It’s that time of year when culture warriors take up arms to keep worldly and pagan ideas from encroaching on the spiritual and biblical reason for the season. So Sarah Palin’s fired a salvo against the “war on Christmas” by “revisionists” who’re turning it into a “winter solstice” celebration. (This is to prepare us for her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, ostensibly on the same theme).
But what if the pagans aren’t the “revisionists”? Now, do not misunderstand my point, I’m not opposed to the worship of created things over our Blessed Creator (Rom 1:21-25). That idolatrous exchange is always out of season and was banned nearly 2,000 years before the Lord Jesus was born:
And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day (Deut 4:19-20).
What if the pagans are correct that late December celebrations are rooted in the winter solstice? That would explain some of the odd accoutrements to celebrations of Jesus’ birth. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to make out what evergreen trees, lights, gifts, and too much egg-nog have to do with the little town of Bethlehem. Without being too much of a Grinch, it might be worth asking whether the real “revisionist” is actually Mrs. Palin. Though to her credit, she stands in a long, long line of revising this holiday.
Celebrations on December 25th were regular long before Jesus was ever born, being motivated by seasonal change, human culture, and very pagan religions. The original revisionists took that pagan holiday and called it “Christ-mass” about 400 years after He was born in Bethlehem. Yet, that’s not even the Christmas we know (and fight for!) today. For the next group of revisionists were 19th century New Yorkers who wanted to spare their newly urbanizing society by transforming Christmas from a violent drunken riot into something a bit more domestic.
In his helpful book, The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum explains the centuries’ long efforts of “revisionists”:
Late-December festivities were deeply rooted in popular culture, both in observance of the winter solstice and in celebration of the one brief period leisure and plenty in the agricultural year. In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviors birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.
From the beginning, the Churchs hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize (pp. 7-8).
Since this season has been difficult for Christians for centuries, what better time to return to the blog? Lord willing, in the days to come I hope to post a mix of historical clarifications on the development of Christmas, reflections on the birth of our Lord as recorded in Scripture, along with how we may try to seek to honor the Lord Jesus over all things, even at Christmas.
And who knows, maybe we can begin to revise Christmas, again.