Can a Pagan Holiday Be Made Christian?

DURING the winter of 2004, the Christmas season in Italy was marked by a lively debate. Some educators and teachers supported the idea of reducing to a minimum or even completely eliminating any reference to religious Christmas traditions. They advocated this out of respect for the increasing number of schoolchildren who are neither Catholic nor Protestant. However, others in scholastic circles and elsewhere demanded that the traditions be respected and fully preserved.

Aside from this controversy, though, just what are the origins of many of the Christmas traditions? As the debate was reaching a climax, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano made some interesting observations.

Regarding the date when Christmas is celebrated, the Catholic newspaper said: “The real date of Jesus’ birth, from the historical viewpoint, lies concealed beneath a veil of uncertainty as regards Roman history, the imperial census of that time and research in the subsequent centuries. . . . The date of 25 December, as is well known, was chosen by the Church of Rome in the fourth century. This date in pagan Rome was dedicated to the Sun god . . . Although Christianity had already been affirmed in Rome by an Edict of Constantine, the myth of . . . the Sun god was still widespread, especially among soldiers. The above-mentioned festivities, centred on 25 December, were deeply rooted in popular tradition. This gave the Church of Rome the idea of impressing a Christian religious significance on the day by replacing the Sun god with the true Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ, choosing it as the day on which to celebrate his birth.”

What about the Christmas tree, which is now part of the Catholic tradition?

The article in the Catholic newspaper pointed out that back in ancient times, many evergreens, such as “holly, butcher’s broom, laurel and branches of pine or fir were considered to have magical or medicinal powers that would ward off illness.” It went on to say: “On Christmas Eve, 24 December, Adam and Eve would be commemorated with the highly popular episode of the Tree of the earthly Paradise . . . The tree ought to have been an apple tree, but since an apple tree would have been inappropriate in winter, a fir tree was set on the stage and some apples put on its branches or, to symbolize the future coming of Redemption, wafers prepared with crushed biscuits in special moulds that were symbols of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus, as well as sweets and gifts for children.” What about after that time?

Mentioning that the tradition of using a Christmas tree first started in Germany in the 16th century, L’Osservatore Romano noted: “Italy was one of the last countries to accept the Christmas tree, partly because of a rather widespread rumour that the use of Christmas trees was a Protestant practice and should thus be replaced by the crib [the Nativity scene].” Pope Paul VI “began the tradition of setting up [in St. Peter’s Square, Rome] a massive Christmas tree” near the Nativity scene.

Do you find it acceptable that a religious leader would give a seemingly Christian meaning to events and symbols whose roots go back to ancient paganism? As to the proper course, the Scriptures admonish true Christians: “What fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness?”—2 Corinthians 6:14-17.

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Christmas tree (opposite page) and Nativity scene at the Vatican

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© 2003 BiblePlaces.com

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The sun god

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Museum Wiesbaden