Monday, December 3, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part VII

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, and Part VI.

It's time to move on to the most popular arguments against celebrating Christmas. I've answered objections that arise from some Reformed Presbyterians. But just about everyone that holds Christmas in contempt does so because they are convinced that Christmas, Christmas symbols, and ceremonies have pagan roots. Listen, for example, how this blogger opens his post on Christmas:
. . . we do not even know the date of his birth. The date that is celebrated is a date that belongs to a pagan deity. It is and always has been a pagan celebration.
For the next few posts I will try to answer questions that are commonly asked about the history and origin of Christmas.

Question #8. But surely you must admit that the origins of Christmas, especially the symbolism and ceremonies associated with it, are rooted in Paganism. How do you answer this?

Answer. This is a very popular opinion. Consider Rick Meisel's confident claim in Tis the Season for Pagan Worship:
What many in Christendom have been celebrating—Christmas—is a thoroughly pagan holiday—in its origin, in its trappings, and in all its traditions.

The modern conservative cry to put Christ back into Christmas is absurd. Jesus Christ was never in Christmas.
Stop and take a breath. Okay, let's review what we know about the origin of the annual celebration of Christmas.

First, we have reliable records from the middle of the fourth century indicating that Christians celebrated Christmas in the churches of Rome. The earliest record of Christ's birth being celebrated on December 25th is A.D. 354 in a work called Chronography. The Chronography documented the various seasons and festivals of the churches in Rome, most of them commemorating the death of Martyrs. By A.D. 398 Christ's birth was being celebrated on December 6th all across the empire—except in Armenia (January 6th).

Second, the story of how December 25th was chosen has been caricatured for many years. Nevertheless, early church pastors and theologians were not stupid. The Christian leaders who gave us the great Trinitarian and Christological creeds of the fourth and fifth century were not so theologically naïve as to simply import a pagan feast into the church wholesale in order to pacify some recently baptized and nominally Christian pagans. This is absurd.

On the contrary, the facts suggest it was the pagan Roman emperor Aurelian in A.D. 274 who introduced the pagan feast of the "invincible Sun" (sol invictus) in order to counteract the influence of the growing Christian population and their celebration of the birth of Jesus during this time of the year. Pagans were imitating and aping Christians, not visa versa. If you want to learn more about this, read William J. Tighe's excellent article Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25. His summary is worth quoting:
Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ's birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine's time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ's birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ's death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan "Birth of the Unconquered Sun" to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the "Sun of Salvation" or the "Sun of Justice."
Third, there is sufficient historical evidence that the church's choice of December 25 as the festival of Christ's nativity was reached by independent calendrical calculation on the part of Christian scholars and pastors. It was chosen for symbolic and chronological purposes as believing scholars reflected on the symbolism of the seasons and the chronological information available to them.

They believed that God initiated the new creation on the same day in which the old creation was made and redeemed the world on the same day as well (Spring). The new creation began with the incarnation of the Word at the annunciation (March 25). Add nine months to this and you get December 25th.

Whatever you think about this line of reasoning, it is anything but pagan! The church deliberately chose December 25th because 1) they believed that Jesus was born sometime in the winter, and 2) having Christmas around the time of the winter solstice would enable the church to highlight the themes of darkness and light so prominent in the Gospel records.  Here is another good article on Why Christmas is on December 25.

Christians were right to believe that the pagans did not own the seasons. Pagans tried to commandeer them from God and his people. And so in order to reclaim the seasons from the pagans, the church chose December 25th. This would counteract whatever pagan winter festivals were out there that honored various sun gods with the result that people would instead be directed toward "the Sun of righteousness arising with healing in his wings" (Mal. 4:2; Luke 1:78). We have sermons from this time (Augustine's #202, for example) that argue this way.

Now, again, whatever you think of the early church's reasoning, it is distinctively Christian and not in any way a syncretistic incorporation of paganism. The idea that Christians in the fourth and fifth century were so compromised and stupid that they just thought up a way to bring a pagan celebration into the church so as to keep the nominally baptized pagans happy is a vicious lie.

The early church Fathers were not as dumb as we often think. Ponder what has happened since that time. For centuries every year throughout the world the story of Jesus' incarnation and birth has been told. And the old sun gods (Sol, Osiris, Horis, and Mithra) are forgotten. Does anyone think that we are still commemorating these false gods? Give me a break. Even if December 25th was a date that pagans in pre-Christian history worshiped some sun god or other, does it matter one wit? Does it mean that we still worship them? That Christmas is a pagan holiday? The true Sun of Righteousness has vanquished the old, impotent gods.

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