A caller asks how to respond to those who claim that Christmas traditions such as trees and lights were influenced heavily by pagans. Joe Heschmeyer, staff apologist, answers this question on Catholic Answers Live.
Regarding the early Catholic Church, is it true that the Catholic Church, to evangelize or bring more people to, it accepted some of the pagan customs with Christmas, such as the Christmas tree and lighting of candles? I know this for sure, the pagans were not the only ones who had lights, lights everybody had, but.
Well, no, actually. I think size point is all joking aside, a very important one, meaning a lot of times when people say, Oh, you stole that from paganism. What they really mean is like one celebration looks like another celebration.
If you’re going to celebrate anything in the ancient world, it’s going to probably have some lights and some decorations and maybe some ceremonial foods. That’s everyone everywhere because that’s just how celebrations work. It’s like saying that birthday parties were stolen from ancient paganism. It’s just kind of silly misunderstanding something about human beings, to, to make that kind
of objection. But let me give a twofold answer to your question. Pagan beliefs and practices in the sense of actually worshiping false gods, that sort of thing. Those were a hard pass. Christians took such a hard line against set that they were literally persecuted and killed.
This is, I think, the clearest evidence of this is the existence of anti-Christian persecution. Like, the thing to understand about the Roman Empire is the Roman Empire was pretty good with most religions as long as you were fine with, like doing a little bit of worshiping of the emperor.
If you wanted to worship your own local gods, that’s cool. That’s fine with everybody. We’ll let you do your thing. The Romans were pretty religiously indifferent when it came to that. Their interest in religion was basically political as long as you worship the emperor acknowledged as the son of God.
Christians said no worship, no one but Jesus Christ and his Father and the Holy Spirit. And you know, your Caesar is not the son of God. Our Lord Jesus is the Son of God. That kind of claim was radically exclusionary.
We were the ones bucking the trend. Look, if you want to find people accommodating pagan practices, look to like any of the pagan groups around Christianity, like the Roman Empire just took all the Greek gods and renamed them.
And when they would encounter a new culture, they would say, Oh, this god of yours? Yeah, that’s just another name for one of our gods. We worship the same thing. OK, cool. Let’s move on. That was kind of their approach.
We didn’t do that. Now what we did do is find points of common ground. And so if it looks like to take, for example, Acts Chapter 17, Saint Paul goes to Mars Hill to the areopagus. And he starts talking to them about this temple to an unknown God that he’s seen and says, This God, let me proclaim him to you where he says, Look, you’re already like trying to worship the one true God. Let me tell you about him. And so he still finds common ground with the pagans there. But he doesn’t say God and Mars are the same person.
That doesn’t happen. Now, the second half is specifically in terms of sort of the external trappings. So when Christians would become dominant in a society, sometimes they would like burn the old pagan temples down. But more likely, they would turn the pagan temples into churches.
They would, in other words, preserve everything that was good if there was a beautiful building that was built for divine honor. OK, let’s purify, get rid of the pagan stuff inside and properly let it serve its purpose and giving divine honor.
We see this now. Now this letter is from 597, so this is not super early, but I like this letter just because it gives some good principles when St. Augustine of Canterbury is evangelizing the people in England and bringing them to Christianity.
At the time, they were all a bunch of pagans. And so Gregory sends, Pope Gregory, sents the Abbot Mellitus to him. And he says, “Tell Augustine that he should by no means destroy the temples of the gods, but rather the idols within those temples let him after he’s purified them with Holy Water Place altars and relics of
the Saints in them for those temples are well built. They should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God.” The early Christians had a term for this. They called it robbing the Egyptians.
That term is a reference to Exodus. Before the Israelites go on the exodus. one of the miracles God performs when nobody ever seems to remember is he opened the hearts of the Egyptian neighbors and they gave them gold.
They gave. They became very generous with their Israelite neighbors, who then despoiled the Egyptians. They took all of this stuff that had been given to them, and they used it to basically finance the exodus. And and so the early Christians basically said, look, take everything good from pagan cultures.
If there’s some brilliant pagan philosophy, take it. Saint Paul quotes pagan philosophers. If there’s some beautiful pagan temple, take it, you know, like turn all of those things into the glory of God, even if it means you have to say, I’m going to take this,
but not that. That’s a totally different thing than just relabeling paganism is Christianity, and the Christians were much better about have been a really principled stance of separating the roses from the thorns. Then modern Christians assumed they were.
What do you think, Susan? Well, I think it’s fascinating what you you shared. It’s just we have a culture now of young people who are either non-taught, you know, they’re, they’re not formed at all. Yes, in any faith.
And they’re getting confused when they decide, Well, let’s come to a faith. And and and I know people who are celebrating Hanukkah and making that the thing that they will focus on because Jesus was a Jew. But they’re not sure if the Catholics stole the Christmas tree from pagan.
And so they’re saying, Well, we’re not going to do the Christmas tree, we’re not going to do all the gifts. We’re going to simply, you know, get together and you can give each one of our children one gift.
And that’s it, you know, and because they’re not sure about the authenticity of the Christmas celebration in any Christian church right now, you know? Yeah. Yeah. Well, for the people that are struggling. Can I can I suggest two things?
one is it’s not actually the Christian position that we should reject everything of pagan origins. Read Saint Paul on food sacrificed to idols. He’s like It’s fine to eat food sacrificed to idols as long as you’re not cooperating in the ritual and you’re not giving scandal to your neighbor where he thinks you’re cooperating in the ritual,
go nuts. Have the fruit that it like. Even if Christmas trees were originally pagan, it does. Who cares? Like, why does that matter at all? But second, if you were going to take that kind of puritanical stance, you would actually be left with a totally unworkable system, meaning like the days of the week are of pagan origin
like Thursday is named after Thor. Like every one of the days of the week and the English speaking calendar and in many other languages, calendars is coming from a pagan system. You know, January is coming from the Roman God, Janice.
Like the digits, I would have to throw out so much of your your ordinary life just because some pagan helped contribute to civilization by giving us days of the week or the calendar or certain fun ways of celebrating like gift giving is deeply Christian.
There’s something deeply human about it. So just say anything that’s human, anything that’s festive that can be directed to the glory of God ought to be that God made us to glorify him. And if giving gifts and putting up beautiful trees and lights and all of that, it can give glory to God.
Who cares if some someone else wants to put up a tree and give glory to not God? We’re not doing that. As for me, and my house will serve the Lord with it. Why isn’t that, I guess a good enough explanation to to try to
trace, like, well, when has someone else done this same practice before is such a weird way to go about any kind of Christian approach to daily living that it would leave you in a total bind like? Well, what if someone else like what is the first party ever was thrown for some evil end?
Who who cares? It’s, I think, the Christian response to that question. I wonder sometimes, too, about that. People will say, like, I think sometimes people learn, like, did you know Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th? And and they don’t understand well they’re Christians never claimed that he was born on December 25th.
Christians claim that we celebrate his birth on December 25th, and we can choose to celebrate his birth any day we want. We don’t know the day that he was born. The young folks are really they’re confused about what the Christian claims are.
And it really messes them up. Like, Oh, the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol. Therefore, Christianity is just a form of paganism. Well? We’re not denying that trees are part of lots and lots of pagan stuff, like we never made the claim that the Christian the Christmas tree is in the gospel of Luke or something we don’t
believe, right? So if you’re leaving Christianity because you noticed it has some similarities to paganism, you’re making a mistake. That was never the point. Right. I saw a very funny kind of online response, which is that they keep complaining we’re going to take Shark Week and Toyotathon next.
Well, let’s take all these secular holidays and Christian too. Toyotathon. We definitely want that to be a Christian holiday. But yes, come on. Shark Week as part of the liturgical calendar, I mean, if we can find a way to turn into the glory of God, we will.
Yeah, but that’s the thing is like, we don’t hate pagans, we don’t hate paganism. We just say there’s only one God. And Jesus Christ, is that God incarnate. Yes, the other thing to remember is that when we’re talking about paganism, we mean, like entire cultures of people who Christians were encountering or who, you know, like you’re
a Norse fan who embraces Jesus Christ, does that mean you have to stop doing everything you do? Because up till the point you accepted Jesus, literally everything you did was a pagan practice because you were a pagan. So all of your practices were pagan practices, right?
Is that, you know, going to work was a pagan practice for you. It just becomes like that would be such a bizarre way to live, I guess. And so it’s like, well, obviously, figure out which things are incompatible with Christian living and the ones that are compatible by all means.
Turn them to the glory of God. Yeah, yeah. I thought it was just funny to hear Susan say, and Susan’s call was brilliant. It was great. But like Christmas lights were a pagan. Well, no, everyone has had lights since the invention of light.
We’re just putting lights up to say we really love Jesus, and we want to celebrate his birth.