Recently I’ve been having a sort of discussion with a friend on Facebook about the celebration of Christmas. He was responding to my post on Thanksgiving Day in which I said that it may be the most Christian holiday in America, including Christmas and Easter in their popular expressions.
He commented that “Christmas and Easter are pagan holidays, so it’s not surprising that Thanksgiving is purer”.
The discussion took off from there. As yet, he hasn’t said anything about my Hanging of the Greens post.
It seems a little ironic to find myself championing the traditions and trappings we’ve surrounded Christmas with, when as a teenager my view was virtually summed up in the observation that Santa was an anagram of Satan (and coincidentally, “Old Nick” is one of the old names for the devil).
Maybe going to a part of the world where Christmas, or rather, New Year, was completely devoid of any Christian expression, had something to do with the change in me. Maybe it’s that I have young kids. Maybe it’s that I’m older now. Whatever the reason, these days I’m a lot more comfortable and happy with all the traditional trappings of the holiday.
Then, too, there’s the knee-jerk American Christian reaction of “it isn’t ‘Happy Holidays’, it’s ‘Merry Christmas’!” Really, if this is what we want to focus our ire at around this time of year, it’s a good thing Christ isn’t in His grave or He’d be rolling over in it. For the record, the origin of “holidays” is “holy days”, a clear reference to the events of the True Story of Christmas. So it actually makes no difference what you say.
However, already we’re veering off topic. What of the charge that Christmas (and Easter, but it’s Advent, so we’ll concentrate on Christmas) is a pagan holiday?
When I asked what made a holiday “Christian” or “pagan”, my friend responded “the root of it”. This is a commonly-held idea and not just something my friend came up with. And it goes way beyond just Christmas. There’s a tendency as followers of Jesus to dig back into the history of a thing with an eye to try and discern whether it came from a “godly” or “ungodly” source. Some of this, no doubt, is profitable: there may be more than meets the eye going on, and a wise believer will think before swallowing anything whole. The temple market in Jesus’ day was normal, but that didn’t make it righteous.
In that vein, Halloween owes a lot of its character to the pre-Christian Celtic celebration of Samhain, on which day the doors of the spirit world stood open. The English name “Easter” comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the springtime Eostre, and possibly traces back even further, to the Babylonian Ishtar. The 25th of December was celebrated in Roman times as the birthday of the pagan sun god Sol Invictus, and was surrounded by the upside-down pagan Mardi Gras festivities of the god Saturn.
But does it matter? Does the root in apparent pagan festivity necessarily taint all the subsequent expression?
Or to put it another way, is it, in fact, irredeemable?
This is the real question, and it’s one that Christians have argued over in various guises since there were other Christians to argue with.
In the second and third centuries, the question was whether Greek philosophy and concepts derived from it could be used in thinking about God and the Salvation narrative of the Bible. After all, it arose out of a pagan milieu and some of it was technically atheist in that parts of it disputed the idea that the gods had any independent existence. “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” became the rallying-cry of those who wanted nothing to do with the products of a polytheistic culture. But on the other hand, others among the church fathers maintained that since God alone was the Source of truth, insofar as it said true things about life and the world, philosophy was a reflection of that ultimate Truth. Its origins in paganism did not matter; it could be freely appropriated by believers and used as another lens through which to examine the mysteries of Deity, alongside the Holy Scriptures. Much of Greek philosophy laid the foundation for modern science: this was, in effect, the first Science vs. Religion debate. And the idea that even Greek philosophy could be used to communicate Scriptural truth led indirectly to Christian scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, who in addition to discovering the law of gravity also wrote Christian theology, and considered his theological works more important than his science.
Go back even further, and the question was whether followers of Jesus could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.
Idols and their sacrifices were everywhere in the First Century world. Meat was fairly expensive for common people, and often the only time they would be able to eat meat at all was during a feast dedicated to one or other of the gods. Partaking in the feast was an act of worship and communion with the deity, a symbolic filling of oneself with the spirit of the god via the agent of sacrificial meat. By eating, you became one with the god, or goddess.
It was all too often accompanied by gluttonous consumption, orgies, temple prostitution and other excesses that good worshippers of the One God should want no part of. Rightly, both the Jews and the early Christians stood firmly against participation in these lewd rites in honour of pagan deities who were probably demons in disguise.
Where the matter got hazy was that these gods didn’t just have big annual feasts like this, but were given regular sacrifices throughout the year. The meat of these sacrificial animals was frequently sold to the traders in the marketplace, where it could be bought by anyone. Should Christians still abstain from eating these sacrificial animals? Had they been irredeemably corrupted by association with the table of a foreign god? If a follower of Jesus just bought a piece of meat at the market, took it home and cooked it for their family, blessing God for His provision, was that still somehow a participation in the rites of pagan gods? There being no physical difference between a piece of meat that had been sacrificed to Jupiter, a piece of meat that had been killed just to get meat, and a piece of meat that had been sacrificed to YHWH, how could you tell except by asking?
It was a real question, and the issue is one we still have with us. Whether our question is one over the celebration of Christmas (or indeed, Halloween), or going to the cinema (at all; we should know that we need to exercise discernment about what we actually choose to see), or doing yoga, or acupuncture, or whatever else it might be, the underlying question of do the roots matter? is one we should give thought to.
Paul writes to the early followers of Jesus that “an idol is nothing in the world” (I Corinthians 8:4). This echoes Isaiah’s writing, in which he depicts a man who goes into the forest and chops down a tree. Part of the wood he uses to make a fire. He warms himself. He cooks meat and eats. The rest he makes into an idol (Isaiah 44:9ff)
Is the wood from which the idol is made any different from the wood that he roasted his supper over? When the idol was yet unmade, was his act of eating somehow a participation in an idol feast? Nonsense! It was still just a stick of wood. And basically, Isaiah is saying, that’s all an idol is. It’s a carved piece of wood or stone, maybe overlaid with metal or otherwise decorated. It has no life of its own. As the prophet says, “don’t be afraid of them, they can do you no harm, neither can they do any good”.
There’s only one real God, who made the earth and the heavens and all that is in them, including the wood, stone and metal that someone has decided to make into an image to bow down to.
Just as with the meat that is the same meat whatever people have done to it in offering it to this or that fake god, so the wood that the idol is made of is physically no different from the wood in the chair I’m sitting on.
The surprising thing to us is that Paul says in Romans 14 that it’s those whose faith is strong who understand this. It’s the weak brother or sister who wants to avoid everything lest they become tainted by even a dim association. We always seem to want to paint the most Puritanical amongst us as the “truly spiritual”; those who have “renounced the world” as those whose faith is strongest; those who avoid contamination and “worldliness” as those with whom God is most pleased.
Paul stands this on its head. Since an idol is just a block of wood and pagan gods don’t actually exist in the terms they are marketed in (that is, there is no god Jupiter in heaven alongside Yahweh), one piece of meat is exactly like another. Those of strong faith may freely participate, knowing that the idol is just another piece of wood, as impotent as the Ba’al whose prophets Elijah taunted. But if your faith is weak, you may have such a strong personal association of the meat with the temple feast and its debauchery and false worship that for you it cannot be divorced from that context. You literally cannot perceive it as simply a piece of meat. If that’s the case, then for you it is sin.
Bringing it round to the celebration of Christmas, yes, a lot of the traditional trappings of holly, decorated fir trees, Father Christmas and his reindeer, even the date right next to the winter solstice, arguably have roots in pagan customs.
Holly was important in Druidic paganism as the “winter king” tree. Fir trees were cut down and brought into the hall to be ceremonially burned by the Saxons and Norse as part of their midwinter Yule festivities. Father Christmas’ appearance and English name recall the pagan personification of “Father Winter” or “Father Frost”, god of the dark, cold days of midwinter. The 25th of December was, as I said earlier, the Roman festival of the Unconquered Sun and surrounded by the Saturnalia.
But does it matter?
Cain built the first city. His descendents, the sons of the heinous first polygamist and seventy-times-seven vengeance-taker Lamech, made the first metal tools (Tubalcain), the first musical instruments (Jubal) and the first nomadic shepherding cultures (Jabal). In case anyone has forgotten, Moses was enough of a metalworker to make a cast bronze snake (and at God’s direct instruction!), King David was a harpist who wrote of a fairly extensive repertoire of instruments being used to praise God in Psalm 150, Abraham was a nomadic shepherd, and heaven is pictured as a city: the New Jerusalem.
If the roots mattered as much as we sometimes think they do, all of these people must logically have been sinning in what they did. Let’s not go to a place where God is ordering Moses to sin in making a snake out of bronze. Or if they weren’t technically sinning but we still ought to avoid these “tainted” things, we become like the Pharisees, hedging the actual commandments of God about with burdensome rule upon unnecessary regulation in order to try and stay as far away from visible sin as possible, strangling the freedom of faith with human dictates. And if these things are irrevocably tainted by their sinful roots, then it would seem that believers in God have to subsist on only Stone Age technology. Goodbye, blogosphere. Goodbye, Facebook. Goodbye, Twitter. Goodbye, Youtube links to various crazy preachers.
It’s a slightly silly example, but there’s a point to it. Sometimes we seem to be so consumed with “unearthing the pagan roots” of something that we neglect the opportunity to actually use it to proclaim truth.
Paul’s preaching in Athens was a case in point. The context is that Paul is “distressed” by the fact that Athens teems with pagan gods and their idols. This from the Book that simply says in a rather deadpan way that “when Moses threw down his stick, it became a snake and he ran from it”. The Bible isn’t known for hyperbole.
The Greek word apparently denotes deep anguish of soul – it was literally eating at his good Jewish soul, all these false pagan gods with their hideous worship rites. Yet when he’s brought before the city council on the Areopagus (which translates to “Mars Hill”), he starts with the very thing that he hates and finds a way to be positive about it. What must be the impulse behind a city having so many gods?
Here, evidently, was a city desperately searching for truth and for a real God, but doing it in all the wrong places. Here was a city so concerned to be pleasing to the divine that they set up an altar “to the unknown god”, perhaps just in case they had forgotten one, perhaps because they dimly grasped that these man-made gods were not, could not, be real, but did not know any others. Starting there, and using a fragment of pagan Greek poetry (which the Greeks regarded as effectively equivalent to prophecy; poets spoke because the gods gifted them with their abilities) he proceeded to proclaim what the Athenians had been searching for without realising for so long: a real God who really mattered in the real world.
The shocking thing is that though Paul uses the poetic fragment “we are His offspring” to refer to the God who made the heavens and the earth, Whom we should not suppose is like a man-made image of wood or stone or metal, the original poem referred to humanity being the offspring not of Yahweh but of the very pagan, immoral and vengeful god Zeus.
And yet Paul is apparently not worried about this demonstrably pagan source, so long as he can use it to bring real truth before his hearers in a way they would be predisposed to accept.
As far as Christmas goes, holly has been used to symbolise the crown of thorns that Jesus would wear on the Cross, and its red berries the precious blood He would shed for our ransom. Evergreens have been used as a symbol of God’s faithfulness. The lighting of candles and all the other lights of the holiday point to the “true light that gives life to every man” Who was coming into the world. Santa Claus was originally Saint Nicholas, Bishop (ie church leader) of Myra and all-around fount of Christian generosity. God made reindeer, though perhaps not to fly. The 25th of December may have been regarded by pagan Romans as the birthday of their sun god, but the prophet Malachi calls the coming Messiah “the Sun of Righteousness”, referencing Persian Zoroastrian solar imagery when he said that He would rise “with healing in His wings”. Who really made the sun? Is it a god in actuality, that we must scrupulously avoid even two thousand years later? Of course not!
I honestly think that sometimes we’re in danger of attributing too much power to pagan superstitions, and through them, to the enemy. Avoid this, it’s Satanic. Don’t celebrate that, it has roots in paganism. Shun the other, it’s “worldly”, whatever that means.
I personally have problems with Halloween, but I can recognise that what the Christians who started to celebrate it were doing was operating in a greater faith, taking the witches and pagan superstitions and fears of their day and making them something that was safe to mock. We’ve largely lost sight of it in modern times, but all that dressing up may originally have been a bold recognition that the pagan superstitions were, as the idols of Isaiah’s day, not something to be afraid of. A testimony that really, it’s a bit silly being afraid of goblins and ghosts and the unquiet dead that may not even be real when we have the very real, living and active Word of Life on our side. By mocking the superstitions, dressing up as goofy versions of the things most people were actively scared of, they robbed them of their power.
The early church did the same with the Saturnalia, commandeering an earlier pagan holiday and imbuing it with new meaning, recognising that it’s not the date itself that is the “holy day”, but the meaning we attach to it. Like Christ’s cleansing of the leper demonstrated an aggressive purity more powerful than the ritual uncleanness of leprosy, the church was demonstrating an aggressive purity more powerful than the lingering paganness of the feast of Saturn. In the end, God made all days, even the ones that people have turned to evil uses, and if God is truly resident in we who have trusted our lives to Him, then we have His power to seize back the day from the misuses of fallen men.
In that sense, celebrating Christmas is in yet another way an expression of the victory of God over darkness and evil. We’re saying that Jesus is stronger than Saturn and Sol Invictus.