In this regard, usually the issue of pagan spirituality is of foremost concern to most hesitant Christians. For one thing, many are worried about the pagan origins of the festival. So we might well ask: Is this a legitimate concern?
Well, without trying to derail this post with what is better suited to a research paper, here’s what I would say. While there have indeed been debates back and forth on this issue, even a cursory glance at the research indicates a strong weightedness in favour of the thesis that Christmas does indeed have pagan roots (and, that this pagan festival was being practiced long before the birth of Christ). If you’re interested: most likely this was a festival dedicated to the celebration of the (re)birth of a baby-god to a mother-goddess during the time of the the winter solstice. . . and, well . . .we’ll just leave it at that I think.
Now, it is certainly true that from a scriptural standpoint, idolatry of this nature is in the realm of the profane. But that was then, and this is now. So, lest we fall prey to a genetic fallacy, we need to be weary of letting the matter of origins sway an honest evaluation of current practice. Indeed, even though pagan origin is often the first issue of concern, it is not what I primarily have in mind (when thinking about Christmas’ connection to pagan spirituality). In fact, at times, the issue of origin might even serve as a red herring to the real issues of contemporary practice, which seem to all but engulf some Christians who are otherwise merrily whistling along their way.
Beyond the contemporary humanistic and new-age spirituality that has come to be symbolized by the ubiquitous presence of Santa and his elves, most problematic of all is the syncretism that occurs when these ideas are mixed with Christian themes. Whether this mix oozes out at the level of Hollywood production (and examples that come to mind here are legion), or merely in the humble school nativity play; this mix of themes presents for us by far the biggest no-no, as it involves the outright mixing of the holy and the profane (which according to scripture, is never a good thing).
Of course, there is the whole Catholic-mass-at-Christmas debacle (a display of this problem, par excellence). But unfortunately this is such a big, historical target that the other equally problematic things go unnoticed in quarters much closer to home. As long as we’re not going to mass, we Protestants have no problem setting our longing eyes on Santa’s sled, reverently singing “Oh Holy Night”, while our hearts are deeply engaged, and downright appreciative, for the blessed and magical experience of Christmas. And if you think that this is a bit far fetched, I’d ask you to think again.
In the same vein then, otherwise normal protestant-evangelical churches will often be swept away in the cheer of the season to do all but totally desecrate the regulative principle of worship. You know the stories. They get bad…real bad. Like, preachers-in-santa-suits bad. To say the very least, that previous freedom of conscience that the Reformers gave their lives for, is hardly given a second thought by so many evangelical churches during this time. Instead, they mix the holy and the profane as if it was nothing more than a Christmas cocktail.
But then, beyond the issue of religious syncretism (in itself a profane thing through and through), we have those issues of rampant greed and consumerism that manifest in unique and amazing ways during this time of year. In fact, perhaps more than any other point of the year, the Dec/Jan period serves as an expose on the problems of first world materialism. To say the least, spending is totally out of control. Holiday fever takes hold of us all, in a big way. This leads quickly to a whole host of other sins, all involving flagrant lack of self control. Let’s face it. They don’t call it the silly-season for nothing. It’s a crazy time. And in this way, there is indeed an uncanny resemblance to the ancient festival. For some or other reason, it’s been this way for centuries. And it’s kind of scary like that.
Here’s the bottom line then. While we might indeed feel the season’s cheer in the air, much of the talk and paraphernalia that goes with it is a cover up for the profane. And we, as tolerated sojourners, shouldn’t be naive at Christmas time. Moreover, we shouldn’t feel bad for feeling like it’s a time when extra caution is needed. Though this might well, at its worst, lead to mild forms of ostracization, it also means that we stay sober-minded during all the mayhem. Christians need to be discerning at all times. We don’t get to drop this guard simply because “it’s Christmas, it’s Christmas!”. That is a profane idea, not a holy one.
Now, here’s the thing: Despite the presence of the profane, my goal is not to condemn the cultural experience altogether. Quite the opposite, I actually embrace it, Christmas trees and all. So…what gives? Well, that is where “the common” comes in. So stay tuned. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.