The Reason for the Season?

Posted by Jenny on Jan 8, 2011 in Christmas, View Point |

In the midst of the commercialised bedlam during the Christmas Season (and its aftermath), Christians seek to remind their neighbours and societies of what they claim to be the reason Christmas is celebrated in Western countries.  They urge people to rediscover “the true meaning of Christmas”, to put “Christ back into Christmas” and to remember that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”

Others who are anxious to move away from any acknowledgement of Christian values and contribution to Western society, are as quick to claim that the Christmas season is really a Christian rebranding of the pagan commemoration of the Winter Solstice which has now become a largely secular and commercialised event.  Their arguments are strengthened by a small group of Christians who argue against the celebration of Christmas because of its perceived pagan origins.

So what are the arguments and evidence on both sides?

Arguments for a secular and/or pagan “reason for the season”

Arguments for a secular and/or pagan celebration of the “season” revolve around two main points: (1) that Christmas is not really “Christian” and is simply a re-branded pagan festival and (2) that the season has now become a secular celebration.

The argument goes:

  • December 25th is not the actual date of Jesus’ birth which is not likely to have been in middle of winter (i.e. it would have been too cold for the shepherds to camp out on the hills overnight in a Judean winter).
  • Christians merely adopted an existing pagan festival (e.g. the Saturnalia or Natalis Sol Invictis) associated with the Winter solstice and rebranded it as a Christian festival celebrating Jesus’ birth.
  • Most if not all of the distinctive customs related to the celebration of Christmas have pagan not Christian origins.
  • December 25 is actually only one day and is not the whole season so even if Christmas Day is not wholly pagan it is arrogant of Christians to claim the whole season.
  • Moreover, other cultures and religions celebrate festivals at or around the date of Christmas (for instance the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah or, since 1966/7, the Afro-American celebration of Kwanzaa).
  • The “season” is, as it is practiced today, basically a secular celebration of family reunion, the spirit of giving, the hope of world peace and renewal with a strong commercial component and has little if anything to do with a Christian interpretation.

This argument seems to be that Christmas is really just a pagan festival dressed up as a Christian one and so it is perfectly valid to either revive the old pagan festivals (e.g. winter solstice, Saturnalia, Yule etc) or to appropriate it as a purely secular festival keeping the desirable customs and practices and jettisoning the undesirable Christian elements.  Underlying this argument, it seems to me, is a strong feeling that how an individual, family or community celebrates Christmas or Winter Solstice or Holiday season is a personal choice.  However, sometimes the argument goes further – demanding that all Christian elements be removed from any public or communal celebration of Christmas (as offensive to non-Christians).

Arguments for Christ as the reason for celebration of the “season”

The Christian response concedes a number of these points but points to the long history in which the Christian church as well as Christian/Western nations, groups, families and individuals have celebrated the events of Christ’s birth at Christmas.  Christmas would not be what it is today without this tradition.

  • It is true that how Christmas is celebrated today in many Western countries is often decidedly secular and commercialised – after all, why else would Christians be urging people to “put Christ back into Christmas” and to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season”?
  • The reason that Christian communities celebrate Christmas is to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christian church, in a small town of Bethlehem in first century Judaea.  Christians believe that Jesus is God’s son come into the world as a human being to show the world the great, sacrificial love of God for every human being; make peace between God and humans and to bring about a new world of justice, healing and harmony.
  • Western nations particularly have a strong Christian heritage with the vast majority of their population counting themselves as Christians up until recently. These Western nations for better or worse have been strongly influenced by Jesus’ teachings, ethics and vision of the world as have great world figures like Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa.
  • It is possible, even probable, that December 25 was not the actual day on which Jesus was born.  However, significant events are not always celebrated on the actual date they occurred even when this is known e.g. the Queen’s Birthday holiday in many Commonwealth countries.  Christmas commemorates not so much a specific date but an event – the birth of Jesus of Nazareth – and it is this event (recorded in Matthew 1:18-2:21 and Luke 1:1-2:40) that gives Christmas its meaning.
  • There are a number of pagan festivals that occurred at or around the date of Christmas – most notably, the Roman Saturnalia, the Roman birthday of the Sol Invictis or the northern European Yule-tide.  However, there are no historical documents or other clear evidence that indicate that the date of such pagan festivals decisively influenced the churches choice of the date of Christmas.  There is even less evidence that it substantially influenced the way it was celebrated.  In fact, for many centuries the giving of gifts was banned because it was considered a pagan practice associated with the Saturnalia.  Even if the Church chose the timing of the festival as an alternative or rival to a popular pagan festival, this does not negate the meaning of Christmas for Christians or that it has been commemorated as a Christian festival for over 1700 years in the West.  What is more to the point is how and why this festival is celebrated.
  • During Advent (time of reflection and anticipation from last Sunday in November to Christmas Eve), Christmas,  the twelve days of Christmas (from Christmas to Epiphany, including St Stephens’ Day, New Year’s Day, the intervening Sundays etc) and Epiphany (Jan 5th or 6th – commemorates visit of the Magi), the Christian church has traditionally celebrated the events surrounding birth of Christ over extended period (6 weeks) rather than on a single day.
  • The names of these special times in the church calendar clearly point to their focus on the birth of Jesus. The word Christmas is derived from Christ’s Mass, Advent refers to the “coming” or “arrival” of the Saviour while Epiphany marks his being “revealed” to the world (through the visit of the Magi or wisemen).
  • Some customs associated with the Christmas season may well go back to pre-Christian or pagan traditions from a number of cultures (e.g. mistletoe, the Yule log, the Yule Boar, the Yule goat, the Lord of Misrule).    However, many of the customs are common across cultures including the Jewish or Hebrew culture that Jesus was born into (the use of evergreens, of candles and lamps). Many others in fact have a Christian origin (nativity scenes and plays, the advent wreath, advent calendar, candy canes, carols by candlelight) or now have significant Christian meaning (holly, carolling) or have been developed from Christian ones (e.g. Santa Claus from the fourth century Christianhero Saint Nicholas). Other customs are incidental “secular” practices (most dishes that compose the Christmas feast) which have grown up around this season of celebration.  Many of customs now associated with Christmas have only developed in the relatively recent times (e.g. plum puddings, Christmas cake, the Christmas tree in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries or Christmas cards in the nineteenth).  It is difficult to claim convincingly that  all or even most of the traditional Christmas customs are of pagan or non-Christian origin.
  • The observance of Christmas (as the birth of Jesus) does not negate the celebrations other cultures or religious around the same time. It seems a contradiction to respect different cultural groups’ religious celebrations by banning the distinctive elements of a significant celebration of another group (because historically they belonged to the mainstream culture).

In other words, the argument that Christmas is merely a pagan festival dressed in Christian clothing is somewhat strained, based on minimal evidence and a good dose of supposition.  It ignores over 1700 years during which the birth of Christ has been at the centre of traditional celebrations of Christmas season (of which there is strong historical evidence) and highlights pagan practices and customs (of which we have uncertain knowledge that has been largely lost in the mists of time).  Somewhat disingenuously, it seeks to rebrand a Christian festival as pagan and/or secular celebration evacuated of Christian significance.  It is claimed on one hand, that Christmas does not belong to Christians because it is basically a pagan festival thinly disguised in Christian clothing; on the other hand, that it is far too Christian for the sensitivities of other groups in society so that it must be stripped of all Christian content.

Nevertheless, significant cultural practices often do change in emphasis and meaning over time.  While most western nations are nominally Christian, there has been a major shift over the last 200  years away from a Christian world view towards a secular, naturalistic, materialistic worldview and/or alternative spirituality (eastern, neo-pagan, indigenous, integrative).   This move has often been accompanied by hostility towards Christian influence and a wish to erase a millennia long heritage.  One wonders whether the West is in danger of throwing out the baby out with the bath water for it was predominantly the Christian world view of the equality of all humans before God, of God’s love and forgiveness as well as his goodness and justice, of a world ordered by God’s physical and spiritual laws that has strongly influenced Western culture and its championing of human rights, democracy, humanitarian concern and its development of science. It may well be timely to acknowledge the legacy we owe to a baby born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

There is something heart warming even charming about the stories of Jesus’ birth with its combination of both the ordinary (a young mother and her partner, an over-crowded village, crisis accommodation and makeshift cradle, astonished shepherds) and extraordinary (a brilliant star, angels, wise men from the east and a child who is a promised king, “God with us”, a peacemaker and saviour of his people).  In the end, the call to find the true meaning of Christmas is not primarily about what traditions and customs are preserved or observed.  It is a time to get past the mad urge to spend and acquire more stuff and to remember the importance of family, friends and community. It is a time to give generously just as God gave his son and a time to look forward to world peace and new life announced at Jesus’ birth.  It is about seeking, honouring, even following, a remarkable man Jesus of Nazareth, who embodied, communicated and put into action God’s pardoning love for us all (John 1:1-18).  But I guess the real question is … what does Christmas mean to you?


Some links:

Secular and/or Atheistic takes on Christmas

Christian arguments against celebrating Christmas

Christian arguments for celebration Christmas


Social network Christmas

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1 Comment

  • There are a lot of ways to view Christmas. I like to celebrate Christ’s birth every day and not just one day of the year, so I make it very low key at Christmas time. I take my granddaughters out for dinner some time before Christmas Day, and give them a couple of inexpensive presents, but apart from that I do nothing. There is way too much hype and I believe it is wrong for Christians to be a part of this hype. Also, it upsets me when I see non-Christians going overboard celebrating the birth of Christ when they don’t even believe in Him. That is hypocrisy at its worst. How they can justify that, I don’t know! I think it is ok to celebrate Christmas but I feel very uncomfortable about the fact that the early Christians turned a pagan festival into one celebrating our Lord. Jesus would abhor this. And as for Father Christmas? People uphold him at Christmas time more than Jesus. I think the old fellow should be scrapped!

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