What to Do with Christmas?

As I began to reconnect my expression of the Christian faith to its Jewish heritage, the thing that bothered me the most was probably the realization that I would have to answer the question, “What am I going to do with Christmas?”  I absolutely LOVE the sensory overload that accompanies this holiday:  the sights of the lights and the decorations; the warmth of a good fire; the smells of peppermint, gingerbread, cinnamon, and evergreen; the joyful sounds of carols both sacred and secular, from the Celt-inspired Deck the Halls, the  boisterous Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and the cheeriness of Winter Wonderland to the deep lyrics of worship found in the stanzas of O Holy Night and O Come All Ye Faithful—not to mention Handel’s Messiah; the hearthy comfort food, getting together with family, softly falling snow (though I’ve only experienced one actual white Christmas since I’ve been living in North Carolina), and of course—the Christmas Story.  Hearing again how God Almighty, King of the Universe, and the ‘I AM’ revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses became a man—and not just a man, but a baby.  He invaded our world in the person of Jesus so that He could experience us—so that He would not be a High Priest “…who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…” (Hebrews 4:15).  It is one of the defining chapters of The Greatest Story Ever Told.  Deity infused with humanity via a teenage pregnancy out of wedlock.  Furthermore, He truly could say He was born in a barn!  This was not the fairy tale of a palace fit for the King of Kings—this was the commonest of the common—which is so like God to do.

The only problem is that it didn’t happen WHEN the church said it did.  Not only this, but finding out how and why the church chose the date it did made my stomach hurt.

It must be admitted that the Greco-Romanizing of the Christian Church in the Western Roman Empire had been building since about 100 A.D.; after the destruction of the Second Temple, some Gentile Christians decidedly began turning away from a Jewish context in favor of mystical, pagan influences.  But the actual, official, nearly universal incorporation of pagan mythology into the Christian story began with Constantine the Great.  This Roman Emperor was a skillful military and political strategist vying for control of an empire that was falling apart.  He dreamed of returning the glory of Rome to what it once was; but now he had a problem:  the Christians were turning the world upside-down.  Despite three centuries of intense persecution, Christianity was actually gaining ground; people were turning away from the old gods in favor of this red-headed Jewish stepchild of a sect.  Even Constantine’s mother was somehow held in its sway.  So Constantine decided on a brilliant compromise to unite what would become his domain:  he invented a story where the ‘god of the Christians’ appeared to him in a dream and instructed Constantine to use the CHI-RO (labarum) symbol on the shields of his soldiers to ensure their victory as a sign of Constantine’s right to rule.  In return, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, an official toleration of Christianity.  It was not a pure package, however; Constantine intentionally equated Jesus with Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god.  Even the coinage Constantine produced continued to depict the visage of Sol Invictus despite Constantine’s new-found 'Christian' faith.  Constantine’s Sunday Law, his rejection of the Jewish Passover in favor of pagan Easter, his retention of the title pontifex maximus (a pagn term), and his wearing of the sun-halo diadem all played into this syncretism.  In step with this disturbing mode d'emploi, Pope Julius I, a contemporary of Constantine, declared in 350 A.D. that Jesus' birthday should be celebrated on December 25th, the 'birthday' of Sol Invictus.

It was revealed that this was done (along with many other rituals and traditions of the church) in order to make Christianity easier to accept by the pagans:

“…what I have, upon mature deliberation of the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in those nations ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed …may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they are accustomed.
And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches that have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things…”

—Pope Gregory the Great to Miletus, 601 A.D.

“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.”

–Jacob bar-Salibi, 12th-century Syrian bishop

The stories of all the major pagan sun deities from the various cultures of history bear a remarkable similarity to the story of Jesus, particularly the cult of Mithras—who was identified by the Romans as Sol Invictus; so much so that persons critical of Christianity have logically suggested that the story of Jesus was made up altogether and borrowed from these much earlier pagan traditions.  Mounting a defense against such allegations, Christians have fought hard to disprove them, and so controversy continues everywhere.  As the war against Judaism and Christianity has escalated over the last twenty years with secularists and atheists on the opposing side, the argument of the paganism of Christianity is increasingly used as ‘evidence’ of its falsehood.

How are we sure that Christianity isn’t false, however?

In addition to the extra-Biblical historical information that confirms the existence and story of Jesus, one only has to look at the Tanakh for support. Jesus fulfilled all of the prophecies related to the ‘Suffering Servant’ role of the Messiah in His lifetime. The odds of one man fulfilling just eight of these prophecies is 1 in 1028 power. When taking this number and spreading the odds across all the possible people who have lived from the time the prophecies were given to the present time, the chances are reduced to 1 in 1017 power. That is like layering silver dollars across the face of Texas two feet deep, randomly marking one with an X, and then having a blindfolded man wade into the pile and pull out the marked silver dollar. (Stoner, Peter W. Science Speaks. Chicago: Moody Press, 1957.) Basically, this is statistically impossible apart from the direct plan of God before the foundation of the world.

As far back as 4000 years before Jesus was born, prophecies were made which He directly fulfilled.  Furthermore, the prophet Daniel provided a window of time in which the Messiah was to have appeared--and Jesus fits this timeline.  If the Messiah didn't come during this window, then Daniel is a false prophet; no one else can be the Messiah but Jesus Christ.  Why then, is there so much similarity between pagan stories and the story of Jesus?  Secularists argue that the Jews and Christians got their stories from the pagans; but there is just as much logical evidence that it was the other way around.  If the Bible is right in saying that all of mankind descended from a single ancestor in the person of Noah and spread across the earth, the stories would have spread with them.  As differing cultures emerged, the stories would have changed slightly from the original.  Furthermore, Christians and Jews believe that we have a supernatural enemy, the devil, who is responsible for deceiving mankind into rebellion against God and who influenced men to begin pagan religions in the first place.  He knew that God would send the 'Son' to redeem us; what a perfect way to establish a counterfeit to the Jesus story by simply mimicking it ahead of time!

While the church traditions surrounding this holiday are suspect, the Biblical record is spotless and can be trusted with absolute certainty.  What we must do to obtain the truth, then, is to disentangle the Biblical account from the pagan traditions and myths we have packed around it.  The traditional Christmas story itself only has two marked differences from the Biblical text, but they are significant:

1.     The date.  While the church chose December 25th in correlation to pagan mythology, and while the Bible does not explicitly state a date of Jesus’ birth, it does hint at an approximate date based upon the ‘course of Abijah’ of which Zechariah the priest was a part; this is chronicled in Luke Chapter 1. Calculating the time from which Zechariah performed his priestly duties, and assuming that his wife Elizabeth (who was Mary’s cousin) became pregnant with John the Baptist fairly soon after Zechariah left the temple, by adding the six months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that the Bible records occurred when Mary became pregnant, we arrive at a date somewhere in the mid-September to mid-October time frame. Most likely, this occurred around Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles). This would make sense from a prophetic perspective, as the fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles is God dwelling with man, and one of the names Jesus was called is Emmanuel, meaning ‘God with us’. Furthermore, if this had happened on the first day of Sukkot, then Jesus would have been circumcised at the Temple on Simchat Torah, the celebration of the Word. Jesus was called the 'Word' of God even more than He was referred to as the 'Son' by the earliest Christians.

2.     Some details concerning the sequence of events.   The church took the entire story surrounding Jesus’ birth and smashed it into a one-day celebration. However, the Bible tells the story over a time span of two years: while the shepherds arrived immediately at the stable where Jesus was born, the wise men, who had been following the star, did not arrive until Jesus was two years old. They visited the holy family in a house, not a stable or a cave; apparently, Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem and found or built a house. Furthermore, they told Herod that Jesus was two years old, which is why Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger killed.

As for the rest of the traditions of Christmas, they too are a thorough mix of Christian and pagan ideas.  Let's look at some of the more popular elements with which most of us are familiar:

Santa Claus:       The figure of Santa Claus is partially based on Nicholas of Palmyra, a fourth-century bishop who was a contemporary of Constantine.  The legend of Santa coming down a chimney was in some measure based on Nicholas’ alleged salvation of three young girls from a life of slavery by sneaking into their window at night and placing a bag of gold into their stockings by the fire.  Whether he really did this is uncertain; but in truth, Nicholas was a staunch Trinitarian; he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and fought to preserve the doctrine of the Trinity—literally.  He was so passionate about the cause that it is said he got into a fistfight with Arius the heretic.  Nobody messes with Santa!

Nicholas of Palmyra

Nicholas of Palmyra

Odin on Sleipnir

Odin on Sleipnir

SinterKlaas

SinterKlaas

Unfortunately, the caricature of Santa Claus is an amalgam of Celtic and Scandinavian myths mostly based on the Norse god of Odin (Woden in Germanic countries, which is where we get the word Wednesday).  Odin rides atop a steed with eight legs that flies across the winter sky, which is where the eight reindeer of the modern Santa Claus come from.  Sinter Klaas, a direct mix of St. Nicholas and Odin, also has an eight-legged flying steed instead of a sleigh with reindeer.  Note in the picture the typical vestment of the bishopric, which is pagan in orgin; the staff, which is called a crozier, is representative of a serpent and originates in Egypt as a symbol of power; this is why God had Moses throw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and changed it into a snake—God was trying to get Pharaoh’s attention by using a symbol of power with which Pharaoh was familiar.

Elves/Krampus:     Here’s what we normally conjure up in our minds when we think of elves:

Happy little toymaker...

Happy little toymaker...

...or wise, beautiful, immortal being from the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.

...or wise, beautiful, immortal being from the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.

 But this is what SinterKlaas’ helpers really look like:

They don’t make toys.  They are called the Krampus, and these demons accompany Sinter Klaas to every village to determine whether the children have been good or bad.  If they have been good, of course, Sinter Klaas will give the children treats and presents, while those youngsters who misbehave suffer the wrath of the Krampus by being harassed and beaten; the worst miscreants will be summarily dragged away to hell.  You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why...Sinter Klaas is coming to town!

I seem to remember Jesus saying specifically in the Scriptures that "...a house divided against itself cannot stand..." (Matthew 12:25, Mark 3:25, Luke 11:17) So, why would a Christian bishop be traveling with a pack of demons who aid him?  What would prompt 'good Christian' people to celebrate such an unholy and unsavory tradition?  Naturally these rites are echoes of European pagan past, when human victims were sacrificed to gods like Odin, whose throats were slit while wearing a wreath ablaze with four candles, like the Advent wreaths we use in many churches today.  The St. Lucia story and celebration also contains shadows of this grisly practice.

While most of the nations of Europe (and areas colonized by them, like the US, Canada, and Australia) practice tamer varieties of these customs, the pagan influences of the Christmas holiday all find their roots in the midwinter human sacrifice story.  Here are some lesser aspects of the holiday with which we are familiar and their pagan associations:

Holly and Ivy
Taken from fertility cults, the holly and ivy represent the male and female in reproduction. The plants are often found growing together, and seeming in struggle, are often intertwined as in sexual intercourse.
Mistletoe
Similar to holly and ivy, the mistletoe was used as plant which blessed fertility. Rome: was used to 'sanctify' orgies that took place in honor of Saturn. Scandinavia: Blessed by Frigga, the mother goddess in penance for forgetting about it as a weapon used to slay her son Balder. She vowed that the plant would never be used to hurt anyone again, so it would be an omen of love instead.
Wreaths Pagans of all cultures tend to view the world in a cyclical fashion; the wreath symbolized the 'wheel of life' or the 'wheel of the earth'. Pagans would pray to their gods to turn back this wheel to the longer summer months. Scandinavia: mid-winter sacrifice victims would wear a wreath as a symbol of why they were being sacrificed--to appeal to the gods in turning the wheel.
Advent
the Celts in particular would count down the days to the winter solstice and the subsequent 'rebirth' of the sun.
Yule Log
yet another tradition related to sun-worship. The Yule Log was an emblem of the return of the sun, and the lengthening of days as a sacrifice to Thor for slaying the frost giants and saving the goddess of fertility from marrying into their race.
Christmas Tree
Very ancient practice among pagan societies: the tree represents fertility and the origin of all life. Brought into the house in winter to sustain life during the months of winter death.
Lights and Ornaments
Candles and ornaments were placed in the fertility tree to honor the sun and ancestors.
Star (on top of tree)
In all cultures using a decorated tree as part of sun-god worship, this represents the sun-god himself as the pinnacle of fertility
the name: 'Christ-mass'
Most people think the name 'Christmas' simply means the time when Christ comes;
but the'mass' was originally the name for a pagan service where a sacrifice was performed.
The Eucharist is a symbol of this pagan sacrifice: the 'bread' is a sun-disc, which descends
into the womb of the mother goddess, represented by the cup, and is reborn to be lifted high
Christmas ham
The boar's head is offered as a sacrifice to the 'queen of heaven'; in some pagan stories, the sun god is killed by a boar before being resurrected, so the killing of the boar is an act of revenge to bring back the sun.

The resurgence of paganism around the world has left us copious amounts of evidence for these claims.  Wiccans and and other pagan religions are not only claiming these associations are true, but are proud that they have survived 'the Christian onslaught' to change their meaning.  Meanwhile, most Christians have a hard time swallowing just how much of Christian practice, including the Christmas holiday, is imbued with pagan ideology and tradition.  When confronted with this truth, the most common response I hear is, "Well, I don't practice all that pagan stuff; I just worship Jesus and focus on His birthday.  Besides, what does it matter if we celebrate His birthday on the right day or not?"

This is not a new sentiment; today, this philosophy is used with regard to nearly everything, particluarly by those who believe that we should make Christianity 'relevant' to unbelievers.  Pope Gregory the Great thought so, too; he wrote in 601 A.D.,

“The idol temples of that race [European pagans, particularly Roman] should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them . . . When this people see that their shrines are not destroyed they shall be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshipping the true God . . . . .Thus while some outward rejoicings are preserved, they will be able more easily to share in inward rejoicings. It is doubtless impossible to cut everything at once from their stubborn minds . . . .”

From the time of Constantine onward, it has been the standard philosophy of the Romanized church to engage every new culture by blending their pagan ideas with the message of the Gospel.  There is only one problem with this:  it's not Biblical.  Throughout the Bible, God made it very clear that any opposing viewpoint has nothing in common with the Gospel; specifically speaking with regard to pagan religion--in contrast to Pope Gregory's instructions above, to destroy every last vestige of pagan religion that rooted itself in the land of Israel:

Then the Lord said: "I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
“Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. Do not make any idols." --Exodus 34:12-17

"When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?' You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God [many versions say 'Do not worship the LORD your God in their way'], for every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods."--Deuteronomy 12:29-31

Sadly, Israel not only refused to heed God's warnings, but, as God predicted, they participated in these practices to the point where they exceeded that of their pagan neighbors.  Eliciting God's disgust, they were removed from the land for 70 years. 

In the New Covenant, God's passion has not changed; while the blood sacrifices of Judaism were absorbed in the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, God's attitude toward adopting pagan ritual remains the same.  As worshipers of YHVH, we should not be involved in anything directly related to the worship of any other god.  The above passages make clear that God does not even want us to worship Him using pagan methods or traditions.  As with anything, of course, we can go way overboard, spending what precious little time and strength we have engaging in witch hunts against the minutae.  Pagans decorate their homes with plants to be closer to nature; does this mean all indoor plants are taboo?  I would say not.  Pagans use music and rhythm as part of their worship; should we remove song from our methods of extolling the praises of our God?  Certainly not--indeed, the use of music as a platform for worship is well-documented throughout the Scriptures.

Each person must examine themselves and allow the Holy Spirit within them to make a determination as to where some of these lines should be drawn.  The Apostle Paul gives us some guidelines in Romans 14 as to how we should treat each other regarding issues that are more minor in scope; we should treat each other with dignity and courtesy regardless of where one fixes the boundaries of their practice.  Having said this, I cannot imagine a Christian person, having heard, seen, and examined the truths about the pagan mixture of the Christmas holiday, who would continue to celebrate it in its current traditional form.

Definitely I would say that we should not engage in any custom that is directly and specifically related to the worship of another god.  Beyond this is Romans 14 territory.  I would ask some questions with regard to any behavior, especially in this case concerning Christmas:

  • What is the motivation for doing what we do? Is it simply because a thing is familiar, or is it because we are intentional about worshipping God? The word 'holiday' is a drect compound of 'holy day'; it is meant as a day of worship. When we are celebrating our holidays, are we sure we are worshipping God, and if we are, are we conforming to His Word?
  • Are we willing to let go of something that is comortable for the sake of attaining what is right?
  • Why defend a practice that, while traditional, is unbiblical--or at the very best, has mixed origins?

In the 'war against Christmas' currently being waged in Western culture, well-meaning Christians are using slogans like 'Keep Christ in Christmas' and 'He's the reason for the season'.  This is done knowing that the real war is against Christianity, not Christmas.  The world does not have problems with a jolly red man in a suit giving presents to people.  Their issue lies with a Jewish God who proclaimed their sin and sent a Jewish Messiah to proclaim that He was 'the Way, the Truth, and the Life",--that this is the only way to God.

I would contend that Jesus was never in Christmas in the first place; maybe it's time to let the pagans have their winter solstice festival back so that we, as Judeo-Christians, can focus on the true, Biblical story.

I also know this is far easier said than done.  Growing up in the Christian Church, I was taught that the traditional story is the way it really happened.  I believed that everything we celebrated was a tradition related to worship of the true God--though some things did not quite make sense.  Now as an adult, having studied the background, I understand why; but leaving Christmas behind is still difficult.

I personally am making the transition to abandon Christmas in favor of Hanukkah, a truly historical winter observance that I can get behind without having to lie to my children.  It is not a change that I can make 'cold turkey'; and as I do not judge anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas, there is a somewhat awkward aspect to my relationship with others around this time, particularly my relatives with whom we exhcange gifts.  I have busied myself incorporating some of the non-pagan traditions into other areas and building new ones related to the Biblical story.  Some things I hang on are these:

  1. We studied earlier that Jesus was most likely born during Sukkot; which means it is very possible Jesus was conceived around Hanukkah. I have taken to celebrating the Incarnation of Jesus Christ during the Hanukkah holiday as the Light of the World. After all, as pro-life persons, we believe that life begins at conception; therefore, it is fitting that we celebrate the Incarnation at this time. Furthermore, Hanukkah was one of the major instances where Jesus revealed Himself as the Messiah at the Temple in Jerusalem (John 10:22-30); so there is definitely a New Covenant connection to be had during this holiday.
  2. There is no definitive date on the calendar stating when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem seeking to find the two-year old Jesus; whenever I am 'forced' into a situation where I am with others celebrating the Christmas story, I focus on this aspect.
  3. Because I come from a significantly Slavic background on my father's side of the family, among the many Christmas traditions I have enjoyed is the Wigilia,the traditional Polish and Ukranian vigil supper that is held until midnight on Christmas Eve awaiting the arrival of the Christ Child. The highlight for me of this tradition is the opłatek, the sharing of communion with all throughout the household, blessing one another as we share. I have taken this tradition along with some others and incorporated them into my observance of Sukkot. Last year on the first night of Sukkot, I got out my Christmas music and played O Holy Night. Certainly on the one hand, it felt strange to be singing and playing this in the autumn; but in many ways, I felt the most at peace singing this song that I had in years.