This is a long one, and it’s an opinion. Quite a strong opinion, I don’t mind admitting. As always, I’m open to correction on any of it, if you’d like to submit your comments afterwards. My views don’t necessarily reflect the position of the Chesterfield or Derbyshire Pagans collectively.
In recent days, residents of the town of Hudsonville, Michigan, have been visited by a phantom letter-writer. The writer addresses the compliments of the season to the occupants of each house, and then – quite politely – treats them to a stern little sermon:
“Dear Neighbor,” it says, “You have a nice display of lights and this love note explains how that pagan tradition began.
For thousands of years, Sun worshippers have celebrated the Sungod’s rebirth after [the Winter] Solstice. Pagans honored the birth of the ‘Invincible sun’ with a ‘festival of lights.” They used big bonfires, pigs fat tallow candle lights, and today, billions of colored christmas [sic] lights. Rome’s seven-day December Saturnalia was religious revelry with decadent drunkenness, outrageous adultery, and giving Saturn’s nativity birth gifts to the children.
The Norsemen yuletide solstice carousal used sexual soliciting mistletoe, Yule log bonfire, … decorated evergreen wreaths, and tree worship.
None of this honors the life of Yeshua the Christ. God told Yisra’el through Moses not to follow religious customs of pagans or they would be ensnared into worshiping Him in heathen way Christmas tree lights, nativity birth celebrations and heathen idolatrous Sun worshiping practices.”
Now, had this been my own personal blog, my commentary on this ‘love note’ would be significantly more robust than it’s going to be. Like many people, including, I would imagine, the great majority of Christians, I have a bit of an issue with those who seek to parade their piety publicly, as an attempt to rationalise their own prideful self-regard.
I’ve posted the note in full so that all our readers, pagan and otherwise, can appreciate its comical irony, but what’s interesting about it is that it reflects one of the lesser-known Christmas traditions that, in its way, has become as much an invariable part of the season as sprouts. I’m not sure when it began. I suspect it’s actually quite well established, but it’s certainly become a lot more noticeable since the Internet came along and made it possible for people to argue with each other in real time from opposite sides of the world.
There are two main groups of people involved, both, I think, rather small. The first group is of what might be termed hardline fundamentalist Christians, who take it upon themselves to berate other Christians for adopting what they (the first group) consider to be ‘pagan’ traditions. That’s right: we, as pagans, are being used by Christians as weapons to bash other Christians. Get your tree-hugging heads round that, if you will.
But they apply their condemnation liberally: Christmas is obviously included, per the ‘love note’ above; everything about Christmas other than Jesus Chr… sorry, ‘Yeshua the Christ’. Christmas trees, fairy lights, turkey, crackers, Yule logs (although you can sort of see the point in the case of Yule logs)… All dismissed as pagan perversions of the ‘true meaning of Christmas’.
The other group that tends to be involved is a section of the pagan community, who rail at Christians for ‘stealing our festivals’. On the grounds that Christmas occurs at more or less (but not quite) the same day as Yule, the midwinter solstice festival, these pagans claim that Christmas as celebrated in Christian communities is a form of cultural appropriation, and should be challenged as such.
There is, it must be said, a grain of truth in all this. The positioning of Christmas within the year doesn’t reflect what Biblical sources tell us about the time of Jesus’ birth. It’s reasonably likely that the mass celebrating Jesus’ arrival on Earth was positioned strategically: most people within the Roman sphere of influence would have been used to a lengthy drink-sodden thrash called Saturnalia, which began on 17 December and went on more or less as long as the plebs could wangle it with those in charge. In addition, in later years, a festival called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun – emerged on 25 December. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the Roman church made a deliberate decision to replace Saturnalia and Dies Natalis with their new festival.
But to go back to the letter for a moment, and the similar squabbles that erupt every Christmas (not to mention every Easter/Ostara and every Hallowe’en/Samhain): am I really alone in wondering why those with such an axe to grind over the precise way in which their god is worshipped seem so utterly unwilling to credit Him with any intelligence at all?
To a monotheist, God – whatever name might be used to describe Him, be it Yahweh/Jehovah, Allah, or simply God – is the creator and controlling force behind all things. Surely such a being must, by definition, be forever beyond the limited comprehension of such tiny beings as us – but it’s fair to suppose that He’s pretty bloody intelligent. Yet these angry believers seem determined to treat Him as nothing more than a mindless, if vast, automaton: if you don’t follow scriptural instructions precisely, you’re doomed to hellfire for all eternity. They seem to allow Him no latitude for judgement: His judgement, in their eyes, is already made, and of course that judgement is bound to be whatever they happen to think it should be.
I don’t believe that any deity should be treated like that. Whether you believe in one God or many gods, if you suppose that deity takes an active interest in individual humans, then it seems sensible to assume that it also has the capacity to understand what humans are doing. This is especially true for a creator God: if He’s smart enough to create something as complex, as intricate, as profound and flexible as the human mind, brain and soul, then I’d say it’s a given that He’s capable of understanding our emotions, reason, moods and tempers. To my mind, all fundamentalists of this stripe are actually saying is, “I don’t think my god’s very bright.” (This goes double for those fanatics who honestly believe their god is so weak and impotent that He needs their help to fight unbelievers: can there be a greater insult to a god?)
It’s perfectly true that the festivals that modern Christians celebrate throughout their year have their origins in pagan feasts. It’s perfectly true that many of the traditions associated with those festivals are pagan in origin. It’s also perfectly true that many of the practices of the modern Christian religion are rooted in Roman paganism. And I truly believe that the biggest truth of all about all this is that it doesn’t really matter. Either way. I don’t believe that the Christian God is sufficiently dense that He would condemn true, honest Christian people because they put fairy lights on their house. That’s a ridiculous concept, and shamefully insulting to God. It implies He has no intelligence, and no wit to see into His creation’s hearts to see their true value.
Now, I start treading a bit more carefully. Pagans: if Christians celebrate the birth of their Lord and Saviour on a date rather close to the midwinter festival that more or less every culture has observed since ancient times… Does it actually, really hurt us? Does it require that we respond with hostility, call them thieves, and tell them they’ve no right to celebrate at that time? If they observe Christmas on December 25, does it affect our ability to have a right good knees-up a few days beforehand? If they hold 01 November as a feast day sacred to all their saints, does it affect our beliefs about the importance of the previous evening? And what possible conflict can we have in March, if we both – though for different reasons – observe the time as a celebration of new life?
To my eyes, these intersections between our two paths, as different as they might be in many other respects, present us with the ideal opportunities to find common ground. At Easter, we celebrate the spring and the return of life to the world; Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ from His crucifixion. Not so different, when you think about it. At Christmas and Yule, it’s dark, it’s cold, it’s as far from the summer as it’s going to get: yet there, in the darkness, is a new spark of light; a promise of new life to come. Spiritually and individual for them, perhaps, while literal and general for us – but still, not so different.
So I’d like to finish by wishing every one of you who might be reading this a very happy Yule, a very merry Christmas, a peaceful and joyous winter solstice, and a happy and healthy 2765* to you.
* By the proper Roman calendar, of course… 😛