It’s that time of year again when parents read to children the beloved Christmas poem A Visit from St. Nicholas in hopes that it will inspire their little ones to go straight to bed. What child hasn’t heard these memorable lines:
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny Yule goats . . .
Wait a minute, that’s not how the poem goes.
Tonight is the start of winter, the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Today and the beginning of summer are called solstices because they mark the position of Earth in relation to the sun. In pre-Christian pagan Europe, the solstices were times of celebration; in pre-Christian Germanic cultures, the winter solstice was called Yule, which is thought to derive from German and Scandinavian words for “feast.” To this day, the Danish word for Christmas is Jul.
Christianity made a rather late arrival in northern Europe, not reaching Norway until the tenth century. By the time Haakon the Good and St. Olaf were introducing the gospel to their kingdom, the Church’s celebration of the birth of Christ—introduced around the third century—was finally in full swing. King Haakon is credited with folding the pagan Yule celebrations into Christmas, declaring that “everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.”
Many of the northern European customs surrounding Yule continue today in our modern Christmas celebrations. Some, although of pagan origin, were purely utilitarian in origin. The Yule log, for example, is believed to have been lit at first simply because it was a cold region and families found it practical to drag in one large log that would burn for days before it had to be replaced. Other customs such as decorating the halls with greenery may have had symbolic meaning, such as being a reminder of fertility, but they may also have had aesthetic purposes such as bringing cheer during long months with little sunshine.
As Trent Horn noted yesterday, this happy merger between the theology of Christ’s birth and the merry-making customs of pre-Christian pagans came to a screeching pause when the Reformers appeared on the scene a few centuries later. Although it’s difficult for wet blankets to entirely smother a good time, the Reformers did manage to instill a long-lasting wariness among some Christians regarding the appropriation of pagan customs for the celebration of Christmas.
But it’s not just Fundamentalists who challenge Christians who are decking their halls with holly and preparing for a visit from a jolly old elf. Modern-day pagans, who practice hybrid forms of witchcraft, are seeking to reclaim Yule—often by claiming that Christmas is really just a pagan Yuletide celebration honoring a “sun god.”
Winter Solstice has been celebrated in cultures the world over for thousands of years. This start of the solar year is a celebration of Light and the rebirth of the Sun. In old Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning “wheel” [sic—this etymological definition has long been disputed].
Today, many people in Western-based cultures refer to this holiday as “Christmas.” Yet a look into its origins of Christmas reveals its Pagan roots. Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the “Invincible Sun” in the third century as part of the Roman Winter Solstice celebrations [sic—also disputed]. Shortly thereafter, in 273, the Christian church selected this day to represent the birthday of Jesus, and by 336, this Roman solar feast day was Christianized.
When you delve into modern pagan claims you find that many are similar to Fox’s: a mishmash of fanciful histories that require a lot of unraveling by Catholic apologists. It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and hit the spiked eggnog rather than try to find the pine needles of truth in the evergreen forests of fallacy. Is there a simpler approach?
One option is to point out the pagan influence fallacy at work here. It’s more often deployed by Fundamentalists to discredit celebrating Christmas and by atheists trying to debunk God’s existence, but neo-pagans also use it in their attempt to justify their embrace of pre-Christian customs. The fallacy goes like this: if there are similarities between ancient pagan practices and modern Christian practices, that means either paganism is an authentic religion or Christianity is a false religion.
Our response is that similarities in practice between two religious traditions neither authenticate or falsify either—especially when we’re talking about social customs, not religious doctrine. The first Christians in northern Europe weren’t worshiping a “sun god” under another name. (There is no “sun god” in Scandinavian mythology.) Rather, they were worshiping the one true God while enjoying ancient winter customs that didn’t contradict the new religion they’d embraced.
When the first missionaries to Scandinavia, among them Haakon and Olaf, were introducing Christianity, they did so by inculturation, retaining what was good in the prevailing culture and using it to better “embody” Christian truth. For example, the good news that God the Son entered a sin-darkened world to bring the light of truth to fallen man was a theological truth well-suited to being celebrated with feasting and bonfires and evergreens during a time of year when darkness was being pushed back and light was re-entering the world.
The Church has spread the good news, not just in northern Europe but around the world, by approaching men wherever they are on their journey and opening their eyes to the reality of Christ in their presence (Luke 24:13–35). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
Missionary endeavor requires patience. It begins with the proclamation of the gospel to peoples and groups who do not yet believe in Christ, continues with the establishment of Christian communities that are “a sign of God’s presence in the world,” and leads to the foundation of local churches. It must involve a process of inculturation if the gospel is to take flesh in each people’s culture (854).
Seen that way, the ancient pre-Christian trappings of Yule that are part of our celebrations of Christmas today are simply signs that the good news has found a home in the hearts of people of good will (Luke 2:13–14).