countries and became wildly popular in England under the reign of Queen Victoria whose husband, Prince Albert, was German and therefore devoted to the practice. Tradition says that Hessian soldiers brought the idea of the Christmas tree to america when they were here fighting in the American Revolution. The first actual record of Christmas trees in America come from Pennsylvania where many of the early settlers were German. The first Christmas tree in Williamsburg came in 1842 and the first Christmas tree in the White House was set up by President Franklin Pierce in 1856.
There is much more on the development of our modern traditions of ornaments, greeting cards, carols, eggnog, poinsettias, cookies and the transformation of Christmas down from the time of the Pilgrims (who as Puritans did not celebrate Christmas) to the huge effect Charles Dickens had on our understanding of this Day to the Revolution and the “Christmas gift” customs held by slave-owners to what we currently cherish at this “most wonderful time of the year.” What is important for Christians is the question of its legitimacy.
Very few today shun any type of Christmas celebration but there are some who simply choose not to address the questions if they have them. It’s not comfortable – that’s for sure. Let me give my opinion and allow you to have yours.
For me, commemorating the day the greatest Gift came into our world (John 3:16 says “God gave His only begotten Son”) is a good thing. The origin of “Why” I celebrate this day is not evil, as is Halloween, but good. Customs and traditions incorporated into it that increase love and togetherness of family and friends and that promote charity to others and forgiveness and peace are also good. Attempts have been made by Christians down through the centuries to redeem and glorify this blending of feasts into a celebration that ultimately reminds people the world over that Christ affects us even to this day – our biggest annual events and charitable times and even sales are linked to a commemoration of Him. That also seems good to me. If one feels that a certain custom is a spiritual hindrance to his family, don’t do it. There is liberty here under Christ as long as one is not flippantly violating his conscience.
Romans 14:5-6 says One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. {fully persuaded: or, fully assured} He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.

To me, the principle here of generosity of spirit and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ applies very well to our observance of Christmas and how we differ from others. For some particularly, the practice of the Christmas tree is an issue mostly perhaps because of Jeremiah 3:2-6.
Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. {customs…: Heb. statutes, or, ordinances are vanity}
They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.
Forasmuch as there is none like unto thee, O LORD; thou art great, and thy name is great in might.
At first glance, this might seem to shout “No Christmas trees! They are symbols of idolatry.” And if your feel that way, honor your conscience. But, as one modern commentator said, God forbids practices of worship of anything but Himself. Most of us don’t worship our Christmas trees or believe they bring good luck or healing to our homes. We see them as symbols of our joy in Jesus’ coming to our world as a tiny Baby bringing with Him the Light of salvation. That might not satisfy all the questions and nuances around this one custom, but I’m sure you can find much more on it through study and research.
This post is not meant to cause you a troubled conscience or a disdain for others. It’s an attempt to find the “reason” for our customs of the season. To me, that’s always a good thing. You don’t have to agree with me. You are welcome to comment and even to disagree. Just remember that you are always treated with respect on my posts and please do the same in your discussion with others below.
So, let me amend my opening sentence.
I wish you a Christ-focused Christmas.
And that will be a merry one.

Source used:  Merry Christmas: a History of the Holiday, Patricia  Bunning Stevens, Macmillan Publishing: 1979.  

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