Lately I have been reading or listening to discussions about the pagan roots and traditions of Christmas, and about whether, in light of this, Christmas ought to be celebrated or not. Some people love Christmas because “Jesus is the reason for the season” and others hate it because of it’s pagan-ness.
When I was younger, Christmas was filled with magic. I grew up in a family of six kids. We’d spend the days and weeks before Christmas pouring over the Christmas catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Wards, and when gifts started appearing under the tree, we’d shake and feel those with our names on them, trying to guess what was inside. On Christmas eve, we’d sometimes sleep in our clothes (unless my parents caught us) and wake up super early (any time from 2 a.m. or later) and try to wake up my parents. If it was too early (like 2 a.m.), my parents would demand that we “GET BACK TO BED OR YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO OPEN YOUR PRESENTS UNTIL 7 a.m….or 8 a.m….or 9 a.m….So we would all scramble back to bed. However, a short time later we’d be up again. We’d try to wake up our parents by various means, like clomping loudly up and down the stairs, or turning Christmas music up really loud. After a while (5 a.m. or so) my parents would give up and come sleepily downstairs. They got their revenge on us by insisting they have a cup of coffee before we could open our presents, and they’d drink it veerrrrryyyyy slllloooowwwwllllly while we danced in impatience. When we were finally allowed to open presents, the wrapping paper would fly and we’d spend all day enjoying our gifts.
When I got older, older siblings moved away one-by-one, and Christmas presents weren’t toys but sweaters, radios, and other presents that were appreciated but couldn’t be played with all day. My focus went from receiving gifts to the joy of giving them. My favorite Christmas was the year my next older sister and I spent several months crocheting slippers, which we sold door to door so we could buy a grandfather clock for our Dad. However, often people had expectations of what a good gift was–it had to cost a certain amount or be a certain quality. And later, there were obligations: I had to give family that kept growing (parents, siblings, their spouses and children) and friends, and the people at work gifts….As a young adult living on my own, I spent all year scrimping to save money to better myself, but my savings were completely wiped out by all the gifts I HAD to give at Christmas. Christmas seemed like a frenzy of obligation and greed more than anything else.
In high school and for years afterward, I tried to bring back the magic and meaning of Christmas. Some years I suggested to my family that we volunteer to work at a homeless shelter, or give to the poor, or go to a special performing arts show (have a family experience) rather than buy each other gifts. My family all said, “Nah….we want the gifts.”
I was a Christian, but most of my family was not so we never celebrated the birth of Christ. When I was in high school, I started sneaking down early on Christmas morning and reading the Christmas story in the Bible by the light of the Christmas tree in an effort to make Christmas more about Christ and less about gifts. It was a beautiful, quiet time that is a cherished memory.
When I got married and my family rejected me, Christmas became lonely. I grew up with the Christmas chaos of a large family, and a Christmas of just me, and EJ, and then JJ was very difficult. For many people, Christmas is very difficult because, for one reason or another, they don’t have a “Hallmark” family to go to. More suicides happen at this season than any other time of the year. I tried various ways to make Christmas special: one year volunteering at a soup kitchen, and other years trying to find people without family to celebrate with. It’s not easy finding a lonely family–sometimes the people who you’d think have no one to share the holiday with actually have family or friends to return to while there are people that you would never suspect were alone on Christmas.
I also read a book called Unplugging the Christmas Machine, which said to do what you enjoy doing at Christmas, but don’t do things that you don’t enjoy doing. This helped. I decorated for Christmas, made candy, sent cards, and gave gifts (or not) with an attitude of WANTING to more than because I was OBLIGATED. I don’t get stressed now if I don’t get candy made or cards sent, and I give gifts as an expression of love, not obligation. I also read books about Christmas traditions. I was appalled at not only how greedy and materialistic this season can be, but also at how superstitious and pagan many of the traditions are. I also have learned that Jesus probably wasn’t born in December, etc.
After learning about the Biblical holidays, we began to celebrate some of them. A couple of years ago, we celebrated Hanukkah which is NOT a Jewish Christmas, but has to do with being a light in darkness and not assimilating into the world’s culture–a message that is very relevant today. For believers in Jesus, Hanukkah is about Jesus being the true Light, and about us letting our light shine in the darkness. (I’ll share more about Hanukkah in a week or so.) It hit me with its deep meaning and beauty. The first year we celebrated it, JJ asked me, “Does this mean I get a Christmas gift AND a Hanukkah gift?” I declared NO because THIS holiday will be attached to its spiritual meaning for us, and not be touched with any sort of greed. Actually, JJ says he likes Hanukkah even better than Christmas because it’s so beautiful and profound.
So when people discuss the greed of Christmas, and how it’s rooted in paganness, and how many of our teachings about Christmas are incorrect, I totally understand and agree with them. When they say they don’t want to have anything to do with the holiday, however, I respect their position but I do not quite agree.
Christmas can be a difficult time for many people, and there is much that is corrupted, inaccurate, and wrong with our traditions. I think we ought to study the history of Christmas, it’s origin and traditions, and we ought to correct our inaccurate understandings of it. Truth is so much more beautiful, profound, and insightful than fiction. However, I also think Christmas is one of the few times of the year when people are open to hearing about the Savior. Rather than critically grumble that we ought not to celebrate it (even though the reasons are valid), and rather than shut the door in people’s faces, I think we ought to be gracious and loving, and we ought to use this season to reach out to others and teach about a God who loved the world so much that He sent His Son to earth to redeem it.
Acts 17:16-23 says
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
In this Scripture, Paul was in a very pagan city, filled with idols and idol-worshippers. The city even had a statue to an “Unknown God” because they didn’t want to accidentally overlook a god and risk making him mad. Rather than angrily rant about their false beliefs–and they WERE false beliefs–Paul used it as an opportunity to teach about the TRUE God. He met the people where they were at and went on to teach them the truth of the Unknown (to them) God.
I think we can do this with Christmas. That is why, in my family, at this time of year, we study the truth, and we have both a Christmas tree AND a menorah.