Christmas—Why Even in the Orient?
AN OLD Oriental belief is reminiscent of the Santa Claus of Christmas. That is the Korean belief in one named Chowangshin, and something similar can be found among some Chinese and Japanese.
Chowangshin was considered a god in charge of the kitchen, a god of fire who was related to the ancient Korean worship of fire. (In olden times, Koreans transported live charcoals carefully, making sure that these were never extinguished.) This god was believed to keep watch over the conduct of family members for a year, after which he ascended to heaven through the kitchen stove and chimney.
Supposedly, Chowangshin reported to the king of heaven on the 23rd of the lunar month of December. He was expected to come back at the end of the year through the chimney and the stove, bringing rewards and penalties in accord with each one’s conduct. On the day of his return, the members of the family were to light candles in the kitchen and elsewhere in the house. Portraits of that kitchen god bear another similarity to Santa Claus—he was depicted in red! It used to be a custom for the daughter-in-law to make a pair of traditional Korean socks and on the winter solstice give them to her mother-in-law. That was meant to symbolize her wish that the mother-in-law would have a long life, since the days get longer after that date.
Do you not see some similarities between the foregoing points and Christmas? They share stories and customs: the chimney, candles, gift-giving, socks, an old man in red clothing, and the date. Still, such similarities alone do not account for the easy acceptance of Christmas in Korea. The belief in Chowangshin had almost faded away by the time Christmas was first introduced to Korea. In fact, most Koreans today do not know that such a belief ever existed.
Nonetheless, this illustrates how customs related to the winter solstice and the end of the year spread all over the world through different paths. In the fourth century C.E., the prevailing church in the Roman Empire changed the name of the Saturnalia, the pagan Roman festival of the birth of the sun-god, and made this part of Christmas. The Christmas celebration amounted to a revival of local customs with a different name tag. How was that possible?
The Role of Gift-Giving
Gift-giving is one custom that has never faded away. For a long time, Koreans have found much joy in giving and receiving gifts. This was one reason for the popularizing of the Christmas celebration in Korea.
After World War II, for the U.S. soldiers stationed in Korea who wanted to strengthen their ties with the people, churches were places to meet and to distribute gifts and relief aid. Especially on Christmas Day did this occur. Many children visited churches out of curiosity, and there they had their first exposure to gifts of chocolate. As you can understand, many of them then looked forward to the next Christmas.
For such children, Santa Claus was an American soldier in a red stocking cap. Proverbs 19:6 says: “Everybody is a companion to the man making gifts.” Yes, gift-giving proved to be very effective. But as you can conclude from that verse, such gifts do not guarantee a lasting friendship. Even in Korea, many are those whose experiences with the church amounted to nothing more than a taste of chocolate in their younger years. Christmas, though, was not forgotten. Along with Korea’s rapid economic growth, commercialism grew, and Christmas gift-giving was a simple means for boosting consumer spending. Businesses exploited Christmas to increase profits.
That provides you with insight into Christmas in the Orient today. Aiming at the Christmas shopping spree, new products are developed. Plans for advertisements begin in midsummer. Sales figures peak at year-end, supported by all the purchasing of Christmas gifts, cards, and musical recordings. Why, advertisements would make the average youth feel miserable if he or she stayed at home and did not get any presents on Christmas Eve!
As Christmas Day draws near, stores and shopping malls in Seoul get crowded with people who are there to buy gifts, and the story is the same in other Oriental cities. There are traffic jams. Hotels, business districts, restaurants, and nightclubs are flooded with customers. Sounds of revelry—loud singing—can be heard. On Christmas Eve, drunken men and women are seen making their way through streets that are littered with trash.
So it is. Christmas in the Orient is no longer a holiday led by professed Christians. Obviously, in Korea as elsewhere, commercialism has taken the lead in making the most of this holiday of Christendom. Is the commercialism, then, solely to blame for a Christmas that has become so out of line with the spirit of Christ? True Christians need to probe deeper into the serious issue involved.
The Origin of Christmas
A wild animal that is moved into a cage in a zoo is still a beast. And it would be a grave mistake to believe that it has been domesticated just because it has been in a cage for a while and seemingly enjoys itself with its young ones. You may have heard reports of zoo workers being attacked.
In some ways we can say much the same about the celebration of Christmas. At first it was a “beast” living outside of Christianity. Under the subheading “Relation to the Roman Saturnalia,” The Christian Encyclopedia (in Korean)* observes regarding Christmas:
“The pagan Saturnalia and Brumalia were too deeply entrenched in popular custom to be set aside by Christian influence. The recognition of Sunday (the day of Phœbus and Mithras as well as the Lord’s Day) by the emperor Constantine . . . may have led Christians of the fourth century to feel the appropriateness of making the birthday of the Son of God coincide with that of the physical sun. The pagan festival with its riot and merrymaking was so popular that Christians were glad of an excuse to continue its celebration with little change in spirit or in manner.”
Do you think that such a development could come about without any opposition? The same encyclopedia says: “Christian preachers of the West and the Nearer East protested against the unseemly frivolity with which Christ’s birthday was celebrated, while Christians of Mesopotamia accused their Western brethren of idolatry and sun-worship for adopting as Christian this pagan festival.” Truly, something was wrong from the beginning. “Yet the festival rapidly gained acceptance and became at last so firmly established that even the Protestant revolution of the sixteenth century was not able to dislodge it,” the encyclopedia notes.
Yes, a festival of the sun-god, outside of true Christianity, was brought into the prevailing church. It got a different name—yet its pagan character remained. And it helped to infuse paganism into nominally Christian churches and to corrupt individuals’ spirituality. History bears out that as Christendom developed, the original attitude of “love thy enemies” gave way to moral degradations and violent wars.
In time, it was clear that despite its counterfeit name, Christmas reflected its pagan origin with revelry, heavy drinking, merrymaking, dancing, gift-giving, and the decorating of homes with evergreens. For the sake of commercialism’s ultimate goal—more sales—Christmas has been exploited in every possible way. The mass media praise it; the public is simply amused. In downtown Seoul, a store that specializes in underwear made television news by displaying in its window a Christmas tree decorated only with underwear. The atmosphere of Christmas was noticeable, but any sign of welcoming the Christ was not.
Scriptural Insight Into Christmas
What do we learn from such historical background and developments? If a shirt or blouse is buttoned unevenly from the start, the only way to correct the situation is to begin again. Is that not true? Despite that truth, some argue that notwithstanding its pagan roots in sun worship, Christmas has been accepted by Christendom. So they feel that the holiday has been sanctified as the birthday of Christ and imbued with new significance.
We can learn a valuable lesson from a historical event that took place in ancient Judah. In 612 B.C.E., the Judeans introduced pagan worship of the sun into the temple in Jerusalem. Was such pagan worship sanctified by being carried on in the place devoted to clean worship of Jehovah God? The Bible writer Ezekiel wrote of the sun worship practiced at Jerusalem’s temple: “Look! at the entrance of the temple of Jehovah, between the porch and the altar, there were about twenty-five men with . . . their faces to the east, and they were bowing down to the east, to the sun. And he went on to say to me: ‘Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it such a light thing to the house of Judah to do the detestable things that they have done here, that they have to fill the land with violence and that they should offend me again, and here they are thrusting out the shoot to my nose?’”—Ezekiel 8:16, 17.
Yes, rather than being sanctified, that pagan form of worship put the whole temple in jeopardy. Such practices permeated Judah and contributed to the prevalence of violence and moral degradation in that land. It is similar in Christendom, where practices rooted in the sun worship of Saturnalia come to the fore at Christmas. Significantly, a few years after Ezekiel received that vision, Jerusalem experienced God’s judgment—it met destruction at the hands of the Babylonians.—2 Chronicles 36:15-20.
You might have found the description of the young Jesus by a Korean scholar, related in the preceding article, amusing. But the fact is that coming from a person without an accurate knowledge of Christ, the reaction has considerable validity. It might make people who celebrate Christmas think seriously. Why? Because Christmas falls far short of representing Christ correctly. In fact, it obscures his true standing now. Jesus is no longer a babe in a manger.
Over and over, the Bible highlights that Jesus is now the Messiah, the powerful King of God’s heavenly Kingdom. (Revelation 11:15) He is ready to put an end to the poverty and misery that some people have not forgotten during the Christmas season as they give to charity.
Frankly, Christmas has benefited neither the lands of Christendom nor other countries, including those in the Orient. Rather, it has diverted attention from the true Christian message about the Kingdom of God and the end of the present wicked system. (Matthew 24:14) We invite you to inquire of Jehovah’s Witnesses about how that end will come. And you can learn from them about the lasting blessings that then will follow on earth, under the direction of God’s Kingdom and the reigning King, Jesus Christ.—Revelation 21:3, 4.
Based on The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.
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Christmas helped to infuse paganism into nominally Christian churches
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Many children visited churches out of curiosity and received gifts of chocolate. They then looked forward to the next Christmas
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Christmas Eve in downtown Seoul, Korea
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Christ is no longer a babe but the powerful King of God’s Kingdom