Christmas spirit

Friday, December 9, 2005

By Wes Wright

Ah, it's Christmas once again, a time for peace, joy and goodwill toward men -- a wonderful sentiment, but why so difficult for us to follow?

Every year there is a return to the familiar refrain of those who fear Christ is being left out of Christmas, followed by the refrain of those who see no reason to put Christ in there in the first place. Reading through editorials and Speak Out, one becomes increasingly convinced that there is more heat than light in such debates.

Is it "Merry Christmas" or "Happy holidays"? Even today, the cyber-headlines refer to those Christians up in arms about the presidential family's "Holiday greetings" card.

Are Christmas trees pagan or Christian? Which came first? The pagan celebration or the Christian one? Good question. Let's start there.

It has been generally supposed and adopted that Dec. 25 was originally a pagan holiday established by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274 A.D. But in the "truth is seldom what it seems" category, William Tighe of Muhlenberg College has demonstrated rather conclusively that on this one, accepted history is in error. It appears historically indisputable that Christmas is indeed of Christian origin first, and then co-opted by the Roman emperor in order to create an alternative pagan festival, "Birth of the Unconquered Sun" to compete with the Christian celebration.

The selection of Dec. 25 for Christmas appears to have been the result of a careful analysis and debate as to the date of the actual birth of Christ. Whether they got the date right is another matter. The point, however, is that the origin of the Western Christian celebration of Christmas on Dec. 25 owes nothing to pagan origin or influence. (For more information, see William Tighe's article, "Calculating Christmas" in the December 2003 Touchstone Journal).

While we do not have a wealth of evidence as to how all this worked out, we do have one church father, Hippolytus of Rome, writing several decades before Aurelian established his pagan holiday (indeed, before Aurelian was born). Hippolytus wrote that the birth of Jesus "took place eight days before the kalends of January" (that is, Dec. 25).

What about Christmas/holiday trees? Are they of pagan origin? Probably. Are they in violation of Scripture, say Jeremiah 10? Hardly. Jeremiah is describing idol worship, even ridiculing those who create fertility poles (think May poles, not decorated spruces).

Christians use these trees to remind themselves, first of all, that God has given them eternal life through Christ his son, and, second, to remind them that "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above" (James 1:17).

Should Christians be discouraged, therefore, from using such trees since they have been co-opted from pagan celebrations? I don't know. How about this: Should the homosexual community be discouraged from using rainbows since that symbol was co-opted from its Judeo-Christian roots (see Genesis 9)?

This probably won't settle the debate, but in an effort toward peace and goodwill I thought the information might be valuable to some.

As for this Christmas, my family and I -- being Christian -- will celebrate Holy Communion on Christmas Eve, followed by a Christmas morning gathering around our Christmas tree where we will bless one another with gifts and goodwill. And then we will be off to celebrate this day with our larger church family, as Christmas this year falls on Sunday.

So happy holidays to all! (And by the way, the term "holiday" is also of Christian origin, owing its development to those who put together the Christian calendar marking its Christian holidays, its Christian "holy" days).

Yours in the Christmas/holiday spirit ... .

Wes Wright is the pastor of Mount Auburn Christian Church in Cape Girardeau.

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