The headline immediately caught my attention: Mich. Residents Receive Letter Calling Christmas Lights “Pagan.” Someone on the night of Dec.14th drove around Hudsonville, Michigan, hand-delivering letters to any house featuring holiday displays informing them that they were honoring not the Baby Jesus, God’s Son, but the pagan sun god, Saturn. My immediate reaction might not be what one would expect of a member of the clergy. The first words out of my mouth were, “The author of this letter is right!”
I say that the author is right, not in condemning people for putting up holiday displays, but in that the actual facts of the letter are mostly correct. The celebration of Jesus’ nativity came relatively late in the evolution of the Early Church. The date of Christmas was chosen most likely, as the letter suggests, to fall on or near the Winter Solstice so that early missionary efforts by the post-Constantinian church among northern Europeans could “baptize” pagan festivals and re-fashion them as Christian celebrations.
By offering his or her neighbors this lesson in basic Church history, the author of the letter has performed a valuable service, not by chastising them for celebrating, but in reminding them of the true origins of Christmas and in underscoring that celebrations this time of year are more deeply-rooted than in any one religious faith.
We are being told that there is a “war on Christmas” being waged by secular entities in this country, bent on stripping the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth of its “true meaning.” We are told to boycott any retailer that won’t say, “Merry Christmas,” because “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Signs festoon yards in more pious neighborhoods, “Put Christ back in CHRISTmas!”
The first time I saw one of these signs I flashed back to a similar dust-up I recall happening during my childhood in the 70s. “Don’t X Jesus out of Christmas,” those bumper stickers read, denouncing anyone retailer or individual who might use the word “Xmas” as shorthand. It was believed to be a plot by the ACLU, first dreamed up Charles Darwin, no doubt. My father, a United Methodist minister, and a fairly well-educated one, pointed out the fundamental error of this fundamentalist movement. The “X” used in “Xmas” actually is the first letter of the ancient Greek word for Christ. It truly was an abbreviation and about as disrespectful, he said, as writing “U.S.A.” on a letter. In my child’s mind I opened a new folder a slipped this fact in. I then marked the folder, “Some people are uneducated and WRONG!”
Such it is these days with those demanding Christmas be given predominance over all other holidays this time of year. Wishing a fellow American “Happy Holidays” is seen as even unpatriotic, because, we are told, our nation was founded on “Christian principals.” I laugh to myself to think the fevered imaginations of members of the “Merry Christmas brigade” picture the Founding Fathers going door-to-door Christmas caroling, or handing evangelistic tracts out on street corners. When any student of actual U.S. history knows that many American Christians, especially Puritans and Baptists, prohibited or even completely outlawed any observance of Christmas in their churches and communities, finding it “too Catholic,” “too pagan,” or even “too British!” If you had walked into your neighborhood dry-goods store in New England and demanded that the owner wish you a Merry Christmas, you might have been branded a “papist” or, far worse, “a loyalist”!
It was only after the Civil War that American “civil religion” began to embrace Christmas and widely adopt customs such as Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, yule logs, and yes, even Santa Claus. ALL of these traditions have pagan origins, including Santa, an amalgamated figure composed of multiple pagan and Christian legends, like much of American mythology. Those who wish to “rescue” Santa from any pagan ties will quickly find themselves faced with St. Nicholas, a rather gaunt, austere Orthodox Bishop, who does NOT speak English, will NOT ask your children what they want for Christmas, but will rather tell you to give generously to the poor. Many would find him “too Catholic” and kind of off-putting, preferring to spend his time not in Macy’s but in churches smelling of incense.
If you were to ask members of the “Merry Christmas brigade” when St. Nicholas Day is, could they tell you? Nope. (It’s December 6th, by the way.) If you asked them the significance of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” they would most likely tell you that they are a countdown to Christmas beginning on December 14th, or that they were a secret code used to educate Catholic children who were being persecuted in post-Reformation England. Wrong on both counts, and laughably so! That file in my child’s brain is filling up rapidly! If you were to ask these “Christmas crusaders” what might be a good time to take down one’s Christmas tree, they might suggest December 26th, or perhaps New Year’s Day, oblivious that Christmas is a religious season, not just one day. Finally, if you asked them what Epiphany is or when it is, you’d probably get a blank stare in return.
I make trouble for myself insisting that we get our traditions and history right. Epiphany is a feast of the Church as old as Christmas, celebrating the arrival of the Magi, or wisemen, those pagan astrologers, not to the manger but to the “house” where they paid homage and gave gifts to the child Jesus. The Gospel of Luke has shepherds and angels. The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of the wisemen. But none of this seems to matter to the “Christmas crusaders,” as long as they hear “Silent Night” in Walmart in November.
I finally had an epiphany of my own this year. Despite the fact that they demand secular American society observe Christmas, these people do not understand nor do they practice the actual historical traditions of Christmas! Their crusade is not truly about history or tradition. Their crusade is about power. The “War on Christmas” is, more precisely, an attempt to reassert Christian dominance in a nation that is rapidly becoming quite post-Christian and happily so. And yet these crusaders have taken their cues not from authentic Christian history, but from the watered-down, jingle-bell version of the holiday. It’s like they adopted the commercial shopping frenzy that lasts from Black Friday to December 24th and slapped a Jesus-fish on it. In reality, their Christmas looks almost nothing like what it did in colonial times, let alone Jesus’ day. Their Christmas, as Dr. Seuss’ Grinch once observed, actually seems to have come from a store.
So what if secular, capitalist America gets the details of Christmas wrong? What’s more important — historical accuracy or political expediency? If religious tradition fails to garner votes or serve as fodder for another scare-mongering conspiracy theory, who needs it? Well, I for one need it. I need a holiday that reminds me how my ancestors, even my pre-Christian ancestors, experienced their homeland. I need a holiday that doesn’t seek to sanitize its more enigmatic elements, but celebrate the crazy hodge-podge of origins it represents. We humans are at our best when we admit how impure and borrowed most of our traditions are. Even the ancient pagan traditions evolved from earlier peoples and stories. Let’s admit it and celebrate it!
The holidays this time of year do NOT owe their existence to Jesus’ birth. These days, the darkest nights of the year, the Solstice, are a time to celebrate the rebirth of the sun, at least for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere. For ancient northern peoples, Solstice actually marked mid-winter’s day and was celebrated by people filling their homes with evergreens, candles, great roaring fires, feasting, ample spirits, singing, plays, and yes, even ghost stories. Is it any wonder that Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas all feature candles in their celebrations? It’s dark out there! Quick, let’s light a fire! We all long for light, for warmth, for community.
This year, Christmas Day falls on a Sunday. And what will many Protestant churches do? They will cancel their church services, opting instead to spend time at home with their families, or so I am told. What better way to say, “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”? But not all churches will be locked up tight this Christmas morning. There are those of us who want to put the MASS back in ChristMAS! If you look, you’ll find us, those who would probably be branded as “pagan” by certain letter-writers in Michigan. All I know is, we’re a pretty merry bunch!
As a Christian, I celebrate right alongside my pagan friends and neighbors. The Christian story tells us that the child born in Bethlehem was also the birth of the light. God does not hate matter, but rather climbed inside human flesh to become a vulnerable, mortal infant. This moment of incarnation, the birth of Jesus, is not about power or predominance. It is about humility and patience. It is about the birth of hope and the longing for light fulfilled.
The pagan roots of Christmas remind me of how interconnected I am with my neighbors. I experience this season with the rest of my human family, these short days and long nights, lighting candles in the darkness and watching for the morning. Sadly, most of those thronging the malls pay little attention to our collective history. Generations ago, before the winter holidays became a retailer’s means-to-an-end, when all religion was local, human beings gathered together on the darkest nights of the year for survival, kindling fires in hope that the sun would return. Sadly we have become so removed from the earth, we have forgotten how fragile life is when the weather outside is frightful.
The traditions this time of year have evolved and changed as new cultures and faiths have encountered them. People have adopted and adapted ancient traditions and made them their own. I consider them all a blessing this time of year. I enjoy the traditions handed down to me, and I revel in them, pagan roots and all. Thus I say to my pagan friends, “Tell me your stories, and I’ll tell you mine. Oh, and pass that jug of wine! Give me some Wassail, and I’ll help you drag in the Yule Log!” Evergreens, candles, food and drink, all symbols of survival and hope, bind us together as one human family. And so to us, and I mean ALL of us, I wish “Happy Holidays!”