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‘Pagan Christmas’? Nope!

Scripture forbids the Christmas tree! Right? Well, no. And that's not all.

One of the first shows about Christmas I watched as a kid was A Charlie Brown Christmas. I haven’t watched it in years, but I haven’t forgotten the climactic scene, where Charlie Brown shouts above the noise to demand an answer to a question he’s struggling with: What is Christmas all about? As we all know, Linus steps forward and proclaims the birth of Christ.

The scene is interesting to me as a Catholic. It’s reminiscent of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, where, after much disputation among the apostles, Peter rises and puts the debate on circumcision to rest. Linus was our second pope, and it seems no small coincidence that, amid all the noise, it was Linus who delivered the truth of Christmas to Charlie Brown and his friends.

The show first aired in 1965, and it became a holiday favorite for many, but modern critics dislike the show for its Christian sentiment. It’s a lot more than sentiment—it’s catechesis! I can’t name another Christmas movie that goes so far as to recite an entire section of the Bible (see Luke 2:8-14) to discuss the reason we celebrate the birth of Christ.

Unfortunately, times have changed, and fewer people are willing to recognize that Christmas is a Christian celebration. If Charlie Brown entered a crowded room today to ask what Christmas is all about, he’d get mixed answers. Perhaps out of a desire to further secularize Christmas, many claim that it is not Christian at all, that it was “invented.”

The modern Catholic has many fronts to defend, one of them being the so-called “pagan roots” of Christmas. Around Christmastime, you are likely to hear the objection that Christmas is a Christo-pagan holiday, a mash-up of pagan beliefs and Christian celebration. Here are two of the objections you might meet, and a helpful way to respond to each.

1. “Christians coopted 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, as with Easter, the Eastern and the Western churches observed Christmas differently, and, until recently, the Armenians didn’t celebrate it at all. The West led the way with a distinctive Nativity-based celebration, concluding with the holy Mass. Christmas was not an assimilated celebration until the fourth century.

Does that mean that the apostle John, and Ss. Polycarp and Irenaeus—three men who were apostolically connected—did not celebrate Christmas? It could. But there is nothing wrong with this. There was never a debate about the birth of Christ; rather, the debate was about the celebration of it as Christmas took time to develop.

The person who maintains Christmas’s “pagan roots” has to ask himself the following questions:

  1. After centuries of the Church being persecuted for not observing pagan holidays, where is the proof of influence?
  2. Who influenced whom? Did Christianity influence pagans to begin to adopt a more public and concrete celebration, or did Christians “Christianize” a pagan event? We can observe historically that the two celebrations were present at the time, but neither scenario is a problem for the Christian, because the Church has the ability to Christianize people and celebrations alike. Light overcame 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 fulfillment.

Remind your objector of what Paul said to the Greeks at the Areopagus:

For as I passed along, and observed the object of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “to an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you . . . that [every nation of men] should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him (Acts 17:23,27).

A desire for the “unknown God” is written on the hearts of all men. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for (27).

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 represented resurrection (triumph of life over death) for the Egyptians, everlasting life for the Scandinavians and Druids, and agricultural anticipation (to the god Saturnalia) for the Greeks and Romans. But the tree was not recognized as a use of Christmas celebration until the time of the Reformation.

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. The truth is, Tertullian wrote as early as 190-220 that Christians hang more “wreaths and laurels” than the pagans (who hang it for the “gate gods”) at their doors.

In this letter, Tertullian condemned the wreath as something into which to put hope as did the pagans 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. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.” There’s little evidence that the Church adopted the practice from the pagans they were trying to convert.

The passage in the Bible your objector likely is referring to is 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: Jeremiah was not talking about Christmas trees. He was writing hundreds of years before Christmas became a celebration. He was pointing out the idolatry of the people of that day and, like Tertullian, was warning against the idolatry of those who put their 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 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 claiming that the Church derived its beliefs from these celebrations when it only assimilated such seasonal celebrations and symbols. St. Patrick did the same with the shamrock to illuminate and demonstrate the reality of the Trinity, as did St. Paul in explaining the “unknown god” at the Areopagus. Paul did not derive the idea of God 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 allowed hints of himself in other religions. In other words, just because a specific religion does not contain the whole truth, that does not mean that it contains no truth. If you witness to a pagan who believes that a wreath will save him, maybe you can show him how Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise of everlasting life. Then, like the cross that hangs from our necks, we can display a wreath to remind us of what is true. In this way, Christianity has the distinct ability to assimilate the “hints” of other religions.

I find the following passage from Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions especially enlightening:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself (Nostra Aetate 4).

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