Monday, December 1, 2008

Another Look at Christmas

As the traditional advent season approaches, we Christians have much to consider. What is "Christmas" all about? In this post I am going to challenge many treasured concepts of Christmas but hopefully this post will also offer something deeper, richer, truer, and far better than what we have satisfied ourselves with for so long. I will examine the roots of Christmas, what it has become, and offer a different concept in its place. Lastly, I will urge Christians to repentance and action.

First, the roots of Christmas. The celebration of the Christmas holiday is not original to Christian practice. Even the term ‘Christmas’ would be foreign to the New Testament Christians. They did not celebrate the advent or the birth/nativity of Jesus as a separate, organized, holiday until probably the fourth century, A.D. The birth of Christ was a concept that was not divorced from the mission, or the death and resurrection, of Christ. These concepts were all celebrated in the regular meetings of early Christians and in the participation of the Lord's Supper (communion).

Many sources have suggested it was likely Emperor Constantine who made Christmas a Western Roman holiday in 336. It was Justinian (c. 482-565) who officially made Christmas a Eastern Roman (Byzantine) national holiday in 529. These acts were meant to ease the acceptance of the Catholic Christian (and now Imperial) religion among the pagans. Christian feasts were developed or were moved to correspond with the pagan solstice and fertility festivals already in existence.

No one really knows the season or date Jesus was born. The Gospels do not indicate when it happened, beyond what was obvious for contemporary audiences, and thus it was an obviously inconsequential point to the apostles and early Christians in general. Some have guessed, based on various elements of the accounts, that it was either in the summer, or early fall, but we have no exact date. The Christmas holiday was placed on December 25 to replace the pagan festival of Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered Sun”), referring to the god, Saturn, and to the return of the sun. This holiday may also have ties to Mithraism. Sol Invictus itself had replaced Saturnalia, a week-long pagan practice that also celebrated the coming new year and involved the giving of gifts, the eating of rich foods, and the use of evergreen boughs, especially holly. The similar, Gallic, Yule practice of cutting and decorating fir trees and burning logs are also elements of pagan new year rites.

As an aside, Easter is a similar celebration. The original celebration of the Resurrection which was traditionally held around the Seder, or Passover, a Jewish-Christian celebration commemorating God's salvation of his people from Egypt. Yet, the event became closely tied to the pagan worship of the goddess of fertility - variously named throughout the world as Ishtar, Easter, Esther, and Isis. Her symbols were the white lilly, rabbits, eggs, and young animals.

Specific elements of these pagan festivals were introduced to church practices in order to make Christianity seem less foreign or offensive to the people Rome was conquering. Yet many new “converts” gave up little of their practices and beliefs for the new Imperial faith. Thus Christmas was associated with pagan festivals and their fertility elements, calling upon the gods for a bountiful new year.

Pope Gregory I has also been credited with the spread of these “Christian” festivals. They proved useful in gaining acceptance among the Europeans and Anglo-Saxons of England, especially, to whom he sent Augustine of Canterbury.

The more recent European and Roman pagan influences on Christmas are fairly obvious, but their connections to older Persian, Babylonian, and Sumerian practices are less straightforward. Alexander Hislop (1807-1865), a Scottish Free Church minister, associated almost all pagan fertility festivals to the worship of Nimrod and Ishtar, and associated Catholic church rites with them, but much of his work has been discredited as mere conjecture and bias against the Catholic Church. This has not stopped many groups from using his work to support conspiracy theories and bolster cult movements, however. These groups deliver some truths mixed with many lies and mistakes.

The name “Christmas” is derived from “Christ’s Mass,” a Catholic understanding of worship that partly consists of offering the sacrament of the Eucharist. This sacrament is enabled by the transubstantiation of the bread and the wine into the actual body and blood of Christ through the blessing of the priest. Protestants find this practice and doctrine highly problematic and troubling for numerous reasons. A number of Protestant and other groups would prefer that “Christmas” be renamed.

Second, what Christmas has become. The Church at large has incorporated many pagan elements into its worship. I find it interesting that, even in ignorance, modern unbelievers still celebrate those pagan notions of the holidays while minimizing the Holy things of Christ. Trees and lights, giving gifts, and eating large meals are celebrated ubiquitously throughout the west, by believer and unbeliever alike, and these are the practices that require no allegiance to Christ. These elements make no faith requirements and have little to no spiritual reward. Does giving a gift to a family member or friend equal a spiritual good? "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:9-11)

I do not suggest that all of these pagan symbols are inherently evil, especially with sufficient redefinition within a Christian context. But I do suggest that they should not be the focus of the believing Christian. They must take a back seat to the elements of Scripture. They may even be completely done away with if conviction demands. God called his people the Jews to be a peculiar people among the nations. So, too, he calls the Christian. Not only because (as a modified Covenanter, I believe) Christians have become his believing people and therefore should be the peculiar ones, but also because he calls us to be in the world, but not of the world. John 13:1; 14:17; 15:18; 1 Cor. 5:10-11.

American People spent 450 Billion on Christmas last year. Black Friday is so-called because retail stores hope that on that day they will make it back into "the black," or profitability. This black Friday, a Wal-Mart associate was killed in New York, trampled to death by people who broke down the door to get to the on-sale items. In California, two men shot and killed each other over a disagreement in a Toys R Us store. Our culture is losing all sense of Christian morality. One could say that philosophy or religion killed these people, and it was not the philosophy or religion of the Bible. We are witnessing a cultural shift away from Christianity to paganism; paganism without formal gods, but with many idols.

We must be cognizant of what we are celebrating. Are we celebrating our own success through materialistic buying and collecting? Are we celebrating a new year as though the gods, or the earth itself, are capable of renewing the seasons and the plentiful growth we long for? Are we celebrating family or mankind in some humanistic sense of community? Or are we celebrating the birth, mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ?

Third, a different concept. While I am suspicious of these pagan symbols and would highly suggest that we should not display them in our churches, I also do not think we should brand Christians who do practice Christmas, tree trimming, and gift giving as heretics. I would suggest that our churches should, instead, lovingly educate their congregants and find other traditions that are more compatible with Scripture to celebrate the nativity of Jesus, if they want to celebrate. Baptists, who are generally adherents to the Regulative Principle, may want to rethink their celebration of Christmas altogether, due to a void of biblical warrant for it.

One suggestion for an alternative celebratory method is to invite non-family over for dinner, maybe some pagans from your neighborhood, laying the ground for evangelism. Another is to take the money that would ordinarily have gone to gifts for everyone on your list and give it to the poor, to area shelters, to overseas missions, etc. Here is one such mission.

Advent Conspiracy is a mission that seeks to prevent many diseases and deaths around the world by constructing deep-water wells to provide clean drinking water for third-world people. They also suggest a similar re-conceptualization of Christmas.

Fourth, I am calling all Christians to think about their traditions and to wrestle with what I have humbly written. Please search and examine these things for yourself. I urge you to act upon what you learn. Christianity is reliable and true, but not thoroughly pure. I urge Christians to quit acting upon tradition for tradition's sake and to serve their head, Jesus Christ, with faithfulness, right doctrine, and compassionate action. Be a peculiar people.


Here is a link to another good post of the same spirit on Timothy Decker's Debating Theological Issues.


Timothy L. Decker said...

Great post, Steven. I always love to re-examine the sacred cows of Christians and their holidays. Ironically, I just reread my article on this issue - (sorry for advertising my blog on yours).

Steven Douglas said...

Thanks, Tim. It really grieves me that these pagan customs are dressed up in the "finery" of Christianity.

I also recently read your article. I am glad you posted it here. It is not only relevant but necessary. In fact I will make a post-script on this post with a link. Blessings.