Now that I have wished you all happy Merry making, I'd like to get to the purpose of this little article. A few days before Christmas, another little article was making its way around Facebook with full support and glee of the secularists and so-called modern day Christians. It's an article from Tiffany Willis' blog called Liberal America. Here it is. You can read it if you wish, but be warned: it's neither pretty nor accurate. Now normally, I could care less what self-identified liberal Christians believe personally, but this topic---keep Christ out of Christmas---seems to be a popular theme among so-called Christians these days. As such, I felt like I needed to challenge this idea with some common sense and history.
First of all, I am not a professional writer. I have no experience whatever in writing. I've never taken a journalism or writing class. I've never had an article or book published. I am just a simple person, sort-of educated but a heart and mind geared toward knowledge and the love of Christ. I am drawn especially to history because I understand that our whole world, culture, and society is organic in that it has grown and adapted over huge periods of time. We do not just "invent" ideas or customs or traditions. They develop over time as our understanding grows and as the forces guiding our society change. There is so much evidence to support this statement that no further explanation is necessary. Any person who does not understand this is either grossly uneducated or highly closed-minded or possibly ignorant. I am certainly not going to accuse Ms. Willis of being anything. I don't know her personally, and honestly I believe she means well. But her article regarding keeping Christ out of Christmas is filled with gross misunderstandings, age-old propaganda, and under-researched statements. I hope to refute everything she has written except for her personal confession of her profound belief in Christ. I do not know her heart. I only know that she is misleading people who are ignorant of the facts themselves.
Ms. Willis begins her critique of Christmas by making the claim that Christ did not tell us, Himself, to celebrate His birth, and that, then is a primary reason for Christians not to do so. She contends that those who do celebrate Christmas are "misguided." This is an interesting comment and not one that I haven't heard before. In fact it is a common thread running through the Jehovah's Witnesses cult. Their arguments are simple: Jesus told us to remember His death, the Bible doesn't tell us when He was born, Christians didn't celebrate Christmas until the 4th century. Taken on face value, I suppose this is easy to accept, as Ms. Willis has, but a closer look at history reveals something interesting about the early Christians, and these details are important in many other statements Ms. Willis includes in her article.
At the time of Our Lord's birth, the world was plunged in darkness. There were multitudes of pagans and barbarians who had filled the earth. Primarily, Hellenism, or Greek culture, had influence the entire known world beginning about 300 years before Christ. History books are filled to the brim with all the influences the Greeks had in the world and on society. Hellenism had, in fact, left a huge mark on Judaism itself which led to a revolt among the Jews about 200 years before Christ was born. The Greeks had taken over Judaism, taken over the temple, taken over the culture, and Judaism was all but underground. There were only a few faithful Jews left and they had enough of the outrage. It came to a head when this group, the Maccabees, fought back and reclaimed the Temple from the invaders. It's a beautiful story, found in the Sacred Scripture, one of which was commemorated in Jesus's time called the Feast of the Dedication, to which Ms. Willis refers through one single reference. It is still celebrated today by Jews, marked with a week long celebration of parties and gift giving. They just call it Hanukkah. If Ms. Willis is a Protestant, she may well have never heard this incredible story or know why Our Lord was celebrating. The story is found in completion in 1st and 2nd Maccabees, books that were removed from the Protestant Bible by Martin Luther.
The discussion of the revolt and divisions among the Jews is historically significant, because this is the environment into which Our Lord chose to come into the world. His Incarnation and Birth are and have been the most significant invents in the world's history. However, He was born in obscurity to very poor and simple parents. He lived a quiet life until he was 30 years old at which time only a small group of people were ever to know him personally. During His earthly life, very few people believed Him, His own people persecuted and humiliated Him, and nothing was even written about Him until at least 40 or 50 years after His Death and Resurrection. Saint Paul, a diaspora Jew from Palestine, did not begin his ministry until this time as well. He wasn't even born when Our Lord was crucified! As such, it is fairly easy to understand how the small band of Our Lord's followers were hidden among the crowds within the Roman Empire. In fact, they remained hidden in many ways for fear of persecution, humiliation, and death. Yet for over 300 years, Christ's Church survived hidden underground in the catacombs until the Constantine and the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Any information about the Christian Church before this time has to be gleaned from ancient documents and manuscripts which clearly suggests Christians across the Roman Empire were celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on January 6. In fact, the Orthodox Church still celebrates Christmas on that day. (The Catholic Church assigns January 6 as Epiphany.) Yet, we know from at least one ancient Roman document, the Philocalian Calendar of 336, that Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25.
This brings me to Ms. Willis' question, "Why December 25?" She claims that the December 25th date was chosen (by whom she never suggests) primarily because it was the date of the much celebrated Roman festival of either Saturnalia or Dies Natalis Soli Invicti. It is true that the Romans were festival celebraters. They loved leisure and they loved their gods, of which they had many. Saturn was a particular favorite. During Saturnalia, slaves traded places with their masters, and young men dressed up like King Saturn, drank in excess, and engaged in explicit behavior. Saturnalia was an excuse to set aside all sense of restraint. However, it has been refuted by many historians that the feast of Saturnalia began on the 17th and ended by the 23rd. As such the idea that Christmas is derived from Saturnalia has absolutely no merit whatever. However, the celebration of Dies Natalis Soli Invicti is worthy of a mention. As I noted above, the early Christians within the Roman empire were sparse and hidden from society. When they were recognized, they were often killed for refusing to participate in Roman society. But because Roman society itself was not opposed to cult worship of foreign gods, cults from outside regions often erupted and disappeared. One such cult to the god Mithras emerged in the 1st Century A.D. Not much has survived regarding Mithras and his cult, primarily because by the 4th century, the cult had completely disappeared. Not coincidentally, the Christians arose from the catacombs about this time. Records do indicate that Mithras cult followers had a banquet on December 25 in honor of Sol, the sun god. However, St. Justin Martyr, who wrote in the 2nd Century, accused the Mithraists of copying the Christians. This idea was held to be universal until the 1800s when philosopher Ernest Renan suggested that Mithraics and Christians competed with each other in the empire.
As to December 25th being the date of Christ's birth, I offer to you a book written by Dr. Taylor Marshall, God's Birthday. You can get a free e-book about this subject based on his research into the historian Josephus. For early Christians, Christ's birthday was incredibly important. They would not have just chosen some random dates based on celebrations of the gods they held in contempt. As Dr. Taylor points out in his work, going back through the Scriptures, weighing the important events of St. John the Baptists conception and birth, it's clear to calculate exactly when Christ was born. This event is so critical to our Christian faith, that declaring there is no way to know when Christ was born is tantamount to suggesting Christianity itself is a fabrication or purely an emotional experience. So to answer Ms. Willis' question: They chose December 25 precisely because it was the day on which Our Lord became Man.
As if it is not enough to attack Our Lord's Birthday, Ms. Willis goes on to present to her readers several Christmas traditions that she believes are rooted in pagan rituals. She mentions Christmas trees, presents, mistletoe, and holly. I have heard many of these arguments in the past and recently was involved in a discussion regarding the tradition of Christmas trees, but I was honestly surprised by Ms. Willis claim about something I had never heard: Asherah trees. Ms. Willis claims that Christians allowed the use of Christmas trees to convert the people of the Asherah cult who worshiped trees and brought them in their homes during winter solstice. Um. No. Was there an Asherah cult? Yes. However, the Asherah followers were actually a Canaanite cult in Israel. A little research about the Canaanites reveals that they lived during Biblical times and they had many strange gods, particularly Baal and Moloch and goddesses Astarte and Ashera. They were a great nation with a command of architecture and language. Evidence of their influence can be found in both Egyptian and Babylonian culture. But they were a vicious and hateful people. And as the land of Canaan became the land of Israel, many of the Canaanite practices remained. The Ashera pole or tree was one such practice where the cult followers would erect trees next to the altars of the Israelites. The Jeremiah reference Ms. Willis cites which refers to adorning trees is an admonition to the Canaanites and their idolatry. It has absolutely nothing to do with a comment on modern day Christmas tree use. The Christmas tree in Christian homes is a long held tradition that developed organically over several hundred years. The practice of decoration with trees and greenery of various sorts, including holly and mistletoe, is well documented dating back to the Middle Ages. As for the mistletoe and holly, they were important plants that grew throughout Europe. In fact, Pliny the Elder wrote about the seemingly mystical qualities of mistletoe in 70 or so B.C. But it was the Celts who were completely mesmerized by the ubiquitous plant. They had a fondness for bringing it into their homes, and because there was nothing particularly anti-Christian about it, they continued the practice after converting to Christianity. They holly plant was often called "Christ's thorns" when brought into the home at Christmas as a reminder that Christ was born to suffer and die as a symbol of His Crown of Thorns and Drops of Precious Blood. Nothing unChristian here at all.
Finally, I want to get to Ms. Willis's comments about the much loved and venerated St. Nicholas, particularly her commentary that the great Bishop's words were something harsh and hateful. Actually, St. Nicholas only repeated what Our Lord Himself said to the Jews of His time. Perhaps a good reading of Sacred Scripture might help Ms. Willis understand. Our Lord said this to the Jews:
You do the works of your father. They said therefore to him: We are not born of fornication: we have one Father, even God. Jesus therefore said to them: If God were your Father, you would indeed love me. For from God I proceeded, and came; for I came not of myself, but he sent me: Why do you not know my speech? Because you cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth; because truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof. John 8: 41-44Which brings me to a commentary on Judaism itself. Mosaic Judaism, the Judaism of the Bible, no longer exists. In 70 A.D. the Temple, which is a sacrificial requirement in Judaism, was destroyed. It remains in rubble. Jewish priests no longer have a place for sacrifice and their is no active priesthood. Current Judaism is a man-made religion based on the Talmud. Rabinnic Judaism was formed in 70 A.D. Our Lord was born a Mosaic Jew. He came to fulfill the Law. Our Lord was rejected by His own people. And Mosaic Judaism no longer exists.
As I close this long but important article, I would like to make one final commentary. The only solid reference Ms. Willis makes regarding a reason to reject Christmas practices because of its pagan origins comes from the Puritan minister Reverend Increase Mather in 1687. Now Reverend Mather was quite influential among the Puritans in Massachusetts. He became the first President of Harvard College and his son also went on to become a quite prolific Puritan minister. The good Reverend was highly superstitious and actively involved in the infamous Salem witch trials, until this own wife was accused of such shenanigans. In case you are unaware the Puritans absolutely loathed the Catholic Church and any traditions or rituals associated with Her. They hated the Church so much, they even rejected the English Anglican Church for being too "papist." When they settled here in the then Colonies, they outlawed all Christmas Celebrations, just as the English had done in the home country. English law prohibited any parties, merry making, decorations, singing, and or celebrating. Christians, particularly Catholics, caught participating in Christmas rituals or celebrations were fined, imprisoned, and killed. The Puritans extended this practice in the Colonies and Christmas celebrating remained illegal until the late 17th century. Although the laws were repealed, Christmas celebrating was discouraged in the United States and some people were inflicted with fines for closing their shops on Christmas. In fact, the Puritans were workaholics. Their calendar was the most leisureless ever, with 300 working days, and only time off on Sundays and a few other holidays. The Puritans had nothing but contempt for Christmas and the Catholic Church.
I am sure that Ms. Tiffany Willis is a well-meaning self-identified Christian. But her conclusions are not only ill informed, they are dangerous, and perhaps blasphemous. The Incarnation and the Birth of Christ are the single most significant point in history. My 7 year old can tell you that in pretty simple words: If Jesus had not been born on Christmas, the gates of Heaven would have been closed forever. We celebrate Christmas in all its pageantry and revelry because of that fact. I do agree with Ms. Willis on one point: Know what you practice and why. Educate yourself. You can not call yourself a Christian if you leave Christ out of your faith, your belief, and your practice.
Divine Infant, have mercy on us!
Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, pray for us!
Holy Family, pray for us!