Christmas: a Pagan Holiday

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christmas treeYou have likely heard this claim, and may have even seen a convincing Youtube video or two about the pagan roots of our holy season.  Though the video may get a lot of hits on youtube, many hits do not reliable history make.

One of the claims in these videos sullies one of my children’s favorite part of Christmas:  the tree. Most scholars agree that trees became part of the Christmas celebration when Christmas made its way to Europe.

In Europe, there were many religions that worshiped tress and had special, sacred trees as part of their understanding of god. In some of those religions they would cut down evergreen trees during special times of winter, bring them into their house and decorate them.  They were symbols of life in the midst of the cold, dead winters.  However, all trees weren’t fair game for bringing into the home because some of them were particularly sacred. For these trees, the faithful would go out in the middle of the cold winter and worship around them.

When Christianity was moving into these parts of Europe, there was a legend that began to be popular.  The legend said that when Jesus was born (in the dead of winter as this happened after the December date choice) every tree around the whole world miraculously shook off its ice and snow and produced new chutes of green.  Because of that legend and their pre-existing fondness for trees the Christians began to cut down evergreens, bring them into their homes and decorate them for a different reason.  For them the decorating of the trees was a reminder of that odd spring-like moment that happened at the time of Jesus birth.

After it got going, the Christmas tree began to represent Christ in several ways.  The first was the nature of the evergreen.  Walk around in winter and you will see a lot of dead.  They would point to that and say that before Jesus came into the world,that is how the world was: dead to their sin.  That is because sin separates us from God and causes spiritual death.  When Jesus came into the world, he brought life where there was death.  Therefore, there are these trees that in the dead of winter continue to be green in order to remind us of the act of Jesus coming to earth.

When they brought the trees into their house, they would put candles on them (and I thought my Christmas lights were a fire hazard!) to symbolize Jesus (the evergreen) being the light of the world.  They would put a star on the top to remind them of the star of Christmas in the Bible that led the wise men to the manger (more on that in the next chapter).

Are Christmas trees pagan?  Well, they definitely have pagan roots, yet when the Christians brought them in, they had a whole host of new reasons for bringing them in. While it was a pagan symbol, it was totally reimagined when it became part of the Christmas celebration.

There’s more to it than that.  My real question is why would someone use a pagan element to worship a different deity?  The for that answer we have to to turn to a guy named Gregory the Great who was both great and a Pope. He was, among other things, responsible for maintaining the faith through the dark ages.

One of the things I appreciate most about him is the way he looked at faith.  He told his ministers that when they went into a town and there were people who were worshipping other Gods, those local pagan symbols and worship sites were not to be destroyed but converted to churches.  Not only that, he went a step further saying that pagan festivals should be celebrated as feasts to Christian events, saints, etc.

What he was expressing was that when his minsters went into a community that had no knowledge of God and had been trying to worship, he wanted them to say something like, “Let me tell you about the God you’ve been trying to worship this whole time.  Let’s find ways that your festivals have been pointing you to God and you didn’t know it.  Let’s highlight those and focus them on God.”  That’s what they did.  That is why there are so many churches all over the world that were built in the places that people were already using to worship.

They used what the people knew to explain the Gospel.  Throughout the history of the Christian faith, Christmas has used the symbols of cultures and pagan festivals to communicate the truth of Jesus.

My hope is that this Christmas, Christians can echo our ancestors and use the symbols of Christmas to communicate the grace and love of God.

That is my prayer for you: that you would find the love and grace of a living God in between all the hustle and bustle.  That you would see the life in your tree, the hope for our planet in the excitement of children on Christmas morning, and the gifts of God as you give and receive.

If you are interested in spending some time investigating everything from angels to Santa this season, check out Jeremy’s ebook: Investigating Christmas on Amazon.

Jeremy Steele, UMR Columnist

The Rev. Jeremy Steele is the author of Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry and the Next Generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL and a regular columnist for The United Methodist Reporter. You can find more of his writing and a list of all the places he contributes at his website: JeremyWords.com

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