Have a very merry pagan Christmas

The Daily Mail loves its crazy American stories — articles that show the quirky (I’m being polite) or bizarre (a little more true to life) aspects of American culture — or the lack there of.  Today’s installment is entitled: “Families shocked to find ‘hate mail’ claiming their Christmas lights honour ‘Pagan Sun-God.”

Yes, the guy who delights in shouting “you kids get off my lawn” has been stuffing mailboxes in Hudsonville, Mich. with flyers denouncing those who have decorated their homes with Christmas lights.

A group homeowners on one street with Christmas decorations have received an anonymous note saying the lights honour the ‘Pagan Sun-God.’

The residents in Hudsonville, Michigan, were baffled by the notes which were attached to their mailboxes on Wednesday night.

The note said the lights have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, according to ABC News affiliate WZZM.

The letters begin on a warm note by saying ‘Hi neighbour, you have a nice display of lights.’

But it swiftly become serious by talking of how the ‘pagan tradition’ of putting up lights began.

The article quotes an offended homeowner, who found the note ridiculous. (Question. Would the Scrooge of Hudsonville have written Hi neighbour? Adding in the “u”. Just asking.) The Daily Mail‘s stage American displays outrage, independence, Christian piety — and a hint of ignorance.

Miss Hoekman added: ‘It’s a sin to judge other people and to tell people that if they have Christmas lights they are Pagans.

‘We’re not Pagans, we go to church regularly, my kids go to the Christian school.

A “Miss” whose kids go to the Christian school? That would be news. It is a silly story of course. But it does reflect a meme often found in Christmas related stories that December 25 is a Christianized pagan holiday.

Here’s how a Dec 15 piece in the Huffington Post puts it:

Because early Christians didn’t have a specific date in scripture, they chose one with metaphorical significance that also coincided with two preexisting Roman celebrations. December 25th was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar — the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day that represented the transition from dark to light would have been an appropriate symbol for those who saw in Jesus the birth of a man who would lead them to salvation. The Bible abounds in symbolic language of Jesus represented as light, a metaphor found for the divine in every other major religion as well.

The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Christians because it corresponded with two Roman celebrations centered on the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving. … Many Romans in the fourth century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Christian tradition of Christmas naturally absorbed elements of these popular pagan celebrations.

This bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to scrutiny. It will disappoint the crank of Hudsonville no doubt, but he (and the Huffington Post) have it backwards. As Prof. William Tighe wrote in Touchstone magazine a few years ago:

… the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date [Dec 25] in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.

In other words, it was the pagan Emporer Aurelian who sought to paganize the Dec 25 holiday of the Christians, not the Christians who sought to Christianize the Roman pagan holiday. For those who are interested in this topic I urge you to read Prof. Tighe’s popular treatment of the subject — or the scholarly study The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas Talley.

I do not doubt that some will dispute Prof. Tighe’s conclusions on this point and reject his scholarship. However, from the perspective of journalism an unthinking acceptance of the conventional wisdom — and not checking sources — is a mistake.

Photos: the holiday home is courtesy of Shutterstock and the disc of Sol Invictus is from the British Museum courtesy of Wikipedia.

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About geoconger
  • susie

    I started to read this articles and was sidetracked by this tangent;

    “A “Miss” whose kids go to the Christian school? That would be news.”

    Why, and to whom, would this be “news”?

    • geoconger

      One of the rites of August for local newspapers in the United States over the last few years have been stories about Christian private schools and Catholic parochial schools refusing admission to children whose parents are not married, or to children of same-sex couples. The link provided in that paragraph is an example of a such a story.

  • Martha

    It’s not just the “Daily Mail”; over here on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, we all love our crazy American stories :-)

    Have to second Susie: a “Miss” (who may be either divorced or never married in the first place) with kids that she sends to a ‘Christian’ school – even over here in Holy Catholic Ireland, that’s not news any more.

  • carl

    This isn’t a story about Christmas lights. It’s a metaphor about Christian influence in the public square. My first thought was “Why is it news when some guy puts fliers in a mailbox about Christmas lights.” The answer is simple. It is news when it can be used to illustrate a larger point. It becomes news when the author can be made to serve as a representative for the larger group. Christmas lights. Abortion. Homosexuality. It’s all the same thing. Just some crazy guy complaining about lights honoring the sun-god.

    As for the subject of the lights, it might serve people to read Paul on the subject of food sacrificed to idols. This is pointless legalism.

    carl

  • Jeffrey

    It’s quaint that GR takes the British tabs (and partisan press) so seriously that it iis worthy of criticism through an American tradition lens. Can we expect the National Enquirer be next? Are there ghosts in the pics if scantily clad girls that these same tabs are famous for?

  • MarkAA

    I would be very skeptical of any explanations about traditional religion provided by the Huffington Post. Actually, I would be skeptical of any explanations about anything provided by the Huffington Post. Relying on their explanations to understand religion and morality is like relying on mid-1970s Pravda to understand capitalism.

  • revaggie

    I have trouble blaming reporters for perpetuating the myth that Christians absorbed a pagan holiday. Ill informed Christians do it enough themselves. Plus, a quick Google search, a thing that passes for intense research anymore, will only pull up the sites pushing the Christmas/pagan holiday myth. (I am not counting wikipedia as a person only skimming will miss the brief mention of Tertullian.) A person actually has to dig to find that Christians had long settled on two possible dates before Dec 25th became a pagan holiday.

  • Karl

    My understanding is that, in historically low-church traditions like Puritanism and British nonconformism, there was opposition to the idea that the institutional Church could celebrate feast days other than Sunday. This probably went along with a desire to remove anything that seemed even remotely Catholic from the Church of England, like vestments, liturgy, and the liturgical calendar, and musical instruments.

    Some people, typically Reformed Calvinists and others, believe that the liturgical calendar is a form of idolatry. Others think that the church should make it optional to observe feast days based on one’s conscience (which seems more reasonable).

  • R9

    I’m not seeing the ideas of Jesus birth calculated to a certain date, and pagan festivals being absorbedrepurposed, as mutually exclusive?

    (and I imagine, whoever got to the 25th first, winter festivals have been around since forever).

    Is christmas somehow less special if pagans got there first? does it start meaning less to christians? Seems an un-necessary battleground.

  • http://presbyterianblues.wordpress.com/ “Michael Mann”

    Then, others want to remove Christ from Christmas for the sake of Christ:
    “The task of the ever-earnest Christmas redeemer is to put the “the Christ” into this winter celebration. That might involve pointedly saying “Merry Christmas to a more generic well-wisher. It might involve fighting for a creche in the public square. Maybe you display one of those ceramics with Santa kneeling before the cradle. Also, on Christmas day you can make the kids wait for their presents while you read Luke 2 and then make them wait for Christmas dinner during that extra-long prayer about not only the food but the plan of redemption. And what’s the result of all that? Eh, it’s pretty much like putting a Gideon’s booth between the roller coaster and merry-go-round and calling it a Christian carnival.”

    http://presbyterianblues.wordpress.com/2011/12/18/on-second-thought-please-do-take-the-christ-out-of-christmas/

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am not convinced people are very exact in use titles for women these days.

    Also, even if the mother is not married now, the fact that she has children would not be super scandalous to many. Even if she was never married even those with the most stringent moral views would accept she can have changed her ways and repented.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Actually if this guy is going around putting fliers in mailboxes than he is committing a crime. It is illegal for anyone except a postal emplyee to put fliers in mailboxes.

    It is good to finally hear someone argue that Christmas is not a pagan holiday. That is a truly tiring meme, which has its roots in anti-Catholicism.

  • John Pack Lambert

    geoconger,
    The refusal is to parents who are currently living in same-sex relationships or out-of wedlock relationships. Even if we make the assumption, which I am not sure is reasonable, that the “miss” proves not being married, we have no evidence she is currently in any sort of sexual relationship. The issue is not that the parents were not married when the child was born, but they are not married now and perpetuating their life of sin.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think Karl is onto something. Hudsonville is in a part of Western Michigan settled by extremely Calvinist Reformed Dutch Christians.

    There is a long view in certain Protestant circles that feast days are wrong. This is dieing off with more and more Protestants observing Lent, but there still is the older view and some who hold to it will go to extremes to perpetuate it.

  • carl

    Karl

    Some people, typically Reformed Calvinists and others, believe that the liturgical calendar is a form of idolatry.

    We do?

    carl
    Reformed Calvinist

  • Julia

    Concerning reporters not getting Christian holidays, commemorations and Scripture:

    This was in my local paper concerning a concert this past week-end.

    “Magnificat in D” is Bach’s early 18th-century interpretation of Mary’s prayer after the Immaculate Conception.

    So – I guess he means singing praises to God in utero?

    http://www.bnd.com/2011/12/15/1980220/do-you-like-christmas-music.html#storylink=misearch#ixzz1h0urO5Gc

  • http://presbyterianblues.wordpress.com/ “Michael Mann”

    “Some people, typically Reformed Calvinists and others, believe that the liturgical calendar is a form of idolatry.

    We do?

    carl
    Reformed Calvinist”

    But, Carl, I assume you know what he is talking about. Some Puritans viewed a specific Christmas worship service as man’s idea rather than God’s command, thus holding that any such worship service would violate the Regulative Principle of Worship, which hold that we may only worship according to God’s commands.

    But if the topic is what currently living Calvinists think about having an in-home Christmas celebration, the percentage of objectors is so small as to be negligible.

    There’s an anecdote out there that Presbyterian John Murray used to preach an Easter sermon on Christmas and a Christmas sermon on Easter. True or not, it’s a funny illustration of old-time Presbyerian stubbornness.

  • Martha

    Julia – well, if John the Baptist could do it… :-)

    Yes, that’s something (confusing the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth) that annoyed me to the point where I now am, which is just throwing up my hands because they are never, ever, no matter how many times you correct them, going to get it right. It’s become embedded into the public consciousness, like “Columbus set sail to prove the world was round” or “Newton was hit on the head by an apple”.

  • Karl

    There’s a PCA Presbyterian Church in my area and they’re very unapologetic about their use of liturgy and the liturgical calendar. I might join it :-) .

    I tend to lean towards the position that feast days should be optional.

  • MJBubba

    Thanks for pointing to the William Tighe article from Touchstone. It deserves much wider circulation among Christians.

  • ordinariate man

    Maybe you can get Mr. Pulliam to comment on Reformed (Presbyterian) observance of Christmas. From my childhood I recall the tension of the Church refusing to observe the day, yet wanting to accomodate “secular ” culture by having a Christmas program and party in the church basement. The irony of my Covenanter relatives protesting the use of X-mas instead of Christmas in store windows and joining in the calls to “put Christ back into Christmas ” was jarring to me as a kid. I had thought the point was that Christ shouldn’t be in Christmas. Anyway, that singing of Christmas carols – please don’t call them hymns- had an effect and this Presbyterian come Episcopalian is becoming Catholic. John Knox pray for me.


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