Rockin’ Around the Pagan-derived Christmas Tree
The commercial and symbolic culture of Christmas has been lost on no one. The true meaning of Christmas has. In America, Christmas is a month-long celebration full of tradition. It’s more a season than merely a date on the calendar. Radio stations and department stores play nothing but Christmas music from late-November on. Houses and stores are strung with lights and other decorations. Fir trees are purchased from the Home Depot or the lot down the block that’s vacant eleven months out of the year and placed inside of our homes. TV networks air classics like “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The image of Santa Claus is displayed everywhere you look. Cookies are enjoyed, eggnog is drunk, and tacky sweaters are worn. All of these things together create this sense of “Christmas spirit” that we hear so much about around this time of the year. I’m not here to bemoan the commercialism. On the contrary, I enjoy most of the tradition associated with Christmastime.
With all of the tradition and symbolism associated with the holiday, it’s easy to see why the true meaning of Christmas has been missed by many in our culture (And despite what countless Christmas movies and specials suggest, the true meaning of Christmas is not spending time with loved ones or exchanging gifts.) Most readers of this blog I’m sure are aware that the incarnation of the second person of the trinity is the reason Christmas exists. But many may be curious as to how all of the tradition and symbols we associate with the holiday came to be. Here’s a brief historical survey:
In the mid-fourth century, the bishop of Jerusalem wrote to the bishop of Rome seeking to ascertain the date of Christ’s birth. The bishop of Rome’s response was December 25th. How did he determine this date? He chose it. There is no evidence, in Scripture or elsewhere, to suggest that this is the correct birth date and some evidence that suggests it’s not. So what was the bishop’s motivation for choosing this date? It coincided with a number of pagan celebrations at the time.
For the Romans, December was the month of the festival of Saturnalia. The celebration was intended to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, in hopes that he would bring Spring so that crops might grow. The Romans held feasts and partook in orgies and prostitution. Gift-giving was also a part of this celebration, and many believe this is where the concept of giving presents at Christmas originated. In addition, they would hang evergreens around their houses, perhaps the precursor to the wreaths we hang this time of year.
To the north of the Romans were the Barbaric Northlands. Their Yule celebration also took place in December and honored the gods Odin and Thor. In Persia they held a festival for Mithra, the god of light.
In England, a priestly class known as the Druids led the people in sacrifices during the month of December. The Druids would lead the people into the oak groves where they would cut down mistletoe from the trees with their golden sickles. The mistletoe would be passed around to everyone, and then they would sacrifice two oxen in the name of peace and friendship. The mistletoe was then taken back to their homes and hung there, and anytime someone would pass under the mistletoe, he was to embrace anyone else under it. It was an effort to reconcile people.
Evergreen trees were associated with the winter solstice. Many pagan cultures would cut them down and bring them into their houses or temples with the belief that they could ward off the cold and darkness. However, Martin Luther is believed to be the first person to bring a tree into the house and adorned it with candles (to symbolize the stars in the sky). He promoted the Christmas tree as a replacement for the Catholic practice of setting up a nativity scene.
Saint Nicholas was a white bearded bishop of Asia Minor. In Holland, after his death it was believed he came back every December 6 and rode through the streets on a white horse. All the Dutch kids would put their wooden shoes out on the porch and St. Nic would put goodies into them if they were good, and a switch if they were bad. The Dutch called him Sinterklaas, and from this we derived the name Santa Claus.
This brief survey of many of the staples we associate with Christmastime in our culture forces us to accept the unmistakable fact that these traditions have nothing to do with the birth of Christ, and many are of pagan origin. The question then is, is this a problem? Should we try and avoid, or at least not partake in these parts of the holiday season? Should we refrain from celebrating Christmas completely?
I believe the situation is a matter of conscience along the lines of what is described in Romans 14. To some, the pagan roots of our modern Christmas celebration may be a stumbling block. These brothers and sisters in Christ wouldn’t be comfortable bringing a Christmas tree into their houses or hanging a wreath from their door. In this sense they are the “weaker” brother described in that passage and we ought to be respectful of their convictions and not use our freedom in a way that offends them.
Personally, I have no such convictions. When I see a Christmas tree I am not reminded of the celebration of the winter solstice (and as my ice-cold hands can attest, my Christmas tree certainly hasn’t brought any warmth), and when I give someone a gift, I am not doing so in honor of Saturn. While the early church’s efforts to sanctify these traditions and make them a part of our Christmas celebration may have unintentionally distracted the culture from the true nature of Christmas, they have at least drowned out the original purposes of these symbols. The pagan roots of these traditions have all but been forgotten in this day and age. In my opinion, Santas and Christmas trees are no more harmful than anything else that can distract us from Christ.
There is certainly a danger that the tradition of Christmas will detract the reason for Christmas—and we must be vigilant not to let this happen in our lives—the symbols of this season I am convinced are not inherently wrong. If you can in good conscience hold hands around a Christmas tree and sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” then by all means do so.
Just don’t sing Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time.” When it comes to this musical atrocity, I am the weaker brother.