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4,000 Years of Christmas

'Tis the season for mistletoe and decorating the tree. But the origins of Christmas may surprise you. Did you know one of the American colonies outlawed observance of this holiday in 1659?

by Gary Petty

It's called the spirit of Christmas—the ringing of sleigh bells on a snowy night, Tiny Tim turning the heart of Scrooge in Charles Dickens' famous novel A Christmas Carol, Santa Claus and flying reindeer.

For many, it seems, the birth of Jesus takes a backseat to mythology, packed shopping malls and greed. Every year, signs in front of neighborhood churches remind people to put Christ back into Christmas—or proclaim "Jesus is the reason for the season."

But is He?

In his book 4,000 Years of Christmas: A Gift From the Ages (1997), Episcopal priest Earl Count enthusiastically relates historical connections between the exchanging of gifts on the 12 days of Christmas and customs originating in ancient, pagan Babylon. He shows that mistletoe was adopted from Druid mystery rituals and that Dec. 25 has more to do with the ancient Roman Saturnalia celebration than with Jesus.

Early Church celebration?

Nowhere in the New Testament do we see Jesus' disciples observing His birthday.

In fact, as late as the third century the early Catholic theologian Origen declared that it was a sin to celebrate Christmas, viewing it as pagan.

First-century Corinth was a Greek city filled with polytheistic religions. Its customs included temple prostitution and priests who performed sacrifices to the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods.

The apostle Paul writes to the Church members there in 1 Corinthians 10:19-21: "What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons."

Paul clearly warns people to avoid having anything to do with pagan religious customs, labeling such actions "fellowship with demons"!

Familiar to early Christians was the Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival celebrated during the last days of December in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Many ancient religions conducted festivals at that time of year, the time of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, when days are the shortest, to appease the various gods to restore the sun and bring an end to winter.

The Roman Saturnalia included drunkenness, debauchery and other practices diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ. Yet this holiday would eventually develop into Christmas. What happened to change many Christians from Paul's practice of abhorring and resisting pagan forms of worship to accepting and participating in such practices in the name of Jesus Christ?

Tremendous forces pressured early Christians away from the apostles' original instruction to avoid mixing idolatry with the worship of the true God. Thousands of pagans, while outwardly converting to Christianity, refused to give up the rituals and ceremonies of their former religious experiences.

Dr. Count sums up this historical struggle: "To the pagans, the Saturnalia were fun.

To the Christians, the Saturnalia were an abomination in homage to a disreputable god who had no existence anyway. The Christians, moreover, were dedicated to the slow, uphill task of converting these roistering pagan Romans.

"There were many immigrants into the ranks of the Christians by this time, but the Church Fathers discovered to their alarm that they were also facing an invasion of pagan customs. The habit of the Saturnalia was too strong to be left behind. At first the church forbade it, but in vain. When a river meets a boulder that will not be moved, the river flows around it. If the Saturnalia would not be forbidden, let it be tamed" (p. 36).

Why a Dec. 25 celebration?

The church adopted Dec. 25—the date of the Roman Brumalia, immediately after Saturnalia—as the date of Christ's birth (even though biblical evidence shows this cannot be the right time of this event).

This date also marked a great festival in Mithraism, the Persian religion of the sun god. In A.D. 274 Emperor Aurelian of Rome declared Dec. 25 to be the "birthday of the invincible sun." In time the Son of God, Jesus Christ, became indistinguishable from the pagan sun god in the minds of hundreds of thousands of converts throughout the Roman Empire.

Instead of standing as Christ's force for change in the world, nominal Christianity was changed by the pagan world it was supposed to transform!

Dr. Count relates: "There exists a letter from the year 742 AD, in which Saint Boniface ... complains to Pope Zacharias that his labors to convert the heathen Franks and Alemans—Germanic tribes—were being handicapped by the escapades of the Christian Romans back home. The Franks and the Alemans were on the threshold of becoming Christians, but their conversion was retarded by their enjoyment of lurid carnivals.

"When Boniface tried to turn them away from such customs, they argued that they had seen them celebrated under the very shadow of Saint Peter's in Rome. Embarrassed and sorry, Pope Zacharias replied ... admitting that the people in the city of Rome behaved very badly at Christmas time" (p. 53).

Over the centuries

Over the subsequent centuries, Christmas absorbed customs from German, Scandinavian and Celtic paganism—such as the yule log, the decorating of evergreen trees and the hanging of mistletoe.

In the Middle Ages, Christmas observances in Europe continued the excesses of Saturnalia. Dr. Penne Restad, in Christmas in America: A History, writes of the moral debate that raged during that era:

"Some clergy stressed that fallen humankind needed a season of abandonment and excess, as long as it was carried on under the umbrella of Christian supervision. Others argued that all vestiges of paganism must be removed from the holiday. Less fervent Christians complained about the unreasonableness of Church law and its attempts to change custom. Yet the Church sustained the hope that sacred would eventually overtake profane as pagans gave up their revels and turned to Christianity" (1996, p. 6).

Sadly, it didn't happen. Following the Middle Ages, some Protestants tried reforming Christmas but created little real change. The English Puritans waged a war on Christmas observance as unchristian behavior. In 1659 the holiday was outlawed in Massachusetts, but proved so popular that it gained official approval again in 1681.

A U.S. News & World Report cover story, "In Search of Christmas," states: "When Christmas landed on American shores, it fared little better. In colonial times, Christ's birth was celebrated as a wildly social event—if it was celebrated at all . . . Puritans in New England flatly refused to observe the holiday" (Dec. 23, 1996, p. 60).

In more modern times many Christians have become concerned about the commercialization of the day that is supposed to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. With parades featuring Santa Claus sponsored by department stores, half-price sales, and incessant TV and radio commercials, Christmas obviously has become more about the accountant's bottom line than about worshipping God.

Many people approach the yuletide season with a vague longing for a Christmas that is more spiritual and less commercial. But is our fast-paced, greed-filled rendition of Christmas the real problem, or is there something wrong with Christmas itself?

Put Christ back in Christmas?

Christmas has become such a central holiday of American culture that it's difficult to get anyone to step back and evaluate its Christian validity. You be the judge.

Here are the facts: Jesus wasn't born on Dec. 25. Christ's apostles rejected pagan ceremonies and rituals in their worship and told other Christians to likewise avoid them. The early Church didn't observe Jesus' birthday. The selection of Dec. 25 as Christ's supposed date of birth was based on the dates of the Roman Saturnalia and Brumalia—a time for worshiping the god Saturn.

Most Christmas customs—decorating the evergreen tree, use of mistletoe, exchanging of gifts, Santa Claus—come not from the Bible but from ancient pagan religions. For centuries Christianity tried unsuccessfully to rid itself of the paganism of Christmas. Throughout its history Christmas has inspired drunken parties, and the modern holiday is more about convincing children to harass their parents to buy toys than worshipping Christ.

What is your verdict? Some say, "But we can't take Christmas away from the children." Others: "As long as it brings people to Jesus, what does it matter?"

Earlier we saw Paul's instructions to Christians in pagan Corinth. He continues his instructions in his next letter to the Corinthians:

"For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? . . . Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? . . .

"Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you . . .' Therefore . . . let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 7:1).

Paul's point is very pertinent to Christmas. How can we claim to be honoring God with pagan customs and traditions that He forbids in His Word?

The crucial question is: How can we put Jesus back into the season when He was never part of it to begin with? It's a difficult question, isn't it? But it's one that's vitally important for you to answer. GN

©2002 United Church of God, an International Association
Used with permission.

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