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December 24, 2010

North Korea has backed off of its military threats, after shelling South Korean territory, but the South Koreans are still angry and defiant.  In addition to mobilizing their military, the South Koreans have resumed a practice that had been halted for seven years out of deference to the North’s sensibilities.  The South Koreans have allowed the lighting of a giant Christmas tree within sight of  communist territory.  The atheist regime is outraged.

As troops stood guard and a choir sang carols Tuesday, South Koreans lit a massive steel Christmas tree that overlooks the world’s most heavily armed border and is within sight of atheist North Korea.

The lighting of the tree after a seven-year hiatus marked a pointed return to a tradition condemned in Pyongyang as propaganda. The provocative ceremony – which needs government permission – was also a sign that President Lee Myung-bak’s administration is serious about countering the North’s aggression with measures of its own in the wake of an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans last month. . . .

Although the North has made some conciliatory gestures in recent days – indicating to a visiting U.S. governor that it might allow international inspections of its nuclear programs – Seoul appears unmoved.

Pyongyang has used a combination of aggression and reconciliation before to extract concessions from the international community, and the resurrection of the tree lighting at Aegibong is a signal that the South is ready to play hardball until it sees real change from the North. . . .

On Aegibong Peak, about a mile from the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean peninsula, marines toting rifles circled the Christmas tree as more than 100,000 twinkling lights blinked on. The brightly lit tree – topped with a cross – stood in stark relief to North Korea, where electricity is limited.

Choir members in white robes trimmed in blue and wearing red scarves and Santa Claus hats gathered beneath the steel structure draped with multicolored lights, illuminated stars and snowflakes. An audience of about 200 listened as they sang “Joy to the World” and other Christmas carols.

“I hope that Christ’s love and peace will spread to the North Korean people,” said Lee Young-hoon, a pastor of the Seoul church that organized the lighting ceremony. About 30 percent of South Koreans are Christian.

The 100-foot steel tree sits on a peak high enough for North Koreans in border towns to see it and well within reach of their country’s artillery. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said an attack from North Korea was certainly possible but unlikely.

North Korea, officially atheist and with only a handful of sanctioned churches in Pyongyang with services for foreigners, warned that lighting the tree would constitute a “dangerous, rash act” with the potential to trigger a war.

As a precaution, dozens of armed troops took up position around the site during the lighting ceremony. Ambulances and fire trucks were parked nearby. Instructions placed on chairs at the ceremony advised participants to take cover in case of an attack.

“The danger of the enemy’s threat still exists,” the leaflet read, suggesting that participants hide behind concrete walls, crouch between chairs and move quickly to shelters in case of an attack.

The event took place uninterrupted.

via South Korean Christmas tree sign of new propaganda war | Tulsa World.

December 18, 2009

Biblical Archaeology Review has a good scholarly discussion of why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. And it is evidently NOT because it was superimposed on a pagan holiday:

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly. . . .

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. . . . In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E. . . . .

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

The article goes on to document other ancient sources that associate the day of Jesus’s conception with the day of His death, going back to rabbinic Jewish texts that make similar connections.

December 24, 2007

This Christmas tide I offer you blogs from Christmas past. Just as TV goes into re-run mode with all of those Christmas specials that have become family traditions, so I will do with this blog, re-running Christmas posts that left an impression.

I start with two contrarian posts that left many readers indignant. Then I move to a series that makes the case that Christianity was NOT derived from a pagan holiday and that December 25 just might be the true date of Jesus’s birthday. Then I give some other Christmas treats, culminating in some quotes from Luther relating Christmas to the overarching theme of this blog, namely, vocation.

So put “Christ” back in Christmas. And put “Mass” back in Christmas. Also put “Holy” back in holiday. You can do all of these by going to church. (As my youngest daughter the deaconness intern explained to me, the Biblical reckoning considers sunset to be the end of the day, with the new day beginning that night. “And the evening and the morning were the first day.” So Christmas Eve is actually part of Christmas. So Christmas Eve services count for going to church on Christmas day–this would normally be fodder for a separate post, but let’s get to the reruns. . . )

Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us every one!

[HT to Cheryl Banks for making my archives more accessible.]

December 24, 2007

[This entry from 2006, which continues the case that Christmas did NOT derive from a pagan holiday, reminds us that those of us from European, yea, Germanic stock, had pagan ancestors who were brought to faith by missionaries.]

Thanks to reader SSchaper–also to commenter Puzzled– for alerting me to an account of the origin of the Christmas tree that goes way, way back to the missionary who first evangelized the German tribes. who That was St. Boniface. His apologetic technique to get through to the barbarians was to cut down the Sacred Oak of Thor. To the Germans’ amazement, Boniface did not get hammered. This convinced many of them that Boniface had the true God after all.

According to this story, after cutting down the Sacred Oak, Boniface saw an evergreen tree nearby, which he used as an object lesson to teach about the everlasting life through Christ, who died on a tree: According to tradition, when he chopped down the pagan Thor’s Oak at Geismar, Boniface claimed a tiny fir tree growing in its roots as the new Christian symbol. He told the heathen tribes: – “This humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. – Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. – Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide.” So the fir tree became a sign of Christ amongst the German peoples, and eventually it became a world-wide symbol of Christmas.

One of my students wrote a paper about the Church fathers and how they appropriated Greco-Roman education. They were extremely careful about distinguishing between the true God and the pagan gods. Those who believe these guys would conflate Christianity and paganism just have never read the original sources.

March 17, 2021

We often think of missionaries as emissaries from the West to non-Western lands such as Africa or Asia.  But the Western lands also came to faith through the work of missionaries.  All nations did, with the exception of the Jews.

The most famous of the missionaries to European countries is St. Patrick, who brought the Gospel to Ireland and whose day it is today.

But there were many others who are also worth remembering, but who don’t currently rate being honored with by parades, corn-beef and cabbage, green beer, and wearing green-colored clothing.

Another Englishman who went to evangelize European pagans was St. Boniface, who brought the gospel to Germany.  Here is an account of his most famous exploit, from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

To show the heathens how utterly powerless were the gods in whom they placed their confidence, Boniface felled the oak sacred to the thunder-god Thor, at Geismar, near Fritzlar. He had a chapel built out of the wood and dedicated it to the prince of the Apostles. The heathens were astonished that no thunderbolt from the hand of Thor destroyed the offender, and many were converted. The fall of this oak marked the fall of heathenism.

Here is a fuller account of the tree-cutting, which some relate to the German-originated custom of the Christmas tree, from Willibald’s Life of St. Boniface, written shortly after it happened (and Latinizing the name of the thunder god to “Jupiter”):

Now at that time many of the Hessians, brought under the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the sevenfold spirit, received the laying on of hands; others indeed, not yet strengthened in soul, refused to accept in their entirety the lessons of the inviolate faith. Moreover some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things.

With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, driven by a blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious compensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by.

At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree wooden oratory, and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the apostle.

St. Boniface, like many of those other missionaries to the Europeans, was martyred, killed, along with 52 of his travelling companions, by a band of Frisian bandits.  Boniface was said to have held a book of the Gospels over his head, using it as a shield against the axes and swords of his murderers.

The bandits broke into the chests that were in the wagons and were flabbergasted to find not gold or silver, but just manuscripts and more books.  The bandits destroyed most of them, but some survived, including the Ragyndrudis Codex, a collection of religious writings that can still be seen in Fulda, Germany, whose pages have deep cuts, as if by an axe.

St. Boniface’s day of commemoration is June 5, but St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to think of him.  We Lutherans, some of whom are descendants of those tree-worshiping Hessians, should honor him this summer, not with the trappings of German nationalism, but maybe by drinking regular-colored beer made according to the German purity law.  Or maybe cutting down some trees.

 

Illustration:  “Saint Boniface Felling Donar’s Oak,” photographed by Bernhard Rode – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989




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