This Friday is Gregg’s birthday. In our house, when we celebrate birthdays — regardless of the month — we make the focus on Christ:
“We open presents because Jesus received presents when he was born.”
“We light candles because Jesus is the light of the world.”
“We eat cake to remind us that Jesus is the sweetest gift.”
While we are in this season of Christmas, the world is focused on the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, even though he was likely born sometime in the autumn.
Over the last few years, I’ve heard more and more about the pagan routes of Christmas. I don’t know if more people are talking about it, or if it’s just something that is now coming to my attention.
I’ll give you the cliff notes version. If you want more, I could flood you with sources.
In pre-Christ Scandanavia, during the winter solstice, Norsemen lit a log (intended to be a phallic idol) and kept it lit for 12 days to worship the sex and fertility god Jul (also spelled Yule). During this 12-day festival, they celebrated with daily animal and human sacrifices in the fire. Wild, delirious reveling ensued while drunken participants strode to make contact with spirits. Hence, our modern “yule log” and “12-days of Christmas.”
A thousand miles away, in Rome, celebrants during the winter solstice paid homage to their own gods. Witchcraft traditions have Dionysus, Attis, and Baal (the god of fertility and licentiousness) all born during the winter solstice period. The pagan god Mithras was said to be born on December 25th. Mithras was the god of the incomparable sun, the god of the light between heaven and earth and was worshiped by an influential Roman cult. During Rome’s month-long winter solstice celebration, the courts were closed. Any and all crimes were allowed. Homosexuality, cross dressing, and uncontrolled debauchery reigned supreme.
In 270 AD, Roman emperor Aurelian made it an official 7-day celebration. The sexually focused 7-day celebration went from December 17th to the 24th and ended with gift exchange on the 25th to celebrate the birth of the sun god. This 7-day celebration later became known as Saturnalia, after the god Saturn (who is also the archetype of “father time”).
So, you have these civilizations with pretty major armies with these pagan celebrations during winter solstice. Then, Romans and Norsemen separately conquered the world, and took their traditions with them.
In Britain, by the 4th century, the government sanctioned church could no longer outlaw the pagan practices, because they were so wide-spread. Instead, they decided to adopt them into their “Christianity”. They felt by allowing the pagan worship and excessive sexual celebratory style, they would attract more pagans into their fold. Despite Biblical evidence to the contrary showing that Christ was not born in December. But the church chose to ignore that and celebrate Christ’s birth on the birthday of a pagan god.
And so now, here we are. There’s a long line of pagan backgrounds to all sorts of Christmas traditions from the tree to the stockings hung by the chimney with care to the halls decked with holly to that kiss under the mistletoe.
What does that mean for Christians today?
The Bible reveals that Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the early Church all observed the (Saturday) Sabbath and the biblical Holy Days (see Luke 4:16; John 7:8–10; Acts 17:2; 1 Corinthians 5:7–8). However, the early Church, beginning around the time of Constantine, appropriated Sunday worship along with a host of “saints days” from paganism, including Easter and Christmas. Not only is there no biblical precedent nor command to do this, Scripture actually warns against adopting pagan practices (see Deuteronomy 12:29–32; Jeremiah 10:2).
Puritans coming to America sought to rid themselves of the paganism that had flooded the church, and actually banned Christmas. However, the people celebrating the pagan traditions weren’t just slapping a Santa hat on their head and singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” They were indulging in 12-day drunken orgies around burning Yule logs.
The early church was wrong in their decision to incorporate the pagan worship into the Christian calendar. Of that, there can be no arguing. Even as recent as 200 years ago, the pagan debauchery was the purpose of the celebration.
Churches today will say that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Except, He’s not. Not historically, and not really currently.
Today, crass greed and commercialism have replaced the traditional orgy-fests. Many retailers make almost half of their annual profits during the official Christmas shopping season. A fictional character with omniscient observation and judgement and supernatural powers with an army of elfin creatures ready to do his bidding is used as a method of manipulating the behavior in children, and IS the symbol of Christmas. (Santa’s evolution began with Beelzebub and has morphed into the jolly old elf.)
When the Bible warns us against adopting pagan practices, it’s my belief that singing “Silent Night” while sipping fresh eggnog and focusing on the angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest” is not what it’s talking about. If that is where the focus lies at Christmas, then what can possibly be the problem with that?
What to do?
Gregg and I have spent many an hour discussing this. Due to our research into the origins of Easter, we have chosen not to celebrate that in any way. We don’t do eggs, we don’t do the Easter bunny, we don’t do any of the traditional Easter “things”. We celebrate Passover, as Christ did, and we celebrate His resurrection. But, there was nothing of Christ in Eostre and her magical bunny. It’s very easy to celebrate Resurrection Sunday and be removed from Easter.
In Christmas, however, Christ is everywhere. People who might never in their life ever have heard the name of Jesus will hear the song “O Holy Night” and hear the beautiful and poignant words that rejoice in the coming of our Lord. Everywhere you look, nativity scenes share shelf space with Santa’s sleigh. Angels are near bells.
We are given the mission to “go ye therefore and teach all nations” — what better platform to teach than to do it in a time of open giving and love, when everyone is focused on “Peace on earth”?
Our family has decided to “tread the line”.
We purposefully have stripped anything secular out of our Christmas. There is no Santa. There is only a focus on Christ, and His gift to us, on our salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit. (Even my “Christmas Village” is the Town of Bethlehem.) We share that love with Christmas cards, with gifts, with a spirit of love to our fellow man. And we encourage our children to hold onto that love all through the year, so that the generosity shown at Christmastime is our norm and not something for which we strive on an annual basis.
Yes, we’ll have a Christmas tree. But, unlike my pagan ancestors, I don’t believe its presence is going to keep away evil spirits. We use it to hang and display gift ornaments that have been given to us over the years. We use it as a place to place the three gifts our children get from us every year and the presents they’ll get from family members. It doesn’t go up until the week before Christmas, and it comes down before New Year’s Day.
We celebrated in the hanging of the greens at our church – a very beautiful and joyous ceremony. We did not attend the pancakes with Santa at our church the following week. It’s a balancing act, but it’s one we’ve chosen to balance at this time.
We do not feel that the Holy Spirit is leading us to remove Christmas from our lives the same way we removed Easter. Instead, we want to use it as a time to spread the glorious good news of Christ Jesus — and to not stop telling the story at his birth, but to tell the whole story – of love and forgiveness, of redemption and grace.
That is our family’s decision. We feel that it is a personal one and that all Christians should examine the history leading to where we are today and make their own decisions.
Whatever your family does to celebrate this Christmas season, I pray that you are blessed by it, and that you are able to be a blessing to others through it.
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