Is Christmas still a pagan celebration, or is it about Jesus Christ?

Nativity Scene - Christmas SeasonPhoto byPhuc Tran/

I love the atmosphere of the Christmas season and its intended benefits. It’s that time of the year when I can tolerate mankind and am proud to be a human being. People are kinder and more generous. They focus on dispensing cheer and expect a similar, if not equal, response commensurate with their efforts. Even house-to-house caroling is a gesture of hope and belonging. There is no better time to invite aliens from the remotest corners of the galaxy to show off mankind’s humanity in all its splendor.

Whether Jesus Christ was born in January, March, April, or December is neither here nor there. Another member of royalty, of lesser stock than the Son of God, the late Queen Elizabeth II, monarch of the Commonwealth realm, was born on April 21, 1926. She celebrated her official birthday on the second Saturday in June. No one batted an eyelid at that variance between the actual and the celebrated birthdate. Actually, there are several countries and traditions that do not celebrate the birthday on the date of birth but on another date. For example, in Bhutan, individual birthdays are not traditionally celebrated, and many people don't know their actual birthdate. In Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, and Sudan, a high percentage of the citizens celebrate their birthdays on January 1st due to a lack of accurate administrative records. In China, people celebrate their birthday twice, their date of birth and on New Year's Day. Westerners are obsessed with birthdates and presume that everyone else should be too. Do you know how many mental health challenges would be eliminated by this non-Western approach?

Christmas was originally a pagan festival that celebrated the rebirth of the sun. The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with the festival of Saturnalia, held in honor of their sun god, Saturn. Like the Romans, the Celts also celebrated a winter solstice festival, which was known as Yule, a 12-day pagan festival held in December and January during the winter solstice. Many of the symbols associated with Christmas; the evergreen tree, the holly, and the mistletoe, are believed to have pagan origins.

An integral part of the Christmas preparations for over 2,000 years has been the use of evergreen trees, mistletoe, and holly, which have pagan origins. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, paganism is "the spiritual beliefs and practices of ancient polytheistic religions." Ancient societies believed that by decorating their homes and temples with evergreen plants, they were helping to ward off evil spirits and bringing good luck. Holly and ivy were also believed to be sacred plants among the Druids and Romans, and mistletoe was presumed to have healing powers. In Northern Europe, the Celts decorated their Druid temples with evergreen boughs, which symbolized everlasting life. The Nordic peoples hung evergreen boughs over doorways in order to bring good luck and ward off evil. These beautiful evergreen plants with their crimson berries are steeped in superstition, the antithesis of faith and hope. Later on, Christians conceived of fanciful ways to incorporate and justify the use of mistletoe and holly into their tradition by suggesting that the crimson berries were a symbol of Jesus’ blood and that the crown of thorns worn forcibly by Jesus Christ at the crucifixion was the holly.

The Roman Church introduced a pagan festivity into the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25th, 274, in response to the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which was held in mid-December. The church’s goal was to create a Christian holy day that could compete with the pagan festival and attract more people to the Christian faith. It was a great marketing plan, myopic in scope, that backfired. By introducing a festival to celebrate the birth of Christ, the church’s intention was to draw away more revelers from the pagan festival and convert more people to Christianity en masse. The opposite effect seems to be the norm nowadays. The word "Christmas" is derived from the Old English phrase "Cristes maesse," which means the mass of Christ or the festival of Christ. Christians have been drawn into the mass part of Christmas, omitting the most important element, that is, the Spirit of Christ and the Savior himself, Jesus the Christ.

During World War I, there was a spontaneous cease-fire along the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914. British and German troops came out of their trenches and celebrated the holiday together. This event was known as the Christmas Truce. There’s something special and transformative about the Christmas spirit around the world.

On Christmas Day 1972, during the Vietnam War, a cease-fire was declared and the bombing was suspended as part of Operation, 11 Days of Christmas. This pause in the war permitted a rare moment of peace between the two sides. Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, US and North Vietnamese troops stopped fighting and exchanged gifts. The USA troops shared Christmas dinner with the local villagers. It was a unique show of peace amidst an otherwise brutal and destructive war where the US Air Force flew 729 night-time sorties over North Vietnam and dropped 15,000 tons of bombs.

During the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Falklands War, and the Korean War, cease-fires were declared either on or close to Christmas Day in some areas, allowing troops from both sides to meet and exchange gifts. Imagine that! There’s something hypocritical and paradoxical about such humane actions, which begs the question, "Why are they at war in the first place?"

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and more than 1,000 other faith-based leaders have signed a document inviting the Russian and Ukrainian leaders to broker a Christmas Truce similar to the ones I have outlined above. The idea behind this is to achieve a ceasefire and allow for the negotiation of a settlement between the two nations. The coalition of US Veterans and Russian faith leaders have been included among the signatories. No response has been forthcoming yet, but if I were a betting man, I would say that the economic gains are probably more important to political leaders than peace and saving mankind from destruction. Nonetheless, I believe in God and, as a consequence, miracles.

I recall, during my younger days, roving TV reporters interviewing residents of some of the old folks’ homes who expressed gratitude for the largesse extended to them in the form of numerous turkeys, many legs of ham, cakes, and beverages that were donated during this season of giving. One of the things that piqued my interest was when an elderly gentleman said, almost apologetically, that there is an excess of food during this time and then, for the next 300 plus days, the pantries are bare. If the spirit of Christ is with us, should we not be giving more than once a year? Mind you, once may be enough, in particular for those indifferent to the plight of the common man or woman. Be grateful for small mercies!

Christmas is celebrated in an almost uniform manner across the globe. There’s a great deal of commercial activity, even a "Christmas in July" or "Christmas in October" series of marketing events clearly meant to take advantage of the economic nature of the yuletide. Secondly, there is a great deal of alcohol consumption, which would render the temple of God incapable of receiving the Spirit of God. Thirdly, the level of short-term gluttony begs for repentance. Lastly, so many traffic jams and traffic accidents increase around this time that I wonder whether we know what we are really celebrating. Strictly speaking, according to a study published by the University of Alabama Center for Advanced Public Safety, there is a six-day period at the end of December (including Christmas Day) that has a higher rate of fatal car accidents than any other time of the year. The excess of movies about Christmas with Santa Claus being the main focus is astounding, but the obese man attired in red with a white, silky beard is apparently in demand. Rarely do I find a Christmas movie based on Jesus Christ around this time unless I am tuned into a religious channel. Then again, that’s what the fun crowd wants. My effort to celebrate Christ’s birthday and even existence is less glamorous and less hectic.

Traditionally, in my family, Christmas is celebrated as a religious holiday; as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is typically celebrated with special church services by bringing the suit out of mothballs, gift-giving, festive decorations, sending and receiving Christmas cards, and singing Christmas carols. Many families also gather for a festive meal, such as a traditional Christmas dinner. Additionally, many conscientious people attend or host Christmas parties or events, often with a Christian Christmas theme.

I am grateful to Doug Hart and his wife, who introduced a most complete way to celebrate Christ’s birthday, which my wife and I have incorporated into our Christmas traditions. It’s a personal Christmas carol event. We invite a few close friends over on Christmas Day, and after a solid lunch when everyone is relaxed, we bring out the 1-page agenda on which the names of a few Christmas carols are listed along with corresponding scriptures. Even the children participate. The session starts off with a prayer, followed by a friend reading a verse of scripture, which is followed by a carol until everyone is involved. It captures the spirit of Christ and inspires the average person to have a relationship with the King of kings. What more can one ask for?

If Christ manifested himself in the flesh on Christmas Day, how would you celebrate his birthday? Would you drink him under the table or would you honor him as the Son of God? Would you put yourself in debt to ensure that your house was fit to receive a king, or would you invite him in as long as he accepted you for who you are? As I ponder the state of the people before the Great Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, I wonder; are we there yet, or are we doing better? I want to believe that we can do better. Carry on smartly, and may the love, peace, and hope found through the Spirit of Christ find you and your family in good health, both spiritually and physically! Have a great Christmas season!

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He is the author of the non-fiction books, Guyana’s Elections 2020: The 153-Days Saga and Carry on Smartly: Ditch the Covid-19 Blues. Wrote on social issues in Guyana and Barbados newspapers. Creator of a TV series on ICT.

Clermont, FL

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