By Selwyn Duke
Ah, Christmastime. Manger scenes and mistletoe, trees and tinsel, Santa and celebration, gift-giving and gratitude...and the ACLU roasting traditions on an open fire. Sadly, the last thing has become as much a seasonal expectation as the others, and the ACLU's practice of suing our culture into oblivion has gotten a lot of ink. Yet there is another attack on Christmas -- actually, another attack on Christianity itself. This less well-known attack could ultimately prove more damaging than the usual atheistic assaults. And it's embraced by religionists themselves.
I'm sure you've heard the charges. Christmas is a "pagan holiday," they say. It originated with a celebration dedicated to Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) which, upon coming to full flower, took place between December 17 and 23. Or perhaps it was inspired by the commemoration of a sun-god's birth. Here we have two candidates: the Indo-Iranian god Mithras and the Roman god Sol. And people often seem to confuse these two deities and their festivals, mixing and matching them in a game of musical myths. But it doesn't really matter because both Mithras' and Sol's mythical births, we're told, occurred on the same day: December 25th.
"There you have it!" say the critics. "And the kicker is that Jesus wasn't even born on the 25th! Besides, Christmas is unbiblical; there is no command in Scripture to celebrate the Lord's birth. Christmas is just an amalgamation of pagan feasts and the Nativity story in a nicely wrapped, brightly-colored, bow-adorned box."
This idea certainly has taken hold in some circles. Why, I know a man who claims to be Christian but is quite proud of the fact that he celebrates neither Christmas nor Easter (these creative historians apply the same reasoning to the latter). When I placed "Christmas is a" in Google, the first suggestion out of the ten I got was "Christmas is a pagan holiday." If only I could chalk it up to Google's usual "tweaking."
When I consider this particular heresy, I think of how a little knowledge is dangerous. And understand what is happening here. Some "Christians" are deciding to dispense with what have been Christianity's two highest holy days and part of the fabric of Western civilization for the better part of two thousand years, all in the name of something they heard on the Internet over the past several years. So let's examine the matter one charge at a time.
When addressing the notion that Christmas is a pagan event, we should first start with a very simple pronouncement.
It is not.
Christmas is the day on which we celebrate the birth of the founder of Christianity itself, the man on whom the faith that prevailed over paganism is based. That doesn't sound pagan to me.
But now we'll dig deeper and discuss the myth of Mithras and Sol. That is to say, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the December 25 Christmas celebration is based on either pagan deity. In fact, all the best evidence tells us something striking about the matter: neither Mithras's birth nor the celebration of Sol's even occurred on the 25th. As to the former, writer and Mithras-cult-expert Roger Beck called the notion of the deity's December 25 birth "that hoariest of 'facts.'" Moreover, avers German professor of ancient history Manfred Clauss, "the Mithraic Mysteries had no public ceremonies of its own" anyway. And about Sol, University of Alberta history professor Dr. Steven Hijmans writes:
... while the winter solstice on or around the 25th of December was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas ... The traditional feast days of Sol, as recorded in the early imperial fasti, were August 8th and/or August 9th, possibly August 28th, and December 11th.
Then Cambridge professor of classics Mary Beard chimes in, addressing the similarities between Roman pagan festivals (be they Saturn's or some other's) and contemporary Christmas celebration, such as eating heartily, giving presents, and time off from work. She writes:
... lots of people have imagined that the early Christians grafted their festivities onto an old pagan ritual. Maybe they did. But there honestly is no evidence for it, beyond the rough coincidence of dates. And, in fact, it was not until a few centuries after Jesus' birth had got fixed onto 25 December that we see signs of much Christmas merrymaking. In the middle of the sixth century they still thought it necessary to forbid fasting on Christmas day.
So the early Christians preferred fasting to feasting, asceticism to Epicurism. And why would this have changed? Well, there are such things as universals. An affinity for eating, giving and getting presents, and leisure time isn't a pagan thing. It isn't a Christian thing. It is a human thing.
And what of the "rough coincidence of dates"? Well, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Will our standard be that we should dispense with a holy day if we determine that some extinct people at some point in the distant past celebrated something else around the same time of year? A Christian should be happier about the fact that Christian traditions prevailed than he is concerned about the way the battle was won.
Yet there is an even larger point here. The Christmasphobes make a fairly common mistake: They take "pagan" as synonymous with "evil."
If we were to discard all things pagan, I should think we'd plunge ourselves back into the Stone Age. We walk on concrete, record our knowledge with letters, and designate our months with names originated/invented by the pagan Romans. We steer our boats with rudders invented by the pagan Chinese; make calculations with numbers invented by pagan Indians; and create computer graphics, medical imaging, and designs for buildings and bridges using geometry formalized by pagan Greeks. And much of our philosophy (and much of that drawn upon by early Christians, mind you) was generated by pagans such as Aristotle and Plato. Should we "go Taliban" and burn all their works -- and other books thus influenced? A pious Christian must believe that pagans could not have had the whole Truth, but only an ignorant Christian would believe they had no Truth.
As for the truth of Jesus's birth, He likely was not born on December 25. And pious Christian scholars have known this since long before the Christmasphobes learned a bit of history. Yet it didn't stop them -- and shouldn't stop any educated person -- from celebrating Christmas.
George Washington was born on February 22, yet we commemorate his birthday the Monday before. Now, I've yet to hear someone say, "This is a fraud! I shall not yield to this distortion of history, and I'll have you know, Sir, that I intend to show up at work on February 15 -- same as always. Stick that in your revisionist pipe!" I fully expect the Christmasphobes to take this principled stand.
Then, many of us have had relatives who -- bowing to logistical realities, perhaps -- decided to have a child's major birthday celebration on a Saturday or Sunday before or after his actual birthday. Yet I should think the Christmasphobes, finding this intolerable, would look the little tyke in the eye and say, "I will not be attending your birthday party, and you shall get no presents from me! I find the historicity of this celebration suspect!" Please, Christmasphobes, stick to your guns. Don't let a few tears deter you.
Yet if you're a believing Christian and you wouldn't do this to Washington or a young relative, why would you do it to He who you claim is your savior? Remember, too, that with a president or child, we at least know precisely when his birthday is. But since this isn't true of Jesus, the argument against celebrating the Nativity on the 25th because it "probably isn't the actual day of the Lord's birth" carries even less weight than a corresponding argument would with respect to Washington or little Johnny.
Besides, it's hard to even take the argument seriously. After all, the Christmasphobes do not propose to celebrate the Nativity on what they consider a more historically authentic day. They simply refuse to celebrate it at all.
The bottom line here, as it is with all birthday celebrations, is not when Jesus was born.
It is that He was born.
And what of whether or not Christmas is biblical? Even if a person subscribes to Sola Scriptura, he should know that tradition precedes the Gospels (not written until 65-80 A.D.). He should know that the present canon of the New Testament wasn't compiled until the year 397 A.D. -- after the institution of Christmas. He should know that there is nothing in Scripture forbidding tradition. There are, however, passages indicating the legitimacy of tradition, such as 2 Thessalonians 2:15, which states, "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter [emphasis mine]."
Tragically, we've not been holding to traditions. And in the assault on them, the Left and culturally imperialistic foreign elements have now been shamefully joined by some on the "Right." I can take consolation only in the knowledge that these renders of civilization, who have chosen most odious bedfellows, are not fellow Christians. After all, how do you describe someone who rejects a faith's two highest holy days?
As some among us transition from heresy to apostasy, we have to wonder if any parts of their Christianity will remain sacrosanct to them. Perhaps these lost souls will, somewhere on this road to Perdition, dispense with Jesus himself. And in a way, this is what they have already done.