December brings many things: snow, cold weather, people acting horribly at shopping centers, and journalists seeking a new angle on holiday reporting. A favorite in recent years is to talk of the “pagan” origins of the Christmas holiday. These often come in the form of editorials rebutting the inane “War on Christmas” prattlings by Bill O’Reilly and his ilk. For example, Pete Langr of the Budgeteer News has this to say.
“It’s ironic that the effort to put Christ back in Christmas is both so profitable and so willing to focus on the Christmas tree and on the word “merry.” The Christmas tree itself “has nothing to do with other religious holidays celebrated in December” says my letter writer. Except that the Christmas tree was apparently co-opted by Christians from a pagan celebration in which evergreen boughs were hung in the home. In effect, the pagans lost an earlier culture war. Perhaps they bartered buttons saying ‘take back our winter solstice celebration.’”
“Despite popular belief, the idea of Christmas trees did not come from Pagan rituals. In fact, the first Christmas trees are believed to have originated in 17th century Germany. It took two centuries for the idea to catch on in the U.S.”
To bad the Bible somewhat refutes that notion.
“Jeremiah 10:2-4: “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” (KJV).”
The New York Times has its own formula for many beloved Christmas traditions: pagans invented them, Christians appropriated them, Dickens (and 19th century England) synthesized, secularized, and popularized them, and the public embraced the entire culturally tangled mess whole-cloth.
“Standiford, the author of four other nonfiction books, tidily explains the appeal of “A Christmas Carol,” its readership “said at the turn of the 20th century to be second only to the Bible’s.” Replacing the slippery Holy Ghost with anthropomorphized spirits, the infant Christ with a crippled child whose salvation waits on man’s — not God’s — generosity, Dickens laid claim to a religious festival, handing it over to the gathering forces of secular humanism. If a single night’s crash course in man’s power to redress his mistakes and redeem his future without appealing to an invisible and silent deity could rehabilitate even so apparently lost a cause as Ebenezer Scrooge, imagine what it might do for the rest of us!”
So the answer to the “pagan origins” debate is that everyone’s right. A lot of “Christmas-y” stuff is pre-Christian in some form or another, but it is equally true to say that they have been fully absorbed into a Christian context. In turn, both the pagan and Christian contexts for hanging the holly and trimming the tree have morphed into a fully secular affair, complete with a popular mythology that is a mish-mash of pagan, Christian, and pop-culture elements. What the Christmas warriors don’t understand is that their war was lost long ago, and the majority of people who just wanted a reason to find hope, merriment, and camaraderie during the bleak midwinter won out.