I grew up not really celebrating Christmas.
I loved the Church I grew up in, but truth be told, we did more than just not celebrate Christmas, we attacked it!
One Sunday, the preacher at the church told my visiting 9 year old niece that there was no Santa Claus…during his sermon! And you haven’t lived until you’ve had to sit through that kind of awkwardness.
It wasn’t just my little church that resisted celebrating Christmas. At the church I preach at today, only 50 years ago the preacher from Highland wrote an article arguing that Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. He said, and I quote, “We shouldn’t try to put Christ back into Christmas, because it is impossible to put Christ back into something He was never in in the first place.”
This probably sounds odd to most of you, a Church not believing in Christmas, but I understood it then, and I understand it now.
Here’s why we used to think that, and here’s why I changed my mind.
A Very Pagan Christmas
Did you know that in ancient Babylon, there was a feast for the son of Isis (the goddess of nature) that was celebrated on December 25th? They would give gifts and throw a party for the entire nation? Did you know that in ancient Rome, they celebrated Saturnalia, honoring Saturn (the god of agriculture)? During this season, a group of entertainers would go from house to house singing festive songs (I assume they too demanded figgy pudding).
Did you know that the pagans of northern Europe celebrated the birth of the sun god Mithras? They celebrated it on December 25th, the winter solstice, which they called Yule. Yule means wheel, and that’s the symbol they had for the sun.
These pagans had a huge festival celebrating the rebirth of the Sun because they knew that December 25th was the day of the year when the days started getting longer again.
For these people, Mistletoe was a sacred plant, and kissing under the mistletoe began here as a fertility ritual. As someone who was born in September I’m grateful for this tradition (and creeped out if I think too much about it).
It was during these celebrations in the Winters of pagan Europe that people began to bring evergreen trees into their homes as a reminder to each family that the crops would soon grow again. These people developed the custom of lighting candles to encourage the sun god to be reborn.
Does any of that sound familiar?
A few years ago, I read one of my favorite books of all time, The Everlasting Man. It was written by G.K. Chesterton 100 years ago to a largely post-Christian England.
Chesterton was writing in a time when anthropologists had discovered the pagan roots of Christian practices, and all of Europe was shocked to hear that most of their parties were older than Jesus.
Chesterton was writing just a few decades after evolution had become popularized, and people had started to connect their ideas about evolution to religion.
Suddenly, people started thinking that Christianity was really just an evolved version of pagan faiths, nothing more than a re-purposed ancient myth that’s no more plausible than worshipping Mithras or Saturn.
Does that sound familiar?
But in this great book, Chesterton points out that we don’t understand ancient pagan religions because our world has been so changed by Jesus.
Both Chesterton and C.S. Lewis point out that Judaism has always been different than pagan religions in a couple of ways. The most obvious one is that Judaism has always been fiercely mono-theistic, but the most interesting one is that Judaism was always so historical.
Think about it, in the Jewish story God doesn’t so much give them a bunch of myths, he gives them a history, with details about land and kings and prophets and so, so many genealogies.
Scholars of ancient literature have pointed out that Jews don’t have the great myths of ancient religions, their Scriptures read differently than stories about Zeus or Prometheus. They lack the prose, and even their miracles are mundane, they lack the over-the-top imagery of a Greek Pantheon.
To put it bluntly, Judaism in comparison to pagan religions was kind of boring.
Because Jews were doing something entirely different than any other ancient religion, so what were the ancient religions trying to do?’
Great question, I’m glad I asked it.
When Fact Meets Myth
Have you ever had your life changed by a book or movie, even though you knew it was fiction? Have you ever found your heart swelling by a story that was entirely made up? Judging from the half a billion dollars the new Star Wars movie took in since it’s premier weekend, it seems most of the world still knows what it means to be captivated by an imaginary story.
That’s the power of a well-told myth.
People who have studied the power of stories, have pointed out that every story/myth that has stood the test of time, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Homer’s Odyssey all share a same basic storyline, and that this story line was the basis of almost every ancient religion.
So Chesterton points out that the ancient religions were not stupid people who believed stupid things. They were not saying that this is how things are, they were saying “Why can’t these things be?”
Ancient religions were about the universal hope that people have always had for things like redemption and awe and reconciliation and sacrifice.
They were about the deep hope we have for our lives to matter and for the world to have meaning.
Here’s how Chesterton says it:
Some myths are very crude and queer like the early drawings of children; but the child is trying to draw. It is none the less an error to treat his drawing as if it were a diagram, or intended to be a diagram. The student cannot make a scientific statement about the savage, because the savage is not making a scientific statement about the world. He is saying something quite different; what might be called the gossip of the gods.
The ancients didn’t believe their ancient religions in any way that is familiar to people who grew up with Christianity because Christianity is different in this one way:
We believe these things really happened in actual history.
Jesus didn’t just leave home and travel to a far county, he was born under Caesar Augustus, and sentenced to die by Pontius Pilate.
His life is the myth become fact, His was the body that God inhabited. He was the God become man, the King become carpenter. Jesus was and is, the dream, the echo of eternity that’s haunted humans since the very beginning, and who steps into the calendar, around 4 A.D
Which brings me back to our pagan Christmas.
Do you know why you celebrate Christmas with pagan traditions? Because whenever the earliest missionaries went to new lands to tell people the story of Jesus, contrary to popular opinion, these early missionaries didn’t just tell them about Jesus, they also listened to what they already believed.
And when they heard about their pagan religions and the deepest hopes that they had, these early Christian missionaries discovered that they weren’t just bringing God to different parts of the world.
God was already there working, they were just telling people His name.
And so it was in 350 A.D. Pope Julius declared that Jesus’s birth would be celebrated on December 25th, because Jesus was the true Sun, who really did die and really was reborn.
Jesus was the true God of the universe, the real thing of whom all the pagan gods were only shadows.
He was the rumor of Heaven, Jesus is the Gossip of the Gods.