The other day, my daughter and I watched The History Channel’s "Christmas Unwrapped" and right this moment, we are watching the Jack Van Impe Christmas special. We get a kick out of doing this periodically. (It was especially fun when he was all panicked about the impending doom and gloom of Y2K that he claimed had been predicted in the Bible.)
He just got finished having a heart attack about how people should not be calling Christmas trees Holiday trees because it’s “Christ”-mas and he gets really upset about all of these stores that are making a 40% prophet not honoring the season appropriately.
That’s all well and good, but the early U.S. fundamentalist Christians back in Emily Dickinson’s day didn’t believe in gift giving at all. If Christians had stayed true to that they wouldn’t have to worry about retail stores making a 40% prophet off of Christmas sales. They didn’t like Christmas trees, either, because they thought they were Pagan based on a passage in the Old Testament in Jeremiah (10:1-5):
For the customs of the people [are] vain: for [one] cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.
I do think it’s kind of stupid to call a Christmas tree a holiday tree, even if it was originally a pagan symbol. It’s been a Christian symbol since at least the 1600s and that is how it was passed down to most of us. Of course, we don’t hang it from the ceiling to represent the trinity anymore. That probably got a little complicated with the types of ceilings we have now. And if you are a neo-Pagan, wouldn’t you be against the whole notion of chopping down trees for the holiday anyway? Wouldn’t that be considered a shallow spirituality?
Christmas comes from the Middle English Christemasse, which translates as Christ’s Mass. The Spanish refer to the holiday as Navidad and the French as Noel. This refers to the Nativity, not Christ’s Mass. The term, Christmas, is a Roman Catholic term. Mass is offered daily by the Catholic Church as the same sacrifice that was made at Calvary:
“The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different. And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner… this sacrifice is truly propitiatory” (Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, c. 2, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1367)
You’ve got to consider that the first organized church within Christianity was the Roman Church which was in the Roman Empire. A major public celebration in the Roman Empire was Saturnalia (Dec. 17- Dec. 23) which was a dedication to the temple of the god Saturn and a celebration of the winter solstice. Another major Roman celebration was Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun”. (Sun, not son). This celebration was on December 25th. There were a lot of solar deities in the Roman empire because it covered so much terrirtory and so many cultures, so this allowed all to be worshiped at the same time.
A point of interest – Constantine who made Christianity the political religion of Rome – worshiped the sun god Apollo. The reason Christians hold the Sabbath on Sunday rather than at the same time as the Jews is because Constantine had it changed from Saturday to Sunday in honor of the Sun God. (Constantine’s coins were of himself and Sol Invictus – not the God of Abraham or Jesus.) The earliest known use of the term Christmas (Christmastide) comes from the time of Constantine’s rule.
If you want to convert a bunch of sun god worshipers to Christianity, you can’t just toss out the old traditions and start new ones. You have to merge them. So that’s what happened. It’s quite clever and very politically astute when you think about it. Most cultures had a winter solstice celebration. So why not claim this was Jesus’ birth and tweak the celebration? It makes for a much easier conversion.
Very few Christians believe Jesus was born on December 25th. The Gospels don’t even agree on when Jesus was born. Matthew says he was born while Herod the Great was still alive and Herod died in 4 BCE (which means Jesus was 6 when he is said to have been born). Luke says Jesus’ birth was during a census which was being conducted by Quirinius which would have been 6 CE. Many believe the Star that the Kings would have seen would have been Comet Halley during the Han Dynasty and that would have placed Jesus birth at 6 BCE. There are no records of when Jesus was born, just the stories paseed down from the Gospels, and they don’t agree. We don’t even have record of his death. And even if we did, we don’t know how old he was when he was killed. It was Julius Africanus who made the claim that Jesus birthday was December 25th in Chronographiai in the 200s.
So, I don’t know. It seems likely the Christmas tree was a pagan symbol before it was a Christian one even if it wasn’t cut down and decorated. (It was popular among many pagan cultures to cut boughs of evergreen trees in recognition of the winter solstice but it would have been considered far too destructive to have cut down the entire tree.) The Roman god Dionysus (another extremely popular god when Christianity was coming into being) was often depicted with the bough of an evergreen tree. And you have to admit, Dionysus has an awful lot in common with Jesus: both were born of a virgin mortal woman, both were fathered by the king of heaven, both returned from the dead, both transformed water into wine, and both are said to be liberators of mankind.
I wonder if the die-hard pagans had a heart attack about their celebratory solstice/fertility tree boughs being called “Christ”-mas boughs? Probably. And so it goes.