On Faith: Is Christmas Christian?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 22, 2010 — 47 Comments

My latest response at the Washington Post’s On Faith site is now up.

Here’s this week’s panel question:

“Keep Christ in Christmas!” is the familiar refrain of Christians who fear the secularization of the holy day celebrating the birth of Jesus, their savior. But in America, non-Christians often celebrate Christmas. According to a recent poll by the Christian group LifeWay Research, “A majority of agnostics or those claiming no preference (89 percent), individuals claiming other religions (62 percent), and even atheists (55 percent) celebrate Christmas along with 97 percent of Christians.” Do you need to be Christian to celebrate Christmas? What is Christmas all about?

Here’s an excerpt from my response:

“I won’t get into the debate over whether early Christians appropriated December 25th from pre-Christian faiths, or came by that date honestly, but few can argue that much of what we now culturally consider “Christmassy” came from non-Christian/Pagan sources. Decorating with greenery, decorating trees, the exchanging of gifts, feasting, even the special seasonal attention towards the poor and less fortunate can be found in several Western pre-Christian Winter-time holidays. In addition, many cultures had their own narratives/traditions about the (re)birth of the sun/son, promising a return of life and light in a time of cold and darkness. I don’t say this to diminish Christianity, but only to point out that these Winter celebrations are a deep part of us, and whether we identify as Christian, Pagan, agnostic, or atheist, there is a draw towards the light and fellowship that has become an integral part of this time through the centuries.”

I hope you’ll head over to the site and read my full response, and the other panelist responses, and share your thoughts.

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  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    When someone shows me where Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer is mentioned in the New Testament I will at that point happily concur with those who insist that Christmas is a Christian holiday.

    • http://military.pagannewswirecollective.com Lori Dake

      Agreed. So many of our collective traditions come from either secular or Pagan sources – or a combination thereof:

      - Trees
      - Rudolph and the eight other reindeer
      - Santa
      - Gifts
      - Feasting
      - Lights
      - Holly
      - Mistletoe
      - Stockings
      - Cards
      - … and so on

      The baby Jesus was born in the spring, maybe early summer, in the Middle East. Everything we've come to know about the Nativity story has nothing to do with every other aspect of Christmas. It's because of that I don't get bent out of shape if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, as long as the /Merry/ part is included. ;)

      If hardcore Christians want to focus on the Christ part, then they need to ditch every tradition outside having a Nativity scene and going to church. No gifts, no decorations, no ham and most certainly no Santa!

      • Pagan Puff Pieces

        (Don't encourage them. Christians who have a non-Christmassy Super-Christmas are such killjoys. What's the point of being Christian if you can't at least have a little bit of fun for your grief?)

        • http://military.pagannewswirecollective.com Lori Dake

          Well, my husband and many of my friends /do/ say I like to start shit, so…
          :::whistles:::

          >:)

    • kauko

      I'm pretty sure that Rudolf is somewhere in Matthew chapter 2, and if its not, well it's not like Christians don't make up stuff being in the Bible all the time anyway ;)

  • aliguana

    Christmas is obviously the Roman attempt to quash the rising Christian Cult by imposing their own holiday, traditions and BOOK on them. "Yes, we're a Christian State, look, we celebrate the sun/son on Dec 25th. Sol Invictus.. erm… I mean, Happy Christmas".

    For 1500 years, it HAS been a Christian holiday, in as much as it's the Christians that have perpetuated it. Under false pretences, admittedly. It's a pagan Roman celebration! Who knew! (well, the Pope/Church did, for a start)

    Even if you remove Christianity, paganism, whoeverelsecelebratesit-ism, midwinter is still a special time, the darkest part of the year, when getting the candles out and brightening the place up needs to be done to dispell the winter blues. So it will continue as long as there are people, whoever has claimed it or will claim it in the future. And long may it continue!

    Felix Dies Natalis Solis Invicti!
    Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

  • Don

    While the trappings of the holiday may be pre-Christian or just plain secular, the reason for the holiday is undeniably Christian, rooted in the Christian mythos. But is it just a Christian holiday? Nah. It's secular elements are wide appealing and culturally valued.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

      How dare you refer to Santa Claus, mistletoe, the Grinch, etc, as mere "trappings"! A lump of coal for you this year, Don.

      • Don

        Figures. Over the years I've earned enough coal to keep a fire burning to rival Centralia, PA.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      To assign a reason for a holiday requires exploration of contrafactual universes — would we be celebrating at this time of year without Christianity? I'm pretty sure we would, because it's the pivot between the dark and light halves of the year. Society has to adopt somebody's iconography, and it has in fact adopted a lot of Pagan iconography whilst giving lip service to a Christian "reason" — probably to keep the local bishop from getting unhappy.

  • Pitch313

    Christmas in the USA these days is just as much "Christian" as a shopper's cash on hand credit limit allows. And we do not see any of the major economic tracking agencies tallying up "acts of devotion" or" conversions." They tally stuff like "retail sales trends" and "end of year corporate balances."

    Christmas is all about buying and consuming. Jobs and economic growth depend on it. It as secular a holiday as a holiday can be. Everybody know this plain fact.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1296037008 Secret Lee

    May you experience a favorable response to the aesthetics of this time of year. LOL….

  • Robin Artisson

    The attempt on the part of these Christians to assert that Christmas is "their" holiday exclusively is not just some misguided attempt to spare the uniqueness of their religiosity against secularism. It is an attempt to seize the sacred and universal spirit of this holy season as their own- it is another co-opting of something that doesn't belong to them and can't belong to them, but which they would like very dearly to have and hold as their own.

    The Yuletide season is a universal event. It isn't relative or meaningful just on planet earth with a certain positioning of the earth relative to the sun at one point in the year. The deep darkness, the long night, the emergence of new light, the new beginning, the ascent, the dissolution, metaphysically, of the universe-structure in the cauldron of time now boiled down to dark nothing, and the regeneration of time, the closeness of the unseen- these elements of Yule are not just things that relate to planet earth on a particular time. All sentience in all places in the cosmos experience these things, in some form or fashion, and understand them in some form or fashion.

    "Christ Mass" refers to a particular event in Christian practice- and, I might add, originally a Catholic/Orthodox event, named so by Catholics. Protestants that still claim the "Christ Mass" are (once again) allowing the evil Church in Rome that they hate so much to influence them. I'm shocked that protestants haven't rejected "Christ Mass" altogether, in favor of a "Jesus Birthday" in spring, or at least changed the name to "Christservice". Because "mass" is just a bit too revealing of their dependency and origins in Rome.

    Yule is not "Christ Mass". Christians positioned something called "Christ Mass" over the Yule season. We of the Pagan persuasion- in whatever form that takes, so long as it recognizes Yule- should not be concerned so much with "Christ Mass". We should mark Yule, however, in whatever way we feel traditionally drawn to. We still get all the trappings, because our ancient ancestors gave us the trappings- evergreen trees decorated with lights, Yule logs, decking the halls with boughs of holly, big feasts, yule-boar, yule-toasts, wassailing, and (most importantly) kinship and coming together to renew ties and bonds of fellowship between friends and families. All of this is pre-Christian. It has nothing to do with "Christ Mass".

    Moral progress won't be made until Christians stop their greedy and malevolent drive to claim anything that they feel as powerful, as their own. And Yule is powerful. Their shallow little invented holiday (show me the evidence that "jesus" was a Capricorn) is not where the power they feel is coming from- it's coming from something far more ancient and powerful and universal. I'll let Bertrand end my little thesis here:

    "I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world. "

    -Bertrand Russell

    • Rombald

      "Protestants that still claim the "Christ Mass" are (once again) allowing the evil Church in Rome that they hate so much to influence them. I'm shocked that protestants haven't rejected "Christ Mass" altogether,"

      Interesting comment.

      In the British Isles, extreme Calvinists have always opposed Christmas. The celebration was banned under Cromwell, so, of course the American Puritans also didn't celebrate it (how does that fit in with the imagery of American Christianity??). In parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland where the Free Presbyterians are influential, Christmas is not practised, especially on Harris, Lewis and North Uist. In Scotland generally, Christmas is less important than in England, and New Year is more important.

      There are a lot of fringe-Protestant groups, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, who oppose Christmas.

      I don't know whether this is just an Anglophone thing, or also exists on the Continent.

  • http://www.uodruids.org Charlton Hall

    According to the Worldwide Council of Churches, there are approximately 2 billion Christians on Earth. This number is impressive until you realize that there are 6 billion people on Earth. So this means that there are twice as many people who are not Christian, as there are Christians. This means that at this time of year, the majority of people on the planet are celebrating something other than Christmas.
    For the past several years the media in the United States has become preoccupied with the 'War on Christmas.' This trumped-up 'war' is the result of non-Christians asking for the same rights that our Christian brothers and sisters enjoy at this time of the year: Our right to celebrate the season according to our own beliefs. We don't ask for this right to the exclusion of Christianity. We just ask that our paths be acknowledged as well, as per the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
    The irony of the 'War on Christmas' is that most of the symbols associated with this time of year are Pagan in origin. Santa Claus was based on the archetype of Odin, the Holly King. The hanging of mistletoe and evergreens is a Druidic custom. Christmas trees and Yule logs are Pagan in origin as well. In fact, the Bible expressly forbids Christmas trees:

    Jeremiah 10:3-4: 3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. 4 They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.

    Even the nativity scene, or creche, was taken from Pagan symbolism. Pagans celebrate the rebirth of the Sun at the Winter Solstice, also called 'Yule.' The Sun is symbolically reborn as the Golden Child known as the 'Mabon.' So even nativity scenes are Pagan in origin. Early Christians co-opted the symbols associated with this season, and turned them into the holiday we now know as Christmas.
    Yet some Christians want to pressure merchants, government agencies, and the general public to only acknowledge the Christian holiday at this time of year. With Christianity on the decline in the U.S., and Paganism and other forms of religious and spiritual expression on the rise, it would seem to me that such Christians have declared a 'War on Yule.'
    If you could distill all of the teachings of Jesus down into one principle, that principle would probably be the Golden Rule. This rule states: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' If a person professed to be a follower of Jesus (i.e., a Christian), one would assume that he/she would follow this principle if nothing else. Yet think about this in the light of the 'War on Christmas.' Some Christians would like to prevent the acknowledgment of any seasonal celebration except Christmas. If we take the Golden Rule into consideration, what could we say about these Christians? What would Jesus say about them? If they are truly 'doing unto others' as they would have others do unto them, then by trying to ban any celebrations but Christmas, are they saying that they would like others to do the same to their celebration of Christmas? In other words, are they asking Pagans, for example, to actively work against their celebration of Christmas?
    If this is not what those Christians are asking, then the only other possibility is that these particular Christians do not follow even the most basic principle taught by Christ.
    If you don't follow even the most basic teachings of Jesus, can you really call yourself a Christian?

    • Christy

      Sometimes it feels like the "War on Christmas" is largely fabricated because some Christians (not all, but some) DO actually want others to try and stop them from worshiping so they can point and go "See… see… these aweful people are trying to stop me from loving my god. But I will PERSEVERE in the face of adversity and that will aid me in getting to heaven."

      There are individuals in every religion who have perscution complexes, but in the U.S. Christians really have to work at it to get it to stick.

      • Robin Artisson

        Christianity relies on, and badly needs, persecution. That's how it began; to suffer for Christ is embedded deep in the fabric of the sick psychology of the entire system.

      • Khryseis_Astra

        It IS fabricated. :) Does anyone here who's past the age of 30 remember *anyone* getting their panties in a twist over the use of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" before the current decade?

        I have some lovely antique postcards with those greetings on them… I guess my grandparents were all anti-Christian. Oh wait, they ARE Christian! LOL I blame Bill O'Reilly and company. Lack of preferential treatment does not equal being persecuted.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          I'm 69 and do not recall any such thing from my youth (which I regard as extending into my 40s). As someone said over on another blog, Christians who can't get anything out of the massive spiritual offerings of their own holiday but bile at shopgirls and commercial card publishers are to be pitied.

          • Robin Artisson

            Does youth extend into the 40's? I've always wondered. I think you're only as old as you act. And I've found the fountain of youth, babeeee!

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            There's a current story on WitchVox about a brain scientist's claim that the brain continued to mature into the 30s and 40s.

  • http://xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

    Have a very Happy ChristmaHannaKwannzicaYuladanvus DAY(s)!

    (sung in a Frank Sinatra voice, of course)

    • http://military.pagannewswirecollective.com Lori Dake

      Nope, needs do be sang by Bing Crosby or a facsimile thereof. ;)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

      I am offended that Festivus was left out. Indeed, the Airing of Grievances shall be rueful and bitter because of this.

      • http://xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

        It is, right after Yule and Ramadan. ChristmaHannaKwannzicaYuladan_ivus_ Day. So there :-P

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

          I stand corrected, Eran! I extend my humility and a slice of Pepperidge Farm cake studded with M&Ms.

          • Robin Artisson

            What the hell is Festivus

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            A joke. Some people didn't get the joke.

          • http://xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

            Gladly accepted :D

            To Robin: Festivus: the Holiday for the Rest-of-us! (Tomorrow, Dec. 23rd). Grab your aluminum pole and be prepared for daring feats of strength!
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Festivus

          • Robin Artisson

            Yeah, I did what every clueless dumbass does and Wiki'd it myself earlier. A Seinfeld reference, which explains why I didn't get it. I never watched Seinfeld.

          • http://xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

            Ah, the joy of Wikipedia. Making people smarter by making people dumber.

  • Wendy

    Personally, I think it is important to put the soul back in solstice.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1008131810 Chelsea Rose

      Me too.

    • http://www.hellenistai.com Ruadhán

      Yeah, I have the Phil Spector Christmas album for that.

  • brainwise

    Jason:

    I am an interfaith minister who happens to follow a Heathen path, and I applaud your excerpt. I find it to be well-written and rather respectful if somewhat pointed. I posted my own thoughts on the whole Christmas/Solstice/Yule/etc. gambit (or, as I prefer, Chrismahanukwanzakyule) on my blog: http://prophetmadman.blogspot.com/2010/12/reason-

    • savagemarx

      My 11 year old son came home and said they had mentioned something about a "Universal Holiday" … easier to say than Chrismahanukwanzakyule. Anybody else hear of this?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

        I think that's kind of the idea of "Happy Holidays"– there's an acknowledgement that traditionally, a lot of people do something traditional, religious, or both in varying degrees at this time. Everyone gets some time off from work, regardless of their beliefs. Also: everyone goes to visit with family, everyone shares food. If you have a religious celebration that coincides with the time, you allude to that.

        It's sort of in the same way that we all agree that it's 2010 CE, even though most of us on this Earth aren't Christian.

  • sarenth

    They can claim the holiday all that they want; many Christians, Catholics in my family included, recognize the holiday was co-opted. They still celebrate out of tradition. It's no skin off my nose, so long as I am allowed to practice my own faith and ways.

  • savagemarx

    I felt this responsive reading from the Universalist Unitarian hymnal was appropriate here:

    How short the daylight hours have now become. How grey the skies, how barren seem the trees.
    A damp and chilling wind has gripped my mind and made me gloomy, too.
    But there is that in me which reaches up toward the light and laughter, bells, and carolers,
    And knows that my religious myth and dream of reborn joy and goodness must be true,
    Because it speaks the truths of older myths;
    That light returns to balance darkness, life surges in the evergreen – and us,
    As babes are hope, and saviors of the world, as miracles abound in common things.
    Rejoice! And join in the gladness of the season.

    “Reflections on the Resurgence of Joy” litany by Dori Jeanine Somers (UU Reading 653)

  • http://www.thorncoyle.com T. Thorn Coyle

    Jason, here is my reply, which I'd been thinking of writing up anyway. Your post just gave me another push:
    http://www.thorncoyle.com/musings/?p=816

    And yes, it has a cute picture of Frankenstein's Monster building a Snow Monster.

    • TeNosce

      Well put. It really got me to thinking.

  • Pagan Puff Pieces

    "Winter Sparkle?"

    Can we have Winter Sparkle Party?

    (Sparkle Party, Sparkle Party)

  • chuck_cosimano

    It's just another good reason to remind people that those who matter do not care and those who care do not matter.

  • Rombald

    One thing that never seems to get raised in this context is that the central Christian holy day is actually Easter. Christmas obviously just became important because of pre-existing traditions.

    Do Christians in hot countries and/or the Southern Hemisphere place such emphasis on Christmas? I ask because I'm genuinely interested. I know from relatives that Christmas is less of a big deal in Australia.

    Just call it Yule, and ignore the Christians. Why does everyone make such a fuss about this issue?

  • Henry

    consumerism and religion? hmmmmm

  • sjthornton1960

    Thank you, Jason. You always give me great material that I can happily share with my friends on Facebook, and that help explain why I'm Pagan. Merry Christmas! as Yule has just passed, :)