The plight before Christmas


2. December 2019By Diana Thomas20 Minutes

Christmas is coming

Christmas is coming and I love Christmas, it has always been my favourite time of year. Even growing up in a city with not a log fire to be seen, the glow of street lights and the flicker of TV screens as I huddled home from school in the twilight created just as magical an atmosphere. Each year we’d dig out the ancient decorations, a tatty collection of gaudy streamers and threadbare tinsel, balancing on dining chairs to attach them to the ceiling.

The first time I went with my dad to choose the tree I was amazed. During the long hot weekends of my summer holidays when he did most of the DIY work around the house, I would sometimes follow him to the old shop at the end of the road. Inside a mean faced old man stood behind a counter surrounded by 100s of tiny drawers and walls covered with possible instruments of torture. My dad would place his order and out of the tiny drawers came nails, screws and bolts of all sizes. It was small, dusty and colourless but now, a week before Christmas as we braced the cold heads down, hoping for snow, it filled the far end of the street with light.

I entered to find that the light was coming from a back room next to the counter normally closed the rest of the year. Inside were dozens of trees leaning up against the walls, some tied with cord, others wide spread and dominating the space. People were examining them, smiling and comparing sizes and the old meany who never smiled the rest of the year was now beaming with seasonal cheer and handing out glasses of mulled wine. This was the magic of Christmas.

Now that I am married and live far away from London, we have our own decorations and baubles but the rituals remain the same. It’s not just kids, people of all ages love the hype, the presents, the festive cheer, even though we complain that each year it becomes more commercialised. Somehow for believers and non-believers alike the dramatic and miraculous story of a Jesus’ birth makes everything alright.

Peaceful conversion

I think we all know that Jesus was not born on the 25th of December and many of the traditions we associate with the season are understood to have their origins in pagan festivities celebrated around the same time. It seemed to me a clever, non-violent way for the early church to lead a reluctant culture towards Christianity. Surely such a peaceful conversion could only have been orchestrated by God in his wisdom.

Yet aside from the cults who abstain from most celebrations, more and more thoughtful and devout believers are questioning their participation and choosing to isolate themselves at this time of year because of these pagan roots. It concerns me that Christians are becoming divided over what should be a joyous occasion. So I decided to investigate for myself and find out what Christmas as we know it has replaced.

Long beards and evergreen trees

In Rome and the territories under its influence Saturnalia was celebrated from around the 19th December for a week and it was a time of organised chaos. Eating and drinking to excess was mandatory, sex was freely offered and received in public, servants and their masters swapped places and gifts were exchanged. In fact, it was considered a crime to refuse a gift even if it was inappropriate or unpleasant as they often were. The god of the season Saturn was depicted as an old man with a long white beard who would usher in a new year of prosperity if suitably appeased.

Evergreen trees a symbol of life and fertility were decorated with candles or made into garlands and wreaths to decorate homes and temples. Apollo the sun god, known as the risen sun was also honoured with gold jewellery, ornaments and decorations.

Each year a man or woman was chosen to be the lord or lady of misrule, they would be hosted all over town and plied with food and alcohol until they were sick. Some say the person chosen was often a criminal or someone unpopular. On the 25th December this person would then be taken to the temple and sacrificed to the gods to rid the community of evil for the next year.

Northern pagan rites

In Northern Europe the druids and Norse tribes celebrated the winter solstice around the 21st December. The Anglo-Saxon god Odin was also depicted as an old bearded man with one eye who led the great hunt. He rode an eight legged horse, accompanied by two ravens and a pair of ravenous wolves crying “Ho! Ho!” as he went. Anyone who saw them died instantly and unfortunate victims were carried off never to be seen again. People hid and kept out of sight during the night of the hunt, food offerings were left out by windows and fireplaces to appease Odin and prevent him from taking any of the occupants of the house.

Often Odin would appear with Krampus, a large devil like creature depicted in various ways, who would take naughty children in his sack to hell. Odin knew who had been good and who had not because his two ravens saw all and reported back to him.

Not so much is known about the Celtic druids as they were a highly secretive sect but their solstice celebration was known as Yule and lasted for 12 nights. Each household would select the biggest log they could find in the forest. These logs were kept lit in the hearth for the whole celebration and were a symbol of life enduring but also of the passing away of all things.

For them Mistletoe, a parasite of the Oak tree, was sacred and during this time was harvested with golden knives and used in fertility rites which formed part of the celebration, as did human sacrifice. Druid priests sung hymns of blessing to the trees to ensure a fruitful harvest and a warm cider called wassail was served as part of the ceremony.

Because people could not afford to feed their livestock over winter, all but a remnant for breeding were slaughtered and meat was feasted on throughout the celebration. People dressed as Yule goats in hideous costumes and visited homes scaring people into giving them gifts to avoid a punishment.

Everything except Jesus himself is pagan

This is only a part of the information available about the activities of these sects and it surprised me to discover that just about every aspect of Christmas except Jesus himself is pagan. I knew about the tree but since God created trees, using one as a decoration didn’t seem to me to be a problem, especially since in no way was it being worshipped.

What did surprise me was the obvious transformation of pagan gods such as Odin into Father Christmas. In the same way that fairies and genii have been re-packaged into something sweet and palatable for children it appears that malevolent pagan spirits have been re-created into a loveable grandpa whom every child wants to meet.

While the magical spirit of Christmas is undeniable there is also still a dark under belly when you consider that the 25th of December is the busiest night of the year for emergency services. With beatings, rapes, attempted murders and burglary out weighing the expected accidents caused by inebriation. There is a lot of love in the air around Christmas but also a lot of misery too.

How can we interpret these things?

Deuteronomy 12:29-31 says:

“When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.”

Have we done this? Have we in our eagerness to serve the Lord, like King Saul made a fatal error of judgement forgetting that it is better to obey than to sacrifice? I believe that when we honour God, his spirit draws near to us and the enemy is weakened in our lives. Is this diminished if things previously used to honour devils now honour Him instead?

The apostle Paul advised his contemporaries not to dine on sacrificed meat at the pagan temples but once it had been sold to the butcher they could purchase it in good conscience. I interpret this as don’t go to the woods with witches and dance around a tree but if you choose to decorate your home with the bounty of God’s marvellous creation you may as long as it is God and God alone that you are worshipping and never his creation.

However, if a Christian takes a Madonna song and writes new lyrics to the tune turning a song about promiscuity into a hymn of praise is God glorified or offended? Is it possible to reclaim territory for Christ?

An outlook from the New Testament

In Philippians 1:18 Paul declares that whatever the motivation, he rejoices when Jesus is proclaimed. But in Colossians 2:8 he warns: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”.

Christmas as we know it today is certainly borne out of tradition. In 350 AD when Pope Julius confirmed that the 25th of December would be recognised as the birth date of Christ it set things in motion; conversion by appropriation. I don’t believe that God is pleased by hollow praise. So 4th century Anglo-Saxons intoning the Psalms with Odin in their hearts probably didn’t cause much rejoicing in heaven but what about their descendants?

Three centuries later, Christian kings ruled over people who began their relationship with God within the walls of Roman and Celtic temples because churches had not yet been built. These Europeans were now true believers in Christ and eager to shake off the vestiges of paganism, for by the turn of the second millennium biblical names were the norm. Is it possible that this method of conversion in Europe was an example of God’s mysterious way of working?

What is pleasing God?

Many Christians argue that if they say it’s for God then they can do anything. That Jesus died on the cross thus achieving the ultimate victory over sin, death and hell so Satan has no power. I agree with Jesus’ victory on the cross but I’m not so sure that we should dress up as the devil and dance in his parade just because he is defeated. I’m not convinced that God is served or pleased by that. The question for me as a Christian is what pleases God and what doesn’t?

Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Hebrews 13:16: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please him”.

Romans 8:8: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

2Corinthians 2:15: “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.”

How do we celebrate (if we do)?

It has been argued that the celebration of birthdays is not a part of Christian teaching but does that make doing so a bad thing? Celebrating what we now have in Christ by honouring his birth into the world is probably not a bad thing to do either. How we conduct this celebration is essential in determining whether we please God or ourselves. So what might an acceptable Christmas celebration look like?

  • No Father Christmas, this character has absolutely no place in the narrative and is an obvious rehabilitation of pagan gods repackaged for children.
  • Acknowledging God as the creator of all and allowing his Holy Spirit and not tradition to guide us in how we decorate our homes.
  • Gifts given to bless the receiver with something they really need or value and not to indulge our egos. Preferably anonymously.
  • Extending generous hospitality, especially to those who need it most.
  • Putting Jesus first in the celebration by sharing our relationship with him and being like him. Which means giving as much of our time and money over Christmas to charity as we do to socializing and feasting.
  • Not using the festivities as an excuse to over indulge ourselves and sin.
  • Making sure we take every opportunity to make amends and start the new year in peace.

I’m not sure what adjustments I will be making this Christmas. We can’t control what the rest of the world will do in December, and we should probably avoid falling out among ourselves about it too. There are some traditions and holidays that Christians should absolutely take no part in. However, if we give up Christmas, I fear we may also be giving up an opportunity to represent Christ, that we may be closing a door that God in his wisdom left ajar for times such as these.