Behind the modern observance of an ancient pagan holiday, now clothed in religious respectability, is an urgent need within every human being. Here’s how that need should be filled.
Tis the season to be jolly is nearly upon us again. With it will come parties, gifts, family get-togethers and very likely a stern reminder not to forget the “real meaning of “Christmas.” Such an admonition stems from a sincere desire to circumvent the blatant, overwhelming commercialism of the season. But as usual, the warning will be almost totally ignored, and understandably so. The “real” meaning of the holiday has always been annoyingly vague.
What parent hasn’t felt the obligation to explain to children that Christmas is “when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday”? At the same time, it is common knowledge that no accurate date for the birth of Jesus Christ has ever been established. To confuse matters further, the alleged birthday of Christ has come to be inescapably associated with a fat man secretly bearing gifts in the night, decorated evergreen trees, and all the other traditional Christmas paraphernalia.
A closer look at the two-sided history of Christmas could easily clear up the mystery. Ironically enough, it would show that today’s generally irreverent celebration of December 25th comes far closer to the “real” meaning of Christmas than formal Christianity generally dares to advertise.
Christmas, as we know it, was never observed by the earliest followers of Christ who probably did not even celebrate their own birthdays. In the Bible, Jesus never once made a small allusion to the season. Only after two or three centuries, when enthusiasm and zeal for the unadulterated teachings of Christ had been weakened in many vital areas, did Christians openly begin to adopt beliefs and practices from their non-Christians neighbors.
The church at Rome was especially plagued by that problem. Rome’s official religion was dominated by worship of the god Saturn; and during the dead of winter, an annual, week-long feast was held in his honor, called appropriately enough, the Saturnalia. The final day of the Saturnalia was the Brumalia, meaning “the first day of winter,” which fell on December 25th in the days of Julius Caesar, who established the Julian or Roman calendar.
Saturnalia was not strictly a Roman invention. It had its earliest roots in the influential mystery religion of the ancient Babylon.
Official Christendom of the day formerlly frowned on the celebration, even though its observance was quite popular among many in the church. It is easy to understand the continuing popularity of the Saturnalia among the not-so-converted Christians. It was a once-a-year time of pleasure, a time of masquerading in public, eating great sumptuous dinners, visiting friends and giving gifts to one another for good luck. The general atmosphere of the season was cheery and congenial.
During Saturnalia, the Romans decked their halls with boughs of laurel and other evergreens and kept small lamps lighted to ward off the demons they believed to be hovering nearby. Such practices were nearly universal throughout the empire, but were by no means the most obviously pagan. Along the Danube frontier and in the Balkan Peninsula region, for instance, people looked forward to the election of a mock “king of the revel” at Saturnalia time. After a month-long reign, that king was obligated to sacrifice himself on an altar in Babylonish fashion. A legend surrounding the death of one St. Dasius claims that he, being a newly converted Christian, refused to play king. He was beheaded anyway.
To the more civilized Romans, however, Saturnalia was more fun than serious religion, and that attitude carried over into the early Christian church. Much to the consternation of the Roman church leaders, many of the most enthusiastic Saturnalia-keepers also claimed to be Christians. The obvious solution to this embarrassing problem, at least for a time, was to forbid any Christian to keep the holiday.
That was a futile gesture at best. It became obvious, all too soon, that things had progressed too far, the ban was too little, too late. The next logical step, at least in the eyes of the more practical church leaders, was to somehow transform the pagan Saturnalia into a vehicle for the furthering of the Christian ideal. The church fathers sought to point the festival toward the Christian Sun of Righteousness, rather than the rebirth of the physical sun on December 25th, the date of the winter solstice in the time of Julius Caesar.
In the 4th century, an additional and even greater church stamp of approval was given to Saturnalia observance when December 25th was officially proclaimed as the birth date of Jesus Christ. This was convenient for the Christians; the Saturnalia now became the Mass of Christ.
But the change was in name only, as the invading barbarians soon discovered. To the continuing chagrin of the Church, the men from the north were delighted to find in the Roman Saturnalia/Mass of Christ a very pleasant custom to complement their own observance of the winter solstice. A letter of the year 742 from St. Boniface the “Apostle to the Germans,” to Pope Zacharias complains that his pious labors to convert the pagan Germanic tribes of the Franks and the Alemans were being hindered by the wild observance of the winter festivals back home. This prompted the Pope to ban the more riotous celebrations, as did several succeeding popes but the festivals continued unabated in popularity – and, of course, spread throughout newly Christianized Europe.
During the 15th century, the holly, ivy and evergreens went up every Christmas, the torches were lit, and strange masked dancers called mummers clowned in the streets, The Europeans exchanged gifts, as had their Roman predecessors, this time in the name of Christ, as types of holy birthday presents rather than as pagan good luck tokens. As in past times, the great winter festival included long bouts of eating and drinking and general merriment.
The old Roman Saturnalia customs did not die out during this time but were merely modified. Rather than choosing a mock king as the Romans had done, medieval Europeans chose a “Lord of Misrule,” and “Abbott of Unreason,” a “King of the Bean” or a profane pope whose duty was to preside over the “Feast of the Fools.” This buffoon was made up like a baldheaded, red-nosed clown and rode a donkey. He often performed a kind of slapstick mass in the cathedral.
The cathedral choir at Christmas was equally ridiculous. The choir members wore orange peels for spectacle rims; they read their music upside down and replied in gibberish to the “bishop” reading the service. In addition, they rang bells and skipped and hopped through the church.
The Christmas church services of the Middles Ages still exist today, but in quite modified forms, a mere token of their original ribald pagan character. They make up only a minor portion of the Christmas customs followed today, many of which have not stemmed directly from the Romans, but have over the centuries evolved from other practices, equally pagan, in other societies.
Wednesday, the 4th day of the week, is named after the Germanic god Woden, or Odin. Odin was a popular one-eyed personality first touted as a rampaging god of the warriors. Although time mellowed his reputation, he never really gave up his image as a blustery leader of shaggy-haired blond men of war.
Odin’s new image mingled in time, with the garbled tales of the personality of Jesus Christ. Those tales slowly percolated into then pagan northern Europe. Many of the things the tribes in that area heard and thought they understood about Jesus Christ were molded into their concept of the god Odin. Eventually, the Odin myth took on, not only the confused characteristics of a Jesus Christ, but of other legendary persons as well.
Most notable of these mythological blending occurred when Odin became known as Santa Claus, or more accurately, St. Nicholas. Almost nothing solidly factual is known about the original Nicholas who was eventually called a saint, but some records indicate that he died in the year 326, the son of a well-to-to Christian couple in a province of Asia Minor.
St. Nicholas had a reputation among other things, for slipping gifts into the homes of worthy people in the dead of night, not wanting anyone to know who was doing such good deeds.
During the Middle Ages, the legend of St. Nicholas took the form of a children’s festival concomitant with the celebration of Christmas. The children’s St. Nicholas revels lasted until December 28th – Holy Innocents Days, commemorating King Herod’s slaughter of the infant boys in Judaea. This pageant has for the most part faded away, but in Austria as recently as 40 to 50 years ago, St. Nicholas still appeared on his day, traveling about in the robes and mitre of the Church instead of the more popular northern red jacket with white fleece trimmings.
The two images – Odin and St. Nicholas met and merged in the northern European countries from which grew the modern concept of Santa Claus. Both Odin and St. Nicholas were travelers of the road; both wandered about inspecting the deeds of mankind. Remember the lines of one Christmas song: “Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, Santa Claus is coming to town”?
Both Odin and Nicholas carried on their activities in the dead of winter. And St. Nicholas was well known for bringing gifts in secret. When the children of the Lower Rhineland used to set out their clogs for “Santeklas,” they always placed them by the chimney, because this was one saint who preferred to deliver his presents during the night. Today, the stocking are still hung by the chimney with care, but it certainly isn’t St.Nicholas who foots the bill!
Christmas in 2009 would not be complete without the tree. Our modern midwinter blend of Saturnalia, northern European legends, and “Christian” mythology would not be as bright without the custom which originated from the use of devil-defying evergreen branches in northern Europe around New Year’s. Those forerunners of the beautiful ornamental trees of today were often tree-tips hung from the open rafters.
It soon becomes plain that even though the lax but still-professing Christian church of the 3rd century may have succeeded in putting a different label on the festival of Saturnalia, it could never really transform that festival into anything remotely resembling a biblically sanctioned festival of God. Christmas is merely an ancient pagan celebration in more up-to-date and respectable wrappings.
If the Jesus Christ of the New Testament were invited to a modern Christmas party, he might certainly enjoy the warm companionship of the season, but he would not be able to recognize that the party was supposedly being held in his honor! He might even advise those who worry that the celebration of Christmas has deviated from its intended religious purpose to stop worrying, because the public today truly is keeping the “real” meaning of Christmas, as an utterly pagan, openly hedonistic festival! He might point out that the Church should never have made an attempt to compromise with the pagans, because that compromise has only served to deceive people into thinking they are pleasing God, when in fact they should have been keeping God’s commanded holy days instead. (Lev. 23).
The Church should have given heed to the warning in Deuteronomy 12:30-31: “Take heed to thyself that thou inquire not after their (pagan nations) gods, saying, how did these nations serve their gods? Even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth have they done unto their gods.”
What the Church which today still claims to be Christian should have done and what it actually did are two different things. Yet people themselves are not altogether blameless in the matter. The truth is, even if the Christmas-keeping public really were aware that it had been religiously duped, it would make little or no difference in the actual celebration of the holiday. No matter how many times the Christian community is reminded that Christmas celebrations are nothing but a resurrection of the old Roman Saturnalia, the festivals will start as December 24th rolls around.
Why? Because the Christmas season has something no other human festival can seem to offer.
Apart from the transient Christmas season, the state of the world offers precious little goodness, brightness or hope. Life, for most, goes on in its general emptiness, purposelessness and often total meaninglessness. Battles are fought, disasters strike with numbing regularity, the affairs of international relations have their ups and downs, never really seeming to make any progress.
There is a great deal of cynicism about the spirit of congeniality which is supposed to occur once a year to break for a brief moment the hold of defeatism. It would be naïve and foolish not to see that a great deal of this spirit is based on the old human frailty of greed and selfishness, the anticipation of getting gifts for instance. Some of it could possibly stem from the joy which comes from giving those gifts. But whatever the cause and however tarnished that spirit may get, there is a definite positive feeling surrounding Christmas. That feeling is a spirit of warm-heartedness and kindliness toward other human beings which, however weak and short-lived it may be, simply never occurs for most people at any other time of year.
No matter how dimly pagan its origin, this aspect of the festival of Christmas seems good to human beings, because Christmas is the one time of the year when some of the worst aspects of the nature of man seem to be subdued. If there is anything the world desperately needs, it is a cessation of negative human action and expression and the exercising of a small measure of outgoing concern for other people.
Of course, even though people want to experience these good and positive aspects of life, most are not willing to obey the principles which could bring them about. Nonetheless, it would be rather silly, even unfair, to condemn this positive side of the celebration of Christmas solely on the basis of the pagan origin of the day, unless there is something far better to take its place. And, happily there is!
Nothing is more depressing than a wilted shedding Christmas tree. That dying, flaking tree is symbolic of the death of the warm, ebullient spirit of Christmas. That spirit dies as soon as the gifts are given, as soon as the party is ended. It quickly fades from memory when the unpaid bills begin to pile up and the hangover continues to ache, when the seasonally higher crimes, suicide and divorce statistics come in. It is so temporary, so short-lived. It can bring a spark of joy and beauty and even a little happiness for a short time, but the promise of better things to come is never kept. The military truces held at Christmas time last only 24 hours. Then it is the business of death as usual.
Who is the blame for this failure? It would be easy to point the finger at the Romans or the Greeks or even clear back to the Babylonians, who began the festivals. To do so would not be entirely fair, however, because those pagan societies made no attempt to cover the fact that they were utterly pagan. They were having a rip-roaring time at the expense of the winter solstice and the gods of fertility and tried to fool no one into thinking they were truly honoring the birth of a being that would have absolutely condemned the festivals in the first place.
If the blame falls upon any shoulders for the failure of the Christmas spirit, it should go heavily upon the body which today professes to be of Christ but acts under false pretenses and promulgates a counterfeit. It was satisfied to allow the people to believe in a pagan lie which would never bring about the fulfillment of the real promises of the Jesus Christ whose name has gotten fouled up in the Saturnalia.
The real Jesus Christ, not some distorted image personified by a seasonally stylized chubby infant, promised his lasting spirit to every man who would obey the teachings of God’s Word. The process by which all men can express the joy of the true spirit of God was made clear by the apostle Peter in the 2nd chapter of Acts: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).
To repent means to make a change, in this instance, a complete change of heart, completely foregoing the rites of paganism for the true religion of God through obedience to his laws. The ceremony of baptism symbolizes the death of the old, sinful man and rebirth as the new man. It is at that point that God grants the spirit he promises.
The difference between the true spirit of God and the counterfeit spirit of Christmas are enormous. The fleeting spirit of Christmas gives way too soon to what the apostle Paul called the “works of the flesh,” and he warns that “they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21).
What does the Holy Spirit have to offer in place of these common human faults? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22-23).
This world thinks it needs a pagan, utterly non-Christian holiday like Christmas because; in reality it needs the spirit of God. Why be satisfied with a cheap counterfeit spirit which God condemns when he offers you the genuine?
If you would like to know more about the “traditional Christian doctrines” of this world enroll today in our new series “Traditional Christian Doctrines.”