The Joy of Glory

Discovering endless joy in the boundless glory of God…

Month: December, 2013

The Pagan Roots of Christmas?

*Disclaimer: I use the word “pagan” a lot in this blog. This is not meant as slander against anyone of any religious belief. It is a “catch-all” term for ancient poly-theistic religions.

Every December, all my social media news feeds seem to fill up with various quotes, articles, and arguments that could all be summed up the same: Christmas has pagan origins, therefore Christians should not celebrate it!

Now, I’m not about to make fun of anyone who has done research, prayed, and come to this conclusion for their family. I respect your decision to disengage from a holiday that you believe is not actually a “holy-day.” However, on behalf of the many who may feel confused, befuddled, and down right torn as to whether or not Christmas celebrations equal pagan adoration…I wish to share a few thoughts that will hopefully bring some clarity to this yule time disparity (I’ll try to cease with the Dr. Seuss rhyming now).

Is Christmas Pagan?Matters of history are very complex, and one’s conclusions are often based on their interpretation of the evidence rather than bare-faced-facts. Such is the case when determining whether or not Christmas has pagan origins. As you research, you will quickly find that all scholars do not answer this question in the same way.

Some will say that pagan celebrations (primarily surrounding the winter solstice) pre-dated Christmas. Thus, Christians developed Christmas as a replacement for this false worship. Others will say that although there were pagan holidays surrounding December 25th, they were not actually large celebrations within the pagan world until after Christians began making a big deal out of the birth of Jesus. Then, in response to Christmas, pagans amped up their celebrations. It’s kind of like the whole chicken versus the egg situation.

mistletoeJust for the sake of argument, I want us to assume that Christmas did originate as a replacement for pagan celebrations (which is the most popular theory). I will also acknowledge that various Christmas symbols have roots in pagan worship…for example the yule log, mistletoe, and even the O’ Christmas tree with it’s lovely branches. So, the question is…if we acknowledge pagan roots for Christmas and much of its content, is it ok for Christians to still celebrate this holiday?

In a word…yes. At least I believe so.

I’m not saying that believers in Jesus HAVE to celebrate Christmas! If you have come to a different conviction, I trust that you will follow the Holy Spirit’s leading for your family. But, if you are on the fence or have nothing to say when people bring up the pagan origins of Christmas…I would like to give you a little food for thought.

There are four basic things that have led me to believe it is ok for Christians to observe Christmas. 1) The nature of Christianity in relation to paganism, 2) The practice of Jesus, 3) The value of sacred time, and 4) The fact that Christmas doesn’t have pagan origins (just hang-on…I will explain).

1) The nature of Christianity in relation to paganism.
Our God created all things, therefore, all things belong to him. God doesn’t hijack what belongs to pagans…pagans hijack what belongs to God. All throughout Scripture, God is constantly taking back things that have become a part of pagan worship, conquering them, redeeming them and using them to display his own glory! We see this from the very beginning of the Bible. The creation story of Genesis 1 is told in the typical form of an ancient creation myth. Does this mean that the writers of Scripture are not very creative and have to rip off story-telling forms from other nations like Babylon? No. God takes false stories from competing world-views and redefines them with truth!

We can also see this principle in the Israelites Exodus from Egypt. God brings ten plagues upon the Egyptians before Pharaoh is willing to release the Hebrews, and each plague is designed to reveal God’s power over one (or more) of the Egyptian gods. The Lord is conquering/taking back Egyptian religious symbolism and using it to display his own sovereign power!

Again, we could look at something like the tabernacle/temple and the system of sacrifices set in place by God’s law. There, we find many parallels with pagan temple worship, but God has completely redefined their meaning. Instead of a system where worshippers try to work their way towards appeasing some far-off, impersonal deity, God PROVIDES a way for sinful people to approach him in his holiness and know him intimately-lovingly-and personably.

Disc_Sol_BM_GR1899.12-1.2Again and again, we see God taking things which “belonged” to the pagan world and redefining them with truth. Christmas fits this pattern! A pagan festival celebrating the birth of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, was conquered by the truly unconquerable SON and redefined to celebrate his birth! Christmas isn’t a surrender to paganism, but a conquering of it! Christmas replaces lies with the loving truth of Christ! It replaces the worship of false gods with the wonder of true glory…the glory of Jesus!

ChristmasTreeFurther, the fact that “pagan” symbols have been redefined with Christian meaning is not syncretistic (the blending of two religions) as is often alleged. No. It would be syncretism if Christians used Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus while simultaneously bowing down before their Christmas tree to pay homage to mother earth for the eternal life she gives represented by the evergreen! However, it is not syncretistic to redefine the Christmas tree to symbolize that Jesus, the light of the world, would come and give his life on a tree (the cross) and turn that tree into a symbol of light and life.

If it is not ok to redefine pagan symbols in this way, then we may need to reconsider our use of the cross itself as it originally stood as a symbol of death for traitors against a pagan empire. Christmas is a glorious celebration of the fact that Jesus has won is currently ruling, seated at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And [God] put all things under [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things…” (Ephesians 1:20-22)

2) The practice of Jesus.
I’ve heard some people express concern over celebrating Christmas because it is not in the Bible. The events are there, but the celebration is not…mind you the same thing is true about Easter (and it also has pre-dating pagan Spring-time celebrations, but that’s a whole different blog).

menorah1This is true, however, even Jesus observed holiday celebrations that were not commanded by God in Scripture. In John 10:22 we read, “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter…” Anyone want to guess the Hebrew word for “dedication”? That’s right…Chanukah! This winter feast has its roots in events that took place between the Old and New Testaments. It is not one of the feasts that God laid out for his people in the law. Yet, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem at this time and like all other orthodox Jews, he would have participated in the festivities. Why? That leads me to the next thought…

3) The value of sacred time.
It is true that every moment of our lives is sacred to the Lord. However, we all find it useful to set aside certain times for specific focuses. For instance, everyday my wife and I strive to better our marriage, but we also set aside specific time to go away together and really invest in one another. We also have special days of celebration within our marriage…like our anniversary. These are very valuable times of focus for us. Likewise, I believe there is value in setting aside special times for specific focuses in our relationship with Christ.

This is what Advent/Christmas is for me and my family. It is a set aside, sacred time in which we focus on Christ’s first advent and look forward to his second advent. This has an awesome impact on my daily living throughout the year. This is the way Old Testament feasts were designed by the Lord, namely, to serve as intense reminders for his people of particular events and truths they needed to continually set before themselves year after year. I think this is why Jesus himself would not have had an issue with Chanukah. Even though it was not commanded by the Lord, it was a time when Jews reminded themselves of God’s faithfulness…something that none of us need to forget.

I believe Advent is a wonderful, yearly reminder to live in light of the coming of Christ. He came and he shall come again! Live in light of both his comings!

4) Christmas doesn’t have pagan origins.
christ centered christmasAnd now the one you have been waiting for or perhaps you skipped down to read first (Sorry this blog is so long…I’m breaking all the blogging rules this week). Here is what I mean by “Christmas doesn’t have pagan origins…”

No matter what kind of festivals predated Christmas, and no matter what practices were incorporated into the Noel celebration…the origin, the beginning, the root of Christmas has always been a desire to refocus time on Jesus. The beginning of Christmas itself was always Christ. Does that make sense?

It doesn’t matter what once happened on December 25th in the pagan world…that is not the origin of celebrating Jesus’ birth. It may have affected the choice of date and some of the symbols, but the origin, the starting point, the beginning place was and is a desire to lift up Jesus as the only true king and savior of the world.

So, from my family to yours, I hope you feel free to celebrate the savior on December 25th…for one day, in the future, he will be the only one celebrated on every day that has ever been the set aside for a pagan worship…and everything that has ever served as a pagan symbol will be redeemed for its original purpose of pointing to the glories of the God who took on flesh, was born, lived, died, buried, and is alive forevermore…Jesus!

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Why the Haefs don’t “Do” Santa… (It’s Not What You Think)

Appalled.

That’s the word I would use to describe the general reaction of people when they find out that my family doesn’t “do” Santa Claus.

Now before you go and judge me or think that I am an extremely judgmental-grinch trying to steal the fun of Christmas for children everywhere…allow me to explain what led to the Saint Nicholas censorship in the Haefs household.

I grew up in a home that observed all the typical Santa traditions… stockings, chimneys, reindeer, letters, milk and cookies… you know how it goes. Holly’s family didn’t pay Santa much attention, but neither was he actively discounted. Now, both of us have wonderful childhood Christmas memories, and do not feel like “exposure” to Santa traumatized either of us. So, you would think we would naturally have no problems with continuing Santa traditions with our children. That was the original plan… at least for me.

santa-clausAs Holly and I became more serious in our relationship, we had more serious conversations about our future, including marriage and children. Believe it or not, our largest disagreement was over whether or not we would “do” Santa with our children. I was in favor of Papa Noel…she was not.

Now what was her concern and what won me over to her side? It was not anything you might have heard before…like the fact that “Santa” can be rearranged to spell “Satan,” or that we were worried that if we lied to our children about Santa they would think we lied about Jesus too…no…those things didn’t have any bearing on our decision. There was actually one central factor that changed my mind about Kris Kringle…

Time.

I only have so much time with my children…only so much time to invest in them…only so much time to show them what is important…only so much time to point them to Jesus.

The Christmas season gets so cluttered and crowded with things that do not matter. I already find it difficult to point my kids toward Christ when there are so many other things are begging for their attention. I simply did not want to add and promote another distraction. In the list of things that were important to me at Christmas time…Santa simply lost.

Now, this leads people to ask me a million questions and I want to try and address what are probably the top three most frequently asked. If you have additional questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section and I’ll do my best to answer.

1. How do you shield your kids from Santa?
We don’t. We want our kids to be knowledgeable about the culture in which they live, able to interpret it and engage it. So our kids are very aware of Santa…in fact they sat on his lap last night at the Brookwood mall. At this point, you might be confused. Here’s the deal…they know Santa is pretend (like a cartoon character), but they still enjoy him as much as they do any other character in a costume (think Mickey Mouse). We let them watch the same cartoons that we did growing up (claymation Rudolph, The Grinch, Frosty, etc) and they are welcome to sit on Santa’s lap…but, in their minds, he is merely on the periphery of the season and nowhere near the center.

For instance, if you ask my kids why they receive presents…Santa will be the furthest thing from their minds. They’d tell you that we give and receive gifts as a reminder that Christmas celebrates the giving and receiving of the greatest gift…God giving his only son Jesus to be received by the world.  I promise you, this makes Christmas morning no less “magical.” If anything…it is more “magical.” I mean…we are celebrating God taking on flesh! A man scooting down chimneys simply cannot compete with that. Santa, the pretend guy, gets to be on the outskirts of Christmas, but Jesus gets the center. This naturally leads to the next question.

2. What do you do in place of Santa?
st_nicholas_myra_500We technically still include Santa…just in his proper place…December 6th. That is the feast day of the real Saint Nicholas. On that day, we tell our children about Nicholas’ life and do a few small things to celebrate his feast day.

That still leaves people wondering what we do throughout the rest of December and especially on the 25th. Well, we observe Advent as a family. Each day, we try to set aside to time (usually at dinner) to light our Advent wreath, read Scripture, and talk about what it means that Jesus came and he will come again. Advent is a season of waiting and longing for the coming Messiah…the greatest gift. Thus, Christmas works as a perfect teaching analogy as your kids wait and long for the coming of gifts.

We still sing songs (primarily about Jesus), go look at Christmas lights (reminding us of the coming light of the world), decorate a tree (much like Jesus would make a cross/tree a beautiful symbol), etc.  We simply try to make Jesus the center of all these traditions.

On Christmas day, we read Luke 2 and open presents. We try to limit the amount of presents to stem the tide of materialism. Each child receives three plus small stocking items…yes we do stockings. How do we explain how they get filled? You know what’s funny?…our kids have never asked that question. Limiting the number of gifts also frees up funds to teach our children how to be generous by example. We spend the rest of the day celebrating, eating, laughing, praying, playing…it looks like a pretty normal Christmas day actually…we just talk about Jesus instead of Santa. It really isn’t complicated. Actually…I believe it is less complicated.

3. Do you think “doing” Santa is harmful and that other people should make the same decision you have?
This is always a fun question…because my answer is yes and no. I believe there is a way to “do” Santa that can be potentially harmful, but it doesn’t have to be. If people want to “do” Santa with their kids, I would NOT insist that they make the same decision that my family has or they’re wrong, but I would encourage them to “do” Santa in such a way that points their family toward Jesus.

Here’s what I mean. The traditional concept of Santa stands in direct contradiction to the gospel, which is the heart of Christmas. Santa keeps a checklist of who is naughty or nice…and so you need to work hard, behave right so that you can be rewarded with gifts. This is not the gospel…it is works based righteousness…legalism. Our kids are already hard-wired legalists…they don’t need us reinforcing their natural bent. Christmas…the gospel…grace is designed to counter and contradict legalism. God sent his son to an undeserving world to save us. We were given this gift freely. We could not earn it. We were all on the naughty list and Jesus took our lump of coal so that we could have an eternal gift…him!

If you are going to do Santa, then brainstorm/imagine/dream/think of ways to use him as a pointer to Jesus…a pointer to the gospel…a pointer to grace.

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