As is usually this time of year, we hear a great deal of the pagan roots of many of our Christmas traditions, and a great deal of this is true. Most of our traditions in America stem from English, Dutch, and German influences; which, in turn, was heavily influenced by Northern Europe pagan traditions. Those that point this out start usually tie the date of Christmas to Roman celebrations, then leap over to traditions like mistletoe and holly. They have to; in the America, where we did not have traditions like the Lord of Misrule, ties to Roman paganism are vague if at all. There’s some question whether Christians set the date of Christmas on December 25 because of Roman pagan celebration, or because of a tradition that Jesus was crucified on the same date as the angel brought news to Mary, March 25 in the Roman calendar, and December 25 is nine months after March 25.
Regardless of whether the date of Christmas was to draw a parallel with Roman celebrations or an issue of the church calendar, the modern focus on the pagan traditions attached to Christmas has, in some circles, another undercurrent. The unspoken assertion is that Christmas is “borrowed,” implying that that Christians brought nothing to the holiday pot luck and had to fill their plates with the “goodies” bought by the pagans. Yet what Christianity brought had such a profound influence that it affected the very way the West saw this time of year. When we take a close look at the holiday table, we find, maybe to our surprise, that while the pagans brought the appetizers, it was the Christians who brought the main course.
The world that Jesus came to was very different from our own, and not just technologically or politically. Humility wasn’t considered a virtue among pagans. Nor was compassion, nor forgiveness, nor concern for children, nor a respect for women, who generally didn’t have it so well outside of Judaism. This was an age when the sick and elderly could be abandoned; when unwanted babies were left to die; when the reign of the Lord of Misrule ended with is throat slit on the altar of Saturn. As Jesus preached, Emperor Tiberius is said to have turned Capri into an isle of depravity, discarding the slaves over a thousand foot cliff called Tiberius’ Leap. Whether the rumors of the Old Goat of Capri were true or not, what appalled the Romans wasn’t the claims of depravity and death, but the excessiveness.
Pagan Rome wasn’t a very nice place. Nor were many pagan cultures, from the Norse, who would one day use the contemptuous term White Christ in referring to Jesus, to the sophisticated cultures of the East, where infanticide and suttee would be practiced into the 20th Century.
Such things are not mentioned today for what some may find a surprising reason. The message of Jesus has spread, shaping hearts and minds among believers and non-believers alike to the point that the early non-Christian religions were short in the compassion department is considered an insult by some. It’s taken for granted that everyone in all places and times considered humility and compassion as virtues, when history, some surprisingly recent, shows this is not the case.
Christianity changes how we view others, and even if we are not Christian ourselves, a society that’s predominately Christian will be steeped in the ideas of Christian virtues. So it was that Benjamin Franklin, who by his own words was a deist, often comes across to us as a Christian. Such is the effect that non-Christians in the West are just as horrified at the slaughter done in the name of divination as those of us who call Jesus Christ Lord.
Oh yes, that happened, and not just at the hand of men like Julian the Apostate. When a group of Christians discovered a secret chamber of an abandoned temple to Mithras, along with idols, cult items, and the bones of the victims, and paraded them for all to see, onlookers became enraged, not at Mithraism, but at the Christians for revealing the secret items. What that says about period views of compassion is left as an exercise to the reader.
Yet even then there was beginnings of change. For in that same century, Nicholas of Myra would be noted not only for his piety, but for his alms giving. About seven hundred years later, the kindness of Duke Wenceslas I would become legend. In the lands of the former Roman Empire, alms would be given to the poor, and from this and maybe the custom of giving gifts to servants the day after Christmas, we would get Boxing Day. By the mid 19th Century, when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the very Christian sentiment of generosity and caring for others had long since become what is called the Christmas spirit.
The celebrations would remain, becoming condensed in much of the West, with the rise of Protestantism, into a single day instead of spread throughout December and early January, and the return of New Year’s Eve parties echo back to the Roman celebrations of the turning of the year. And, of course, there are traditions, from greenery to parading about with a horse’s skull, that also hearken back to pagan roots. Yet the heart of Christmas is not found there, nor in the spending, but in a stable in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. And the significance of that event still reverberates across the centuries. For all of Christmas is about the compassion God has for man:
“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
That, in a nutshell, is the Christmas spirit. Something to keep in mind not just now, but the whole year through.