Monday, December 24, 2012

Christ's Pagan Mass

In early America, Christmas was not a holiday. In fact, people were reprimanded for celebrating it. It was the belief that Christmas was pagan and idolatrous. And although it became a federal holiday in 1870, there are still some people who like to point out how un-Christian Christmas is. 
“You know, Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th.” 
“You know, bringing trees and greenery into the house is a pagan tradition.” 
“You know, Christmas is just a pagan ritual taken from Yule, Saturnalia, etc.” 
Why, yes, I do know, because I hear the exact same arguments every year. My answer: get over it, Puritans.

I don’t care if the date of Christmas was arbitrarily set in December. We don’t even know what year Jesus was born, much less the day. But celebrating the Birth near the winter solace makes sense. Celebrating the Light being born in the darkest time of the year makes sense to Christian theology. I’m all about blatant symbolism. Pagans don’t have a monopoly on the solace. It’s the shortest day of the year for everyone, regardless of religion. Why can’t we acknowledge the growing of the days and incorporate that into our religion? My God created the universe, and that includes the relationship between the earth and sun. Using a star as a metaphor for God isn’t sun-worship; it’s (gasp) a metaphor.

Christianity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If it did, we wouldn’t need all those books of Jewish history in our Bible. As the faith spread, people who converted brought practices from their old region and adapted them for Christ. A practice that is brought in and useful to Christian theology can become a Christian practice, regardless of its roots. The evergreen wreath may have started with Germanic tribes as a sign of the cycle of life. But when a Christian uses one, it can represent the eternality of Christ. It is the intent behind symbols that give them meaning. A swastika means something completely differently when used by a Hindu than when used by a Neo-Nazi.It's just a few simple lines, but how it is used is what gives it meaning.
Maybe I don’t mind a few stolen rituals co-opted for Christ because I’m an English-speaker. English is a hodgepodge  language that steals a lot of its vocabulary from Romantic, Germanic, and Scandinavian languages. That doesn’t mean English isn’t a true language, or that borrowed words aren’t really English. (“You know, house isn’t an English word, because the Germans used the word haus first.”)

I was taught that Marian devotion is supposed to always lead to Christ. So if, as a Protestant converting to Catholicism, I felt uncomfortable talking to Mary, don’t. But it was always there as an optional resource. In the same way, candles and wreaths and liturgical seasons and gold and icons serve as symbols and resources to point to Christ. If their origins keep you from Christ, ignore them. But they draw me to Christ. They serve as metaphors for the power and everlastingness and victory and Truth which is beyond words. So, I’ll keep my pagan Christmas, thank you very much. 

“And therefore… though [Christmas] has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” –A Christmas Carol

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