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December 20, 2004

Let's Take the Paganism Out of Christmas!

It's Christmas time again, that time of the year when people comes together and, in the spirit of Christ, declare holy war on each other. According to the Washington Post,

After years of legal assaults on municipal displays of Nativity scenes and Christmas observances in public schools, Christian groups are now mounting court challenges in the other direction.
(see also Slate and Salon for similar Christmas cheer).

I find the whole thing quite entertaining. I'm all in favor of reining in the folks who try to stomp out every sign of religion in civic life. But given the history of Christmas itself, the backlash in the other direction is a bit much.

Take Christmas trees. Jesus was born in the Middle East -- and as you can tell from the pictures of Iraq, it's not an area strongly associated with pine trees. From what I can tell via Google, it's not clear where Christmas trees came from, but oods are it has a pagan origin:

In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.
At least that's how the folks who first came to the U.S. from Europe saw it:
As late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims's second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event." In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

In other words, some of our most cherished Christmas traditions are the result of earlier attempts to incorporate pagan rituals into Christianity. Back then, of course, the goal of this inclusiveness was a bit different than our efforts -- they were trying to wipe out other religions by converting their followers (when that didn't work, you could always shove a snake down their throat). But the idea of including dramatically different religious beliefs is as central to Christmas as we celebrate it today as is Christ.

So, as a Christian and a Christmas enthusiast, let me propose two solutions. Either let's really put Christ back into Christmas and bring back fines for hanging pagan decorations. Or let's chill out a little and use the SF Bay Area approach -- honor each other's traditions & have lots of reasons to party by celebrating together as many religious holidays as we can.

Posted by RalphTaylor at December 20, 2004 09:36 AM