Answering four objections to Christmas
Every year, someone questions whether or not Christians should celebrate Christmas. While some conscientious objectors take their concerns too far (see image above), many more hold respectful and sincere qualms with Christmas: (1) Christmas is widely considered to have pagan origins and traditions; (2) Modern Christmas observances seem to be a syncretistic blend of sacred and common strains; (3) The religious aspects of Christmas are hopelessly linked to Roman Catholicism; (4) Christmas celebrations are often a celebration of gluttony and selfishness and thus are antithetical to the birth story of Jesus.
Let's take those questions one at a time over a few blog posts.
Is Christmas Pagan?
What does this question even mean? Christmas is a distinctly Christian holiday, which is apparent to everyone, it seems, except Christians. Ask a Jew, atheist, Muslim, or Hindu and you will discover that they are all very aware of the Christian nature of Christmas, even if many traditions (like Santa or stockings) are not overtly Christian in origin or intent. Those who are culturally removed from Christmas often fail to discern these differences, leading the U.S.S.R.—practicing state atheism—to ban Christmas trees in an effort to combat public religion. No non-Christian mistakes Christmas today as a "pagan" holiday—least of all actual pagans.
Are their aspects of our past or present observance of Christmas that are in some way connected to non-Christian religions? Certainly. Is Christmas a fusion of myths, true and untrue, Christian and non-Christian? Certainly. What has Santa to do with Jesus? Our modern Christmas is a joint project between a traditional Christian feast and American civil religion. Does that make Christmas "pagan"?
To call something "pagan" is a shorthand dismissal technique, cousin to labeling someone a "heretic." The label conveys disapproval and expects everyone aligned with the angels to feel the same way. To call something "pagan" is not an argument against it, it's a dismissal masquerading as an argument. Really, it's a type of argument from authority which relies upon the hearers regard for the speaker in place of reason.
You know what is "pagan"? Thursday. In fact, all of the days of the week were named after non-Christian gods, like Thor on Thursday. We learn Greek philosophy in school and celebrate birthdays and worship in church buildings—all things of non-Christian origins. We go on honeymoons, build steeples, and sing hymns—all things of non-Christian origins. This shouldn't be shocking. Why wouldn't "paganism" be so prevalent around us when the majority of people throughout human history have been non-Christian? To live purely within a Christian culture is to remove oneself entirely from human history.
There is a difference between something having a "pagan" origin and a Christian joining in idolatry. Clearly, Christians do not believe they are worshipping Thor by calling a day "Thursday." Nor do we think that wearing Nike products leads us to worship the eponymous goddess. Why then would erecting a Christmas tree be considered worship toward some other god?
It isn't just Christians who don't get it. The Internet is littered with articles "exposing" Christmas' pagan past. CBS News brought a historian on who explained that "Christmas is really about bringing out your inner pagan." He went on:
There's no question that the fact that [the Winter solstice] was celebrated in Rome as an important day with gift giving, candle lighting, and singing and decorating houses really cemented Christmas as December 25. [source]
Christians who take these sorts of statements as the gospel truth forget that the same authorities also tend to see the birth of Jesus as a pagan-inspired myth. For the [historic] record, it just isn't clear why Christians ultimately settled on December 25. There's even some suggestive evidence that the pagans actually coordinated their festivities to coincide with Christmas, rather than the other way around [source].
Inert vs Corrupting Influences
Humans are humans, and there is no doubt that non-Christian influences infiltrated Christianity in the first century (I'm looking at you, theology of an immortal soul). It's important for believers to tell the difference between a genuine corrupting influence and an inert influence. The former endangers the soul; the latter is just... Thursday. It remains to be proven that Christmas constitutes, on the balance, a corrupting influence because of its association with trees, ornaments, and so on. On the contrary, Christmas has been an inspiring influence on many millions, even billions, of people who are compelled to contemplate the birth story of Jesus and its meaning. Even if much of the popular celebration involves non-Christian themes and images, they are not all necessarily hostile to the Christian faith.
So what if the Romans hung apples on trees and worshipped the sun in late December? That's not why any of us hang ornaments or celebrate Christmas today. You could hardly pick a date on the calendar when the Romans or Greeks or Hindus weren't worshipping some deity. True worship cannot be unwittingly offered. Do we not have the ability to change the meaning of things? When a person carries their bride across the threshold into the home, are they guilty of reenacting the rape of the sabine women [source]? Or can we allow the meaning of things to change, independent of their origins? Of course we can, because Christians have a clean conscience when they use the word "Thursday."
Paul and Paganism
Paul made his view of the relationship between paganism and Christianity clear when he stood at the heart of ancient "paganism"—the Areopagus in Athens. There he proceeded to quote Greek poets and reference agreed idol to argue that all of this paganism as evidence that the true God was present in all nations. (Jesus and the biblical authors also routinely quoted or referenced the "pagan" thinkers of their day.)
God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [Acts 17:27-28]
Paul saw some truth in the paganism around him. This truth was divinely sown and was meant to lead the nations of the earth to a knowledge of God. Of course, there was also a lot of mess in there and Paul reassured them that "in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent." That is, to embrace the clear revelation of Jesus.
Why can't our Christian celebration of Christmas be a call that highlights the light we see in every culture in every age and which shows how that light (without the adjacent darkness) is meant to lead "all people everywhere" to follow his star? So long as we are focused on the darkness in others ("paganism") we will never see how God has been working in all cultures to lead them to Bethlehem.
What about the other objections to Christmas? We'll take those up again in part 2.