Do environmental conditions contradict what the Gospels claim?
CHALLENGE: Christians are wrong to celebrate Christmas on December 25. Jesus couldn’t have been born then. It would have been too cold for the shepherds to keep their flocks outdoors (Luke 2:8).
DEFENSE: There are several problems with this challenge.
First, the Catholic Church celebrates Jesus’ birth on December 25, but this is a matter of custom rather than doctrine. It is not Church teaching that this is when Jesus was born (note that the matter isn’t even mentioned in the Catechism).
Second, although most Christians today celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, this was not the only date proposed. Around A.D. 194, Clement of Alexandria stated Christ was born November 18. Other early proposals included January 10, April 19 or 20, and May 20 (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §488, §553). By far the most common proposals, however, were January 6 (ibid., §§554-61) and December 25 (ibid., §§562-68).
While the last was eventually adopted by the Catholic Church for use in its liturgy, the fact that the Church did not declare alternate proposals heretical shows the matter was not considered essential to the Faith.
Third, the proposals that put Jesus’ birth in the colder part of the year (November 18, December 25, January 6, and January 10) are not ruled out by the fact that there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night.
Ancient Jews did not have large indoor spaces for housing sheep. Flocks were kept outdoors during winter in Judaea, as they are elsewhere in the world today, including in places where snow is common (search for “winter sheep care” on the Internet). Sheep are adapted to life outdoors. That’s why they have wool, which keeps body heat in and moisture out.
Sheep are kept outdoors in winter in Israel today: “William Hendricksen quotes a letter dated Jan. 16, 1967, received from the New Testament scholar Harry Mulder, then teaching in Beirut, in which the latter tells of being in Shepherd Field at Bethlehem on the just-passed Christmas Eve, and says: ‘Right near us a few flocks of sheep were nestled. Even the lambs were not lacking. . . . It is therefore definitely not impossible that the Lord Jesus was born in December’” (ibid., §569).
The Prophecy of Immanuel
Could the Gospel writer have misunderstood the Old Testament prophecy?
CHALLENGE: Matthew misunderstands Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel (Isa. 7:14). It doesn’t point to Jesus.
DEFENSE: Matthew understands the prophecy better than you think.
The biblical authors recognized Scripture as operating on multiple levels. For example, Matthew interprets the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as a fulfillment of the prophetic statement, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In its original context, it is obvious the “son” of God being discussed is Israel: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).
Matthew understood this. He had read the first half of the verse and knew that, on the primary, literal level, the statement applied to the nation of Israel. But he recognized that on another level it applied to Christ as the divine Son who recapitulates and fulfills the aspirations of Israel.
In the same way, it is obvious in Isaiah that on the primary, literal level the prophecy of Immanuel applied to the time of King Ahaz (732-716 B.C.). At this point, Syria had forged a military alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel that threatened to conquer Jerusalem (Isa. 7:1-2). God sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz the alliance would not succeed (Isa. 7:3-9) and told him to name a sign that God would give him as proof (Isa. 7:10-11).
Ahaz balked and refused to name a sign (Isa. 7:12), so God declared one: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. . . . For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isa. 7:14-16).
For this sign to be meaningful to Ahaz, it would have to be fulfilled in his own day—indeed, very quickly. It therefore points, on the primary, literal level, to a child conceived at that time (perhaps Ahaz’s son, the future King Hezekiah).
This was as obvious to Matthew as it is to us, but—like the other New Testament authors—he recognized the biblical text as having multiple dimensions, so the prophecy was not only fulfilled in Ahaz’s day but also pointed to Christ as “Immanuel” (Hebrew, “God with us”).
Is Christmas Pagan?
From Saturnalia to Sol Invictus, there is no shortage of theories
CHALLENGE: Christmas is based on a pagan holiday.
DEFENSE: There are multiple responses to this challenge.
First, which pagan holiday are we talking about? Sometimes Saturnalia—a Roman festival honoring the god Saturn—is proposed. But Saturnalia was held on December 17 (and later extended through December 23). It wasn’t December 25.
Another proposal is Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Latin, “The Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”), but the evidence this was the basis of the dating of Christmas is problematic. The Christian Chronography of A.D. 354 records the “Birthday of the Unconquerable” was celebrated on that date in 354 AD, but the identity of “the Unconquerable” is unclear. Since it’s a Christian document that elsewhere (twice) lists Jesus’ birthday as December 25, it could be the Unconquerable Christ—not the sun—whose birth was celebrated.
Second, correlation is not causation. Even if Christmas and Sol Invictus were both on December 25, Christmas might have been the basis of Sol Invictus, or the reverse, or it might just be a coincidence. If you want to claim the date of Sol Invictus is the basis for the date of Christmas, you need evidence.
Third, that evidence is hard to come by. Even if the Chronology of A.D. 354 refers to Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25, this is the first reference to the fact, and we know some Christians held that Jesus was born on that date long before 354 AD.
For example, St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 240) stated in his commentary on Daniel that Jesus was born on December 25, and he wrote around a century and a half before 354 (see Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §562). Further, Sol Invictus wasn’t even an official Roman cult until 274 AD, when the Emperor Aurelian made it one.
Fourth, if Christians were subverting Sol Invictus, we should find the Church Fathers saying, “Let’s subvert Sol Invictus by celebrating Christmas instead.” But we don’t. The Fathers who celebrate December 25 sincerely think that’s when Jesus was born (ibid., §§562-567).
Finally, even if Christmas was timed to subvert a pagan holiday, so what? Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and celebrating the birth of Christ is a good thing. So is subverting paganism. If the early Christians were doing both, big deal!”
“Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? There are popular theories that the December 25 dating was a Christian response to the pagans’ feast of Saturnalia or of Sol Invictus, but neither of these theories seems to work out historically.
Saturnalia, an ancient Roman feast, was celebrated on December 17. That later stretched into a week of festivities lasting until the 23rd, but it doesn’t explain why Christmas would be on the 25th.
What about Sol Invictus? According to this theory, the Emperor Aurelian instituted a celebration of the god Sol on December 25, 274 called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“Nativity of the Invincible Sun”). But there are serious problems with this theory as well. The University of Alberta’s Steven Hijmans argues that the theory “lacks even the most basic respect for internal logic and cohesion” by imagining that the Romans willingly “downgraded the old and hallowed Roman cults in favor of a new and oriental one” in the 270s, but then fought to preserve this new sun religion against Christianity fifty years later. As with Saturnalia, the Sol Invictus theory poses basic calendar problems as well, since
December 25 was neither a longstanding nor an especially important official feast day of Sol. It is mentioned only in the Calendar of 354 and as far as I can tell the suggestion that it was established by Aurelian [emperor for 270-275] cannot be proven. In fact, there is no firm evidence that this feast of Sol on December 25 antedates the feast of Christmas at all. The traditional feast days of Sol, as recorded in the early imperial fasti, were August 8, August 9, August 28, and December 11.
Although the Emperor Aurelian did introduce agones, athletic contests to be held in Sol’s honor every four years, these were held from October 19 to the 22nd, with the 22nd being (apparently) the highest feast day to Sol.
So what was so special about March 25? Tertullian, around the year 197, writes that Christ died on the cross “in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April.” The “calends,” the root of our word calendar, is the first day of the month, and so Tertullian’s claim is that Jesus died on the 25th of March. St. Hippolytus of Rome agrees, adding that he was born on December 25:
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th [eight days before the kalends of January], Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th [eight days before the kalends of April] Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were consuls.
That’s from his Commentary on Daniel, dating back to perhaps 204. All of this is well before the as yet unborn Emperor Aurelian is claimed to have introduced Romans to the cult of Sol Invictus. As the University of Birmingham’s Candida Moss explains:
The real reason for the selection of Dec. 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of Jesus’ crucifixion (which can be inferred from other dates given in the New Testament). As Christians developed the theological idea that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date, they set the date of his birth nine months later.
But this still leaves one major question: where did Christians come up with “the theological idea that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date”? Some scholars have speculated that it’s connected with Jewish thought (and that may be true), but the evidence points elsewhere. We get a hint at the answer from St. Augustine, who writes in De Trinitate:
For [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.
Augustine is highlighting a fascinating detail about the Passion narratives in the Gospels that almost all of us miss. Three of the four Gospel writers point out that the tomb in which Jesus was laid was new. St. Matthew tells us that “Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb” (27:59). St. Luke describes it as a tomb “where no one had ever yet been laid” (23:53), and St. John calls it “a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (19:41). Why would that detail matter to the evangelists? Because it showed the tomb as uniquely set aside for God. Hagios, the Greek word for “holy,” refers to something “set apart by (or for) God, holy, sacred.” The tomb is holy, preserved exclusively for Christ.
This is also how the early Christians understood Mary: that she was, both in body and soul, uniquely set apart for God. The last eight chapters of Ezekiel are a prophecy of a coming temple, a prophecy referring not to a physical building, but to the body of Christ (see John 2:18-22; 7:37-39). Around this temple was a gate, and “this gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut” (Ezek. 44:2). The early Christians, including Augustine, saw this as an obvious reference to the perpetual virginity of Mary.
That’s not the way many of us read Scripture today. Chances are, we’ve glossed over the details of the temple gate and the virginal tomb without giving them a second thought (assuming we’ve bothered to read Ezekiel 44 and the Passion narratives at all). But until we learn to chew on Scripture the way the early Christians did, their settling on December 25 as the likely nativity of Our Lord will seem arbitrary . . . or we’ll fall victim to discredited theories about Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.”
-by Steve Weidenkopf
“The celebration of Christmas draws the most comparisons to pagan rites, such as those commemorating the winter solstice, and specifically ancient Roman celebrations for the gods Saturn and Sol Invictus. These comparisons even influenced the Puritans, who rejected the celebration of Christmas as “Foolstide.” Puritan influence in the United States kept the nation from recognizing Christmas as a federal holiday until 1870.
The feast of the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn, was a two-day celebration of the end of the planting season and was known as the Saturnalia. During the reign of Emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.-A.D. 14) the festival would begin on December 17, but that date was later moved by Emperor Domitian (r. 51-96) to December 25. By the second century A.D., the celebration encompassed an entire week.
The cult of Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”) was introduced in 274 by Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275), but it was not associated with an annual event. Although the date for the celebration of Sol Invictus’s birthday was December 25—a date sometimes reckoned as the winter solstice in the ancient world—the only documentary source for that date is a fourth-century illustrated calendar for a wealthy Christian known as the Chronography of 354.
It is easy for skeptics to claim that Christmas was borrowed from paganism, because Scripture does not provide a date or even a time of year for Christ’s birth. But the lack of calendar specificity in the Bible does not prove that the Church decided to “baptize” a pagan celebration with the Nativity of the Lord. There is no early Christian or pagan writing that indicates that December 25 was picked because of its correspondence with the Saturnalia or the birthday of Sol Invictus. In fact, early Christians went out of their way to demonstrate how different they were from the pagans. They recognized that the Nativity merited a place in the liturgical calendar, so by the third century, Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in the West and January 6 in the East.
Fixing the date for Christmas on December 25 had less to do with pagan custom, the winter solstice, or Sol Invictus and more to do with Jewish tradition than pagan custom. In Jewish tradition, March 25 was celebrated as the date of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, when the Lord promised to send a lamb to complete the sacrifice. It also marked the first day of the Creation, when God brought forth light. The early Christians easily recognized the connection between Christ the Lamb and the Light, and dated both his conception and death to March 25. If the Incarnation occurred on March 25, then it follows that the Nativity occurred nine months later on December 25. For the early Christians “the decisive factor was the connection of creation and cross, of creation and Christ’s conception,” not the desire to baptize pagan celebrations.”
-by T. L. Frazier
“Christmas is when the Church confesses the shocking scandal of the Incarnation. It is the scandal that the Second Person of the Trinity, the only Son of God, true God from true God and one in being with the Father, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). As a witness to this profound mystery, Christmas has rightly held a lofty place among the feasts of Christendom.
Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that heresy, beginning with Gnosticism in the first century, often has its roots in some denial of the Incarnation, in creating a dualistic divorce of flesh and spirit. This is the great stumbling stone. It’s so much simpler to enthrone Christ as the supreme spiritual being up in the celestial realms or to revere him as another wise teacher of moral precepts, but God and man simultaneously? This is a hard saying; who can accept it?
Difficulties notwithstanding, the Incarnation is for Christians the very measure of orthodoxy. Thus it’s not at all puzzling why sectarians such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Armstrongites, who deny this revealed truth, aren’t particularly fond of Christmas. Indeed, a Jehovah’s Witness can be disfellowshiped for celebrating the holiday, utterly cut off from friends and family. Yet there are even some within Protestantism (Jimmy Swaggart comes to mind), who gladly bear with Catholics the “scandal” that the child born of the Virgin is “Immanuel,” or “God with us” (Is. 7:14), but who are ambivalent toward the celebration of Christmas itself because of the holiday’s supposed “pagan” overtones. Still there is one thing that tends to unite those who do and those who decline to celebrate Christmas: a regrettable ignorance about the origins and meaning of the season.
Like the Jews, the early Christians saw time as something sanctified by God, and they too developed a liturgical calendar. For example, we know from a controversy involving Polycarp (70-156 AD) that the feast of Easter was regularly celebrated at least as early as the second century. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna who, Irenaeus (130-202) tells us, had “known [the apostle] John and others who had seen the Lord.” He had traveled to Rome toward the end of his life to persuade Pope Anicetus to adopt the practice of the churches in Asia Minor of celebrating Easter on the fourteenth of the Jewish month of Nisan (the “quartodeciman” date). One of the problems with this was that the fourteenth of Nisan doesn’t regularly fall on a Sunday, and the rest of the Church insisted on celebrating Easter on the day of the week the Lord had risen. During the pontificate of Pope Victor I (189-198), the dispute became so heated that he threatened to excommunicate all of Asia Minor over the issue.
Early Christian worship often used the customs and symbols associated with the paganism around it. One instance: The fish was a symbol of fertility in the ancient world and of eroticism in particular for the Romans. This pagan symbol became one of the most important symbols of the Church, the Greek word for “fish,” ichthus, becoming a condensed confession of the faith. The five Greek letters are an acrostic of the statement, “Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter,” which translates as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
Court ceremonies were adopted for the Christian liturgy, sending the message to the pagan world that Christ was its true emperor. Since the days of Nero emperors had been employing the term kurios, a Greek word meaning “Lord,” as a distinctive title to promote the cult of emperor worship. Domitian (emperor from 81-96) had himself declared “Lord and god” (Greek: kurios kai theos; cf. John 20:28), and from then on the title became a favorite of the emperors. In contrast, Christians made a point of renaming the Roman “Day of the Sun” (Dies Solis, Latin for “Sunday”) as kuriakos hemera (Greek for “the Lord’s Day”; cf. Rev. 1:10), just as “July” had been dedicated to Julius Caesar and “August” to Augustus Caesar. The point was lost on no one and fueled tensions between the Christians and pagans.
The confrontational posture which Christianity adopted toward paganism is found behind the feast of Christmas as well. It was customary in the Hellenistic world to celebrate publicly the birthdays of important people such as emperors and princes, much as we do today with President’s Day. Christians couldn’t very well observe the birthdays of dead emperors while neglecting the risen Lord. What sort of witness would that give the unbelieving world? Not only that, but a celebration of the birth of Christ would fortify the Church against heretics like the Gnostics, who denied that Jesus was a historical, embodied personage.
The problem, though, was that the exact day of Christ’s birth was unknown, so a date on which to celebrate it had to be chosen arbitrarily. Now the pagans already had a fixed festal schedule, so any day of the year the Church chose to celebrate a feast would be a day of some pagan celebration. Here was an opportunity for the Church to confront paganism, and so it aimed at one of the biggest and most important cults in Rome. The day chosen was December 25, when everyone celebrated the pagan feast of the dies natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.”[Though the Church doesn’t claim that Jesus was actually born on December 25, opponents of Christmas spill considerable ink arguing that Christ couldn’t have been born at this time. The reason is because of credulous people like Setsuko, “a devout Catholic for 36 years.” This Japanese woman, now a Jehovah’s Witness, relates, “It was painful to be faced with Bible truths that refuted my beliefs. I even had alopecia neurotica, loss of hair due to being upset. Gradually, however, the light of truth shone into my heart. I was stunned to learn that Jesus could not have been born in a cold, rainy December, when shepherds would not be tending their sheep out in the open night (Luke 2:8-12). It shattered my image of the Nativity, for we had used cotton wool as snow to decorate scenes of sheep and shepherds” (Awake!, December 15, 1991, 7). But Setsuko presumably knows better now, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society having explained to her that “Jesus died at the time of the Jewish Passover, which commenced April 1, 33 C.E. [Actually, it occurred on April 3, 33, not April 1.] Moreover, Luke 3:21-23 informs us that Jesus was about 30 years of age when he commenced his ministry. Since this lasted three-and-a-half years, he was about 33-and-a-half years old at the time of his death. Christ would have been a full 34 years old six months later, which would thus be about October 1. If we count back to see when Jesus was born, we reach not December 25 or January 6, but October 1 of the year 2 B.C.E.” ( The Watchtower, December 15, 1990, 4). Assuming that Jesus didn’t die on April 7 or 8 in 30 (as scholars suggest), and that he began his ministry precisely on his thirtieth birthday and not a few months later, and that his ministry lasted exactly three and a half years to the day, this theory could sound plausible–but still iffy.].
December 25 arrives around the time of the winter solstice, when the days get shorter and the sun seems to be “dying.” After the winter solstice, the sun appears to regain its strength, is “born again” as it were, as the days become longer. Consequently, December 25 was the “birthday” of the Persian sun-god known as Mithras, originally one of the lesser demigods of the Zoroastrian religion. Mithras had become the principal Persian deity by 400 B.C. and his cult quickly overran Asia Minor. According to Plutarch, it was introduced into the West around 68 B.C., and became quite popular among the Roman legions.
Unlike those of other Oriental gods introduced into the Empire, the cult of Mithras remained independent of official foundations to finance and propagate it. Its followers worshiped in small groups in subterranean shrines where the clergy employed special effects to make Mithras appear to “manifest” himself among the congregation. Such artifice, which included fireworks, special lighting and mechanical devices, rarely disappointed the religion’s adherents and provided Christian polemicists with some of their best material.
The conflict between Christianity and Mithraism had always been intense, possibly because of certain similarities between the two. The devotees of sun worship tended to be monotheistic. The cult stressed a personal experience of worship, though it excluded women. Originally, as a Zoroastrian demigod, Mithras personified justice and redemption. Later on, as part of a “mystery religion,” he came to embody all that was good which warred against evil. Mithraism had rituals that included a kind of baptism, a strong code of moral conduct, and the promise of an afterlife.
Christians, for their part, called Christ the “Sun of Righteousness” from the prophecy of the Resurrection in Malachi 4:2-3: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things, says the Lord Almighty.”
Inspired by Ezekiel 43:1-2, which speaks of the glory of the Lord coming from the east, Christians believed the Second Coming would be from the east whence comes the sun rising to dispel the darkness. After all, the world was in darkness till Christ, the light of the world, expelled the night. Consequently, Christians prayed toward the east on Sunday mornings, with crosses being painted on the eastern wall of house-churches.[One such cross was found in a house in the city of Herculaneum, which was buried in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Tertullian, writing around 197 in his Apology, talks about Christians “praying in the direction of the rising sun.”]. When churches were built to accommodate Christian worship, these were also oriented toward the east. Christians were even buried facing the east in expectation of the final Trump.
By the second half of the third century, the cults of the classical gods were on the wane and paganism sought an infusion of new life from the Oriental cults. Thus Emperor Aurelian officially established worship of a Roman version of a sun god, under the name of Sol Invictus, as the principal cult of the empire on December 25, 274, after his victory over Zenobia, queen of Palmyra. He built a huge temple for Sol Invictus on the Campus Martius in Rome and made December 25 a national holiday.[Edwin Yamauchi cautions against too close an identification between Mithras and Sol Invictus: “The close identification of Mithras with the sun is seen in his titular, Deo Soli Invicto Mithrae, and its variations. . . . While Mithras was closely identified with Sol Invictus, it was the latter that was formally recognized and not the former. Mithras never appears on imperial coins. The sole public example of imperial devotion to Mithras is the dedication by Diocletian at Carnuntum in 307. Mithraism was a competitor of Christianity. . . . But Mithraism was not as potent a rival as the cult of Sol Invictus” (Persia and the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990], 519). While Mithraism may have taken a back seat to Sol Invictus, still it grew to such an extent that, by the time of Constantine’s conversion, there were fifty Mithraic temples in Rome alone(Desmond O’Grady,Caesar, Christ, & Constantine: A History of the Early Church in Rome[Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1991], 20.)]. But Providence had different plans for the empire
. After Constantine’s battle for the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, which delivered Rome into his hands, and the Edict of Toleration in February 313, the pagans witnessed the previously “divine” emperor kneeling before the true “Lord and God.” Christ was now ascendent, having vanquished Sol Invictus in the battle for supremacy in the empire. As expressed in a fourth-century work, De solistitiis et aequinoctiis, concerning Christ’s “Unconquerable Birth”: “Who is as unconquered as our Lord, who overcame and conquered death?” And although the cult lingered on (Augustine would later speak of the crying and shouting of the pagans on December 25), Sol Invictus was doomed to fade into permanent eclipse. Not even Julian “the Apostate,” Constantine’s nephew who came to the throne in 361, was able to re-impose paganism on the Empire, try though he did.
Unlike the battle for the Milvian Bridge, the battle for religious supremacy was not to be won overnight, especially in the rural areas where paganism was most entrenched. In the first half of the fourth century the worship of the Sol Invictus was the last great pagan cult the Church had to conquer, and it did so in part with the establishment of Christmas, which proclaimed that “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). At the head of the Deposition Martyrum of the so-called Roman Chronograph of 354 (the Philocalian Calendar) there is listed the natus Christus in Betleem Judaeae (“the birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea”) as being celebrated on December 25. The Deposition was originally composed in 336, so Christmas dates back at least that far.
The most pressing issue within the Church in the fourth century was its conflict with Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ and thus the Incarnation. This long and bitter conflict, as well as that with the Nestorians [This heresy is named after the fifth-century patriarch of Constantinople who denied that the Virgin Mary could be called the “Mother of God,” instead asserting she could only be the mother of Christ’s human nature, not his divinity. Not comprehending that a mother gives birth to a person and not a nature (in this case, the divine Second Person of the Trinity), he essentially claimed that Mary bore only a man loosely united to God, not the single and undivided Second Person who became God and man simultaneously at the Incarnation. Significantly, Nestorius chose to attack Mary’s divine maternity for the first time in a homily on Christmas Day 428.] later on, influenced the contents of the Christmas feast. Pope Leo the Great, combatting Arians (as well as Manichaeans) in the fifth century, seems the first to speak explicitly of Christmas as a celebration of the Incarnation, [Augustine, fifty years earlier, saw Christmas simply as a commemoration of a historical event, not as the celebration of a mystery (a revealed truth surpassing full comprehension) such as Easter. Still, while Leo may have been the first explicitly to connect Christmas to the Incarnation, it seems more than mere coincidence that the Church’s primary feast celebrating this mystery arose alongside Arianism at the beginning of the fourth century. One suspects a connection between the two], thus using Christmas as a bulwark against heresy.
During the Protestant Reformation, while much of northern Europe and England were arbitrarily throwing out “Romanist inventions,” one of the things that needed “reforming” was the liturgical calendar, along with many of the traditional customs that went with the feasts. It had been common to sing carols throughout the year on various feast days, especially processional songs honoring the saints associated with Christmas. The Reformation frowned upon carols and labeled them “papist” and superstitious. The Protestant monarchy of England banned all caroling except for at Christmas.
The Puritans outlawed Christmas itself when they came to power in England in 1642. Celebrating Christmas was considered evidence of “anti-religious,” Royalist sentiment. The Puritans were none-too-pleased that December 25 had been associated with Sol Invictus, and they suspected there were other dubious elements attached to the season as well. Harsh penalties were exacted for celebrating the holiday or even for staying home that day. The Puritans in New England banned Christmas as well; although the ban was eventually lifted, Christmas did not become a legal holiday in America until 1856.
Denunciations of “paganism” are still common from sects which have imbibed this heritage. Some are unabashedly bombastic in their trashing of Christmas, a 400-year-old puritanical tradition seemingly unhindered and unadulterated by progress. We are loudly informed that the customs of merrymaking and exchanging gifts have their real origin not in the rejoicing of the angels before the shepherds and in the gifts given by the Magi, but in the pagan festival of Saturnalia which was celebrated from December 17 to 24.
The lights and greenery are said to come from the Roman New Year of Kalends with its solar associations. It has even been maintained that “feasting and fellowship” were introduced by Teutonic Yule rites, as though feasting and fellowship were unknown to Christians before the conversion of the Teutonic tribes (cf. Acts 2:42, 46)! [See the Awake! (a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publication) articles for December 22, 1992 (8-9), December 8, 1991 (12-13), December 22, 1990 (14), December 8, 1989 (13-16), and December 8, 1988 (17-19). The whole of their rejection of Christmas is based on pagan precursors to certain Christmas customs. This hostile attitude hasn’t always been the case with this sect. A former member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Raymond Franz, has reproduced in his latest book a rare photograph showing Judge Rutherford, the sect’s second president, and the rest of the Bethel staff celebrating Christmas in 1926, complete with tinsel, wreaths, and presents (In Search of Christian Freedom [Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1991], 149). It should be noted that this was seven years after Jesus Christ supposedly chose the Watch Tower Society as the only “untainted” organization on earth through which he would channel all religious truth]. Thus merrymaking, exchanging gifts, greenery, lights, feasting, and fellowship are all suspect because of their previous association with paganism, as if melancholy, selfishness, drabness, fasting, and anti-social withdrawal, the antitheses of these “pagan” customs, would be more appropriate for celebrating the birth of the Savior.
When the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for feasting and merrymaking, Jesus replied, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; in those days they will fast” (Luke 5:34-35). Accordingly the Church feasts and makes merry at Christmas as Christ enters the world, and it fasts during Lent, preparing for his leaving it on Good Friday.
The popular myth concerning the pagan origin of Christmas trees exemplifies this puritanical phobia. In reality the Christmas tree tradition is derived from the Paradise tree, which was adorned with apples on December 24 in honor of Adam and Eve, whose transgression is reversed by the coming of Jesus, the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-19), on the next day. The tree was originally a stage prop used in medieval German plays of mankind’s fall from grace, and in time people began the practice of having trees in their own homes on that day. Our contemporary custom of adorning Christmas trees with balls likely arose from those prop apples. [The Encyclopedia Americana (International Ed.) relates a widely held belief that it was Martin Luther who originated the custom of Christmas trees in Germany: “The sight of an evergreen tree on Christmas Eve, with stars blazing above, is said to have made a great impression on him, and he put up a similar tree, decorated with lighted candles, in his home” (Danbury: Grolier, 1991), 6:667. The first proper “Christmas tree” as such is found at Strasbourg in 1605.].
When shown there’s nothing to fear from Christmas trees, antagonists will cite Jeremiah 10:3-4 (King James Version, of course) to “prove” that God scorns them nonetheless: “For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” The prophet is here condemning idolatry, but, taken out of context, the passage might seem to suggest someone cutting down a Christmas tree, nailing it to a stand, and decorating it with glittering baubles.
The Hebrew word huqqot, which the King James translators have rendered as “customs” in Jeremiah 10:3, is better translated in this verse as “statutes,” as in religious ordinances (Ex. 27:21, Lev. 18:3). The religion of the people is a delusion, says Jeremiah, and he then describes the construction of an idol which is similar to descriptions in other parts of the Old Testament (Ps. 115:4, 135:15; Is. 2:20, 31:7, 40:18-20, 41:7, 44:9-20, 46:5-7; Hab. 2:19). The tree was felled, carved, overlaid with silver and gold, and finally made sturdy by nailing it down to prevent it from toppling over (1 Sam. 5:1-4, Is. 41:7). In an exquisite touch of satire, Jeremiah describes the idol dressed in royal blue and purple garments (Jer. 10:9) as being “like a scarecrow in a melon patch” (v. 5). Unless one intends to accuse the person with a Christmas tree of idolatry, Jeremiah 10:3-4 is simply irrelevant to the issue. [Even Ralph Woodrow, who devotes an entire chapter to excoriating Christmas in his virulently anti-Catholic Babylon Mystery Religion (Riverside: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1966 [1990 edition], 145), concedes that Jeremiah 10:3-4 is taken out of context. “The people in the days of Jeremiah, as the context shows, were actually making an idol out of the tree, the word `workman’ being not merely a lumberjack, but one who formed idols (cf. Isaiah 40:19, 20, Hosea 8:4-6). The word `axe’ refers here specifically to a carving tool. In citing this portion of Jeremiah, we do not mean to infer that people who today place Christmas trees in their homes or churches are worshipping these trees.” Then what exactly does he mean by citing verses condemning idolatry when discussing the custom of decorating Christmas trees? “Such customs do, however, provide vivid examples of how mixtures have been made.” Woodrow doesn’t elaborate further].
Still, the vestiges of paganism found in Christmas festivities aren’t to be overlooked. Holly, mistletoe, yule logs, singing, cooking special foods, and decorating the home were all once associated with this time of year in the non-Christian world. Once converted, people did not think of banning these things. They continued to sing, eat big meals, and decorate their homes because these customs were viewed as intrinsically compatible with the new faith. It was paganism that Christianity opposed, not the culture of the people being evangelized. This is why, for example, we still exchange rings and throw rice at weddings even though these customs are holdovers from paganism. Indeed, the early Christians would never have used the fish as a symbol of Christ if they’d disdained everytoken of paganism.
Now we ask the big question: How should these mementoes of a bygone pagan era be regarded today? One possibility is to view them as the evidence of the Church’s victory over false gods, as stuffed heads adorning the walls of the hunter’s trophy room. Even as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is enshrined in Scripture for our instruction (2 Pet. 2:6, Rom. 15:4), so Christ’s victory over paganism is preserved in the memory of the Church.[The apostle Paul himself didn’t hesitate to draw upon elements of paganism, insofar as they were true in themselves, where it would assist in elucidating the gospel. He preached to the Athenians, “Yet [God] is not far from each one of us, for `In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, `For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). The first quotation, scholars say, is based on an earlier saying of Epimenides of Knossos (sixth century B.C.). In the second, Paul is citing the Stoic poet Aratus of Soli (third century B.C.), and the saying is also found, in the plural, in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus (third century B.C.). In Titus 1:12 Paul again cites Epimenides, who had been elevated to an almost mythical status by his fellow Cretans. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others mention Epimenides as a prophet, which is why Paul cites him as “one of their own prophets.”].
Objections to Christmas aren’t confined to the pagan elements of the holiday, as evidenced by the antagonism to jolly old Saint Nick, who lacks heathen ties altogether, though some suspect even here a hidden Babylonian connection. The main complaint is that Saint Nicholas, alias Santa Claus, detracts from the purpose of the season, which ought to be centered upon Christ. Children can name all of Santa’s reindeer starting with Rudolph, but they grow up learning nothing of the central mystery of our redemption. This is a valid concern, yet we must take care not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There is benefit in contemplating the life of the historical “Santa Claus.”
Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Lycia (southwestern Asia Minor) at the beginning of the fourth century. He’s remembered for his charity to the poor and has long been regarded in the West as the special patron of children, probably due to a tale about him reviving three children from the dead.
He is said to have suffered under the Diocletian persecution, been an opponent of Arianism, and been present at the Council of Nicaea. His death probably occurred at Myra in 342, and the Byzantine Emperor Justinian built a church in his honor at Constantinople in the suburb of Blacharnae during the sixth century. His feast day being December 6 explains his association with Christmas, though his reputed opposition to Arianism, a heresy rooted in the denial of the Incarnation, makes the connection quite fitting. Once understood, the life of “Santa Claus” is a model for us to follow.
Santa’s red suit is possibly derived from his eastern episcopal attire, though it was American cartoonist Thomas Nast, an anti-Catholic who let his prejudice be enshrined in his drawings, who in 1863 created the fur-trimmed suit we now associate with Santa Claus. Dutch settlers to America brought the custom of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas’s Eve, and British settlers took over the tradition as part of their Christmas Eve celebration. The name “Santa Claus” is the Americanized version of the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” itself a modification of “Sint Nikolaas.”
Sometimes the objection is made, on the basis of the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura, that Christians ought not to celebrate Christ’s birth because nothing is said about doing so in the Bible. One might respond to this by way of the analogy with the Jewish feast of Hanukkah (also called the Feast of Dedication), an eight-day celebration (November/December) recalling the rededication of the Temple in 164 B.C. after the sanctuary had been taken over and defiled by pagans.
The only accounts of this feast’s institution are found in 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 and 2 Maccabees 10:1-8. Although these two books have always been regarded by the Church as Scripture (the Greek Septuagint being the accepted version of the Old Testament in the early Church), Protestants rejected these books as “apocryphal” during the Reformation. The only reference to Hanukkah outside of Maccabees is in John 10:22-23, where Jesus is celebrating the “Feast of the Dedication” in the Temple. The question may be asked, “If Jesus as a Jew was free to celebrate a Jewish feast whose institution isn’t found in the Protestant canon of the Old Testament, may not a Christian in the same vein celebrate the birth of his Lord, even if such a celebration is not explicitly commanded in the pages of Holy Writ?”
While observing Christmas won’t revive ancient sun worship or inspire Germanic tree-stump adoration, our present manner of celebrating Christmas isn’t beyond criticism. As has repeatedly been observed, an obsessive commercialism has swept aside much of the incarnational mystery which the season calls us to reflect upon. It isn’t the dead paganism of the past that should cause alarm, but neo-paganism as represented by secularism and the cult of materialism.
As von Balthasar observed, conflicts with evil begin and end at the manger: “And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born” (Rev. 12:4). Yet Christmas epitomizes hope, for it assures us the battle already has been won by Christ’s invasion of our world. The message of the manger is really a declaration of war by God the Father “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age” (Eph. 6:12). The history of the Church shows us one ruler of darkness after another, from Sol Invictus to the present, being crushed by the radical mystery of Bethlehem.
The apostle John writes, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world” (1 John 4:2-3). It is at the manger that the spirit of Antichrist is discerned and judged. It won’t be by the suppression of “feasting and fellowship” that we’ll triumph over the neo-paganism of modern Antichrists, but by joyously heralding the Lord Jesus Christ. Bringing the family together to pray, to read the Infancy narratives from the Gospels, and to attend church during Advent–these are our best spiritual weapons against this present darkness.
It was the Incarnation which gave our spiritual forefathers the confidence with which they defied the darkness of the first centuries. So it will be again for us. If we confront the world with the scandal of the manger, unbelievers who have walked in darkness will see a great light, and Christians will have the ruins of modern, secular deities to add to those of Sol Invictus as pagan ornaments for Christmases yet to come.”
Love, He comes!!!!