Charlie gave Linus the pop quiz: what is Christmas all about? Of course, Linus proclaims the birth of Christ (was Linus named after the second Pope?)
Today it would have looked more like this:
The modern Catholic, and most Christians for that matter, has many fronts to defend, one of them being the so-called “pagan roots.” This accusation is made on many facades of the faith. For example, an objector might tell you that Christians adopted the Holy Day of Easter from the pagan celebration of the fertility goddess, Ishtar (sounds a little like Easter, right?). This time of year though, you are likely to hear the objection that Christmas is a christo-pagan holiday, a mash-up of pagan belief and Christian celebration. Here are some of the objections or accusations you might meet, and a helpful way to respond.
1. Christians invented Christmas from the winter solstice celebration of Sol Invictus.
Yes, there were mid-winter celebrations in religions outside Christianity during the time of the Early Church. In fact, like Easter, the East and the West were observing Christmas differently, while until recently, the Armenians didn’t celebrate it at all. The West led the way with a distinctive nativity-based celebration, concluding with Holy Mass. That’s the same as how you see it today. The development of Christmas was not an assimilated celebration until the 4th century. Does that mean that the Apostle John, and Sts. Polycarp and Irenaeus, three men who were apostolically connected, did not celebrate Christmas? Probably so, but there is nothing wrong with this. Merely because a Christian celebration is similar to that of a pagan one proves nothing. There is either coincidence of the celebrations in the same time period or there is influence on one another.
The objector has to ask himself the following: 1) after centuries of persecution for not observing pagan holidays, where is the proof of influence? Or/and, 2) who influenced whom? Did Christianity have the influence on pagans to begin adopting a more public and concrete celebration or did we “Christianize” a pagan event? We can observe that the two were present at the time but neither scenario is a problem with the Christian because the Church has the ability to Christianize people and celebrations alike. Light was overcoming darkness at the celebration of Sol Invictus and in Christ, darkness was defeated by the real luminousness of Christ. Paganism had a hint, but Christianity had the answer.
2. The Christmas tree comes from pagan origins and is condemned in the Bible.
The objector can have a field day with this one. Evergreens are a near-universal symbol of hope in the winter season. They represent resurrection (triumph of live over death) for the Egyptians, everlasting life for the Scandinavians and Druids, and still, agricultural anticipation (to the god Saturnalia) for the Greeks/Romans. But the tree is not recognized as a use of Christmas celebration until the time of Luther. More closely connected to the ancient church is the use of evergreen wreaths. Your objector might say that it came around the same time as the popularity of the pagan celebration Saturnalia. Let him know that Tertullian wrote as early as A.D. 190-220, that Christians hang more “wreaths and laurels” than the pagans (who hang it for the “gate gods”) at their doors. He was condemning the wreath as something worth putting hope in like the pagans did with their temples, over that of Jesus who is the true Light in which we are the actual temples of the Spirit. He wasn’t condemning the décor! He ends with, “You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green.” READ TERTULLIAN “ON IDOLATRY” HERE (see Chapter XV)
The passage in the Bible your objector is referring to comes from Jeremiah 10:3-4.
Thus says the LORD: Learn not the customs of the nations, and have no fear of the signs of the heavens, though the nations fear them. For the cult idols of the nations are nothing, wood cut from the forest, Wrought by craftsmen with the adze, adorned with silver and gold. With nails and hammers they are fastened, that they may not totter (NAB).
Let’s get one thing straight up front: Jeremiah was not talking about Christmas trees because he was writing hundreds of years before Christmas became a celebration. He was pointing out the idolatry of the people of that day, and much like Tertullian, was warning against the idolatry of those who put there hope in earthly gods and things.
Near to this, the objector must understand that Christians are not intent on worshiping their trees and are certainly not putting them in their living rooms and entryways to deter spirits. Perhaps for some carolers and eggnog, but not for protection.
There is nothing wrong with the Church “baptizing” certain practices of other religions. The objector is confusing the Church of deriving its beliefs from these celebrations, with the assimilation of seasonal celebrations and symbols. Like St. Patrick did with the clover to illuminate and demonstrate the reality of the Trinity. Akin to St. Paul explaining the “unknown god” at the Areopagus. Paul did not derive the idea from the Greeks that day, and Patrick did not derive the Trinity from a leaf.
We don’t believe that Christians hold the patent on Truth. Instead, we believe that God has riddled himself to other religions. In other words, just because a specific religion does not contain the whole truth, does not mean it contains no truth. If you witness to a pagan who believes a wreath will save him, maybe you can show him how Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise of everlasting life. Then, just as with the cross that hangs from our necks, we can display a wreath to remind us what is true. In this way, Christianity has the distinct ability to assimilate the “hints” of other religions.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes, “If a religion is not only true but more true than all the other religions, then it should connect with all those other religions at the points where they are true.” Read “Paganism, Prophecies, and Propaganda” HERE.