*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 5th of December 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Hey, it’s Monday, and it’s December, and while technically Advent, you know that questions about church history and Christmas will always get you to the front of the line when appropriate- so Brian in Pittsfield, Massachusetts- I’ve pulled out a section of your email with a bunch of Christmas questions-
You asked, “how do you respond to Christians who say that Christmas traditions and even Christmas itself come from pagan traditions”
Brian: first, let’s talk about Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It is in Western Mass and was home to Edith Wharton, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (author of Christmas Bells, among other things), and Herman Melville. It’s where he wrote Moby Dick. Also, for a time, William Miller of Millerite/Adventist fame…
Ok- so, first, I wonder if others have Christmas Questions- because part of me wants to make a big Christmas mailbag weekend edition. If you do, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org this week.
The quick answer to “Is Christmas really just a replacement for pagan traditions” is “Yes.” The church, in its developments, especially once legalized in the 4th century, sought to displace pagan holidays with Christian ones. The great Roman winter feast of Saturnalia- which was a Roman adaptation of Kronia, a Greek winter feast to the God Cronus. It was a particularly raucous festival that lasted up to a week. Of course, winter festivals are common throughout antiquity- think of “Yule,” a Germanic winter holiday for the God Odin. (Think of “yuletide” as a synonym for this season).
Often, we find lights as predominant for these celebrations- and it makes sense, it’s the dead of winter, and so we combat a cold dark time with rebellion against it. When it’s dark, we light torches, and if there are evergreen trees near us, we decorate with those. We feast and eat together and thank our god or gods. It seems like a human response.
And so, as Christians wanted to celebrate the light that came into the world, the incarnation, it would make sense that we would switch out one celebration for another.
Often people “Christianize” things by reinterpreting or translating. It seems appropriate sometimes, but other times not. Gift-giving can be seen as a shadow of the gifts our good God gives to us. Lighting up a tree can also remind us of Christ, the light of the world, but it can also just make things pretty.
For me, the question isn’t about whether my life is in the sacred or secular sphere- the question is more about “what belongs where”? Do I need a “Christian version” or a holiday? Or if there is a sacred version of something, do I pick that instead? I’ll take Christmas over Saturnalia, but it doesn't mean I can’t have a side of “sleigh bells” and “ho ho ho” and all that jazz.
I suppose this is a perennial question because there is an assumption that if Christianity replaces something, it must make it “less than” the prior celebration. A “cheap knock-off,” perhaps?
As I was thinking through this, Brian, one of the first things that came to mind was a cross. Did you know that originally it was a pagan instrument of execution? Of course! We reinterpret. Think of the book of Hebrews, where the old traditions and stories of the Jewish people are reinterpreted in light of Christ.
Of course, as I mentioned on our first Christmas show of the season, when it comes to how people choose to celebrate, I am not one to offer a prescription. My choice is to ramp the celebrations and decorations up to 11, but that’s my choice. I’ll leave it to individual consciences.
Ok- I’ve got more Christmas knowledge than just about anything- so shoot me your questions, and we can put together a big Christmas weekend edition.
Thanks, Brian, from the impressive little town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- from 1 Thessalonians:
9 Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of December 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose confirmation verse was the second part of 1 Thessalonians 11 “you should mind your own business”- He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man without a confirmation verse- but I’ve assigned myself Judges 4:21 (Jail and the tent peg). I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.