Christmas myths and merriment

Alastair Roberts has a great post on the recurring question at this time of year: Is Christmas stolen from the pagans?

You’ll want to read the whole thing (much of which quotes a thorough debunking from a pagan forum), but here are the key points that leapt out at me on reading it:

  • Christmas is “the Feast of the Nativity,” not “Jesus’s Birthday.”: “While modern fundamentalists typically claim it’s Jesus’s ACTUAL birthday because they’re theologically and historically ignorant, mainline denominations have never so claimed.”
  • Why Christmas trees, holly and the rest? Not because they’re “stolen from the pagans”, but because church law required (and still requires) green plants to be in the church for all services as an expression of creation and life. And in northern Europe, in December, that means “fir trees, evergreen boughs, and holly.”
  • A reiteration of William Tighe’s argument that December 25th was chosen for Christmas only because it was nine months after March 25th, which the early church had concluded must be the date of Christ’s conception.

As Alastair points out, though, in many ways the whole argument rests on the pretty fatuous notion that “the origins of a particular tradition or practice have some privileged claim upon its ‘meaning'”. The “meanings” of cultural traditions are as changeable as the meanings of words.

Alastair’s conclusion is one I agree with entirely, which is why I enjoy both the “secular”, “commercial” elements of Christmas, and the specifically Christian aspects:

Within contemporary Western society, Christmas means more, but considerably less, than the ‘meaning’ Christians find in the feast. The ‘real meaning’ of Christmas in contemporary Britain is shaped by commercialism, pop culture, British and Western European cultural traditions, and many other forces besides Christianity. I don’t believe that we can maintain that Christians have some exclusive claim upon its celebration. Rather than seeking bland acknowledgements of the rightfulness of our claim from an indifferent society, we are better off enjoying the celebration for what it is, while maintaining the peculiar and unique place that the celebration holds in the lives of Christians.

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