Wise Men HeaderWhat do we do with pagan imagary at Christmas?

By Rev. Phil Greetham. © Copyright 2003. This Version, 2012.

Many Christians are concerned that Christmas is in fact largely a series of pagan rituals. Is this true?
Well, the Holly and Ivy, are left over pagan symbols.
The tendency to over-eat and to revel in parties and stupid games at the darkest time of year indeed came to us from Roman pagan practices. The idea of giving each other gifts also pre-dates Christianity.

The concept of Father Christmas, belongs to a very ancient tradition, which again pre-dates Christianity. In his older form he becomes dressed in green and is associated with the pagan 'green man' of English mythology. The red and white Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus is a later invention, which although Chrisitan in origin picked up various Russian and Scandinavian myths along the way.

The Christmas tree is a ancient woodland symbol of fertility. In the ancient days the presents under the tree where not for good little boys and girls - but for the tree itself - which was considered to be a kind of god.

The reasons for this are a little complicated but the expanding church in the later part of the first millenium, realising that not all individuals were going to embrace the Christian faith personally embarked on a process of Christianising. The idea being that if the church took the rituals of pagan religions and gave them Christian meaning then it would destroy the original meaning and make people who practiced them, by default Christians.

To a certain extent it worked, but of course meanings behind symbols can become un-attached or re-intepreted at any time. Thus although the symbols were pressed into Christian use, they could just as easily revert back to their original meaning if the Christian element was weakened or removed altogether.

It is easy to blame the church at that time, but the alternatives would be to ban them with punishments for those who practiced them. Far from eliminating pagan practices, it would drive them underground and would gain sympathy for them.

So what do we do? I would not even presume to say there is a right or wrong answer. Personally I don't have a mechanical view to religious symbols. So to me trees are trees and holly is holly. What matters is not what other people use them for, but what I think of them. Christmas trees are beautiful objects. They represent life and light in the darkest part of winter, and are inviably linked with the coming of Christ who is the light of the world. The tree was created by God and if I want to use it to proclaim a truth about God, why should I be concerned about other meanings that others give to it. The same would go for all other Christmas items.

Of course I can understand if some people wish to abandon Chrsitmas altogether, and I respect their point of view. I would add however that if some of the emails I've received from those Christians who have rejected Christmas altogether are a representative sample, then rather than engender the holiness they seek, they simply become bitter, angry people who seem have no joy in their life, and want to stirr up contention between Christians.

Perhaps we should take a leaf from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8. Here Paul is debating a dilema facing Christians invited to a meal whose food has been dedicated to idols. He knows that there are no such things as other gods, and therefore the food is just food and is not a problem. In the same way Christmas decorations etc, are just decorations. The pagan gods don't exist so what they symbolise doen't exist. At worst they represent nothing real. At best we can use the symbolism for our own faith, which is real. However Paul points out that if eating the food causes weaker Christians to fall away then it is wrong. In the same way we must make sure that all Christians know that pagan ideas are completely contradictory and superfluous to the Christian faith.

In the end I doubt if it makes any difference to a Christian's relationship with God if they do or don't celebrate Christmas, or how they do it within the moral bounds of Christ's kingdom. I just pray that Christians can accept the diversity of their brothers and sisters in Christ, and can learn to build up their own faith without seeing the need to attack others who do things differently.
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