How Americans Stole Christmas

Bah Humbug. This is going to be a Scrooge-y article, and I won’t try to pretend otherwise. I’m easily annoyed at Christmastime. Not at hearing the same music year after year, though I’m close to filing a petition to remove “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” from compilation albums. (Seriously. Is there not at least one other uptempo Christmas song?)

Nor am I annoyed because the Christmas displays show up earlier each year, or because the yard decorations get gaudier, or because the mall Santas don’t even try to grow a convincingly real beard anymore. These are mild irritants compared to the real annoyance: the annual uproar from the faith community about how our beloved religious holiday has become so overtly secularized.

Every year, there are banners. Every year, preachers pound pulpits. Every year, talk-radio callers shout a refrain so familiar we might as well put it to music and take it out a-caroling: We need to put Christ back into Christmas.

That’s a peculiar, history-blind notion. In many cases, the things we associate with Christmas—from the greenery to gift-giving to the date itself—don’t necessarily originate with the Christian faith. Some of them predate the manger, the shepherds and the midnight clear.

Put Jesus back in? Might be tough, since we’re the ones who wedged Him into a few pre-existing pagan traditions in the first place. The most Christmasy parts of Christmas aren’t ours. We stole them.

The Tree

The origins of the evergreen Christmas tree are so shadowy, few places agree where it came from, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t Bethlehem. Ancient Egypt is a contender. Around the time of the winter solstice—the longest night of the year, occurring on either Dec. 21 or 22—Egyptians would bring palm branches into their homes, taking a hopeful stand against the encroaching darkness.

Ancient Rome might also be a culprit. In late December, the Romans observed the feast of Saturnalia—a week-long winter festival honoring the god Saturn—by making evergreen laurel wreaths and placing candles in live trees.

Our Christmas trees might have roots in Scandinavian folk mythology. According to these beliefs, the entire universe was contained in a really big ash tree called Yggdrasil, which balanced the sun, moon and stars in its evergreen branches. With this in mind, the ancient Scandinavians celebrated the winter solstice by hanging apples, nuts and little animal-shaped cakes from evergreen trees. Perhaps the ornamented trees reminded them of their place in the universe. Or rather, the universe’s place in Yggdrasil.

Regardless of the culture, these tree-related customs reminded people winter wasn’t forever. After all, the winter was a scary time for ancient pagans. The days grew shorter. The sun appeared less and less. Vegetation withered up during the winter months. But evergreen trees? The harsh winters didn’t faze them. Maybe evergreens had magical powers. Maybe they were eternal. Which is why eventually connecting them with Jesus wasn’t all that difficult.

One Christmas tree origin story involves St. Boniface, an eighth-century monk and the eventual archbishop of Germany. He had a run-in with some local tribes who worshiped a tree at Geismar known as the Holy Oak of Thor. They considered the tree some kind of leafy deity. Boniface wasn’t too keen on this, so he did what any good saint would do: He chopped down the sacred tree.

According to legend, the tree split to reveal a small, miraculous fir tree growing amid its gnarled roots. Boniface seized the timely metaphor and suggested the little fir tree ought to remind those pagans of Jesus. See how it seems to point toward heaven? And see how its color is constant, like the love of Christ? And see how it sorta seems to symbolize the death of paganism and the rise of Christianity?

So Boniface (and in other tales, Martin Luther) gets credit for the Christmas tree. But most scholars agree this story is probably apocryphal. It pretty conveniently disguised the fact that evergreen trees have always played a big role in winter solstice observances. A big, fat, pagan role.

The Mistletoe

Mistletoe is another one of those Christmas plants with a supposedly Christian backstory. If you hang around botanists, or Latin scholars, you might hear it referred to as lignum sanctae crucis, “wood of the sacred cross.” Past Christian traditions held that the cross of Christ was cut from the wood of a mistletoe tree. Only mistletoe isn’t a tree. It’s a parasite, surviving by attaching to the branches of another tree. The legend has an answer for this, though. It says the parasitism is the result of a curse God put on the mistletoe for its role in the crucifixion. Its current duty as the love sprig? Just a handy way of performing penance for this sin.

Nice story, but mistletoe is another evergreen with a divine history older than Christianity. The ancient Greeks believed it had mystical powers. The ancient Druids thought it to be an aphrodisiac and used it to concoct fertility potions. German pagans got really excited when they discovered mistletoe growing in one of their sacred oaks (see the St. Boniface story above), because they believed a growth of mistletoe was the result of a lightning strike. The mistletoe, they thought, formed the “soul” of these oaken deities. So they would sacrifice a bull upon finding it. Hint: Don’t do this at your next Christmas party.

The ancient Scandinavians considered mistletoe to be a plant of harmony and peace. This is the result of a complicated narrative involving Frigg, the Norse love goddess and mother of Baldr, the sun god. According to Norse mythology, Baldr dies upon being struck by a spear crafted from mistletoe. The death of the sun god brings winter into the world. Despondent, Frigg forbids mistletoe from ever associating with death again. Instead, she decrees, it must honor her son by ever symbolizing love.

So if two enemies were fighting each other in some Scandinavian forest and happened to find themselves beneath mistletoe, they were required to stop fighting immediately, put down their weapons, call a temporary truce and hug it out.

Eventually, mistletoe’s impact on fighting warriors morphed into a connection with fighting lovers. Instead of dropping their weapons, lovers were supposed to kiss under the fortuitous plant. Which brings us to today, when lonely people and IT nerds linger near the mistletoe at the office Christmas parties. Do they do it in honor of Jesus and the cross? Possibly. But don’t forget to also credit Baldr and Frigg.

The Gifts

This one’s a no-brainer, right? Don’t we give each other gifts on Christmas (and on our birthdays) because the wise men gave Jesus gifts on His birthday?

Not so fast. Yes, the wise men gave gifts to Jesus. But if you’ll read Matthew’s Gospel carefully—instead of, say, getting your history from nativity scenes—you’ll notice the wise men didn’t actually show up at the manger. At all. According to Matthew 2:16, they arrived two years after Christ’s birth. So those weren’t exactly birthday gifts. It’s more likely they were traditional and symbolic gifts reserved for a king.

Unless you only give Christmas presents to royalty, your holiday gift-giving owes less to the wise Magi and more to Saturnalia, the aforementioned Roman winter solstice feast. Its celebrants would exchange small gifts with each other according to socioeconomic status. The rich gave jewelry or gold coins. The poor gave homemade edibles. Children would give and receive little clay dolls. And everyone gave “strenae,” evergreen boughs thought to bring good luck.

But, hark! Gift-giving isn’t completely pagan. It does have a legitimate—but probably legendary—connection to Christianity, thanks to St. Nicholas. Yes, that St. Nicholas. The kindly fourth-century bishop of Myra used his family’s affluence to give anonymous gifts to the poor (including once dropping a bag of gold down a family’s chimney). After he died of old age, admiring townsfolk continued his habit of secret gift giving, with credit going to jolly old St. Nick. Giving gifts to the poor in honor of Jesus? For something rooted in paganism, it fits pretty nicely into a Christian framework.

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The Date

Question: What day was Jesus born?

Answer: We don’t know, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t Dec. 25.

Even the date of Christmas doesn’t belong to Christianity. While the Bible doesn’t record the date of Christ’s birth, there’s little to suggest He was actually born on the 25th of December. As you might recall from the Christmas story, there were “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8, KJV). December, in Palestine, is in the middle of the region’s cold, October-to-April rainy season. Sheep would have been inside, not out in the fields.

Regardless, Dec. 25 is a date with a lot of history. It was the feast of the Son of Isis in ancient Babylon, a festival marked with plenty of eating, drinking and even gift-giving. Dec. 25 often marked the end of the Romans’ Saturnalia celebration. The date also coincided with Yule, an ancient German pagan festival occurring on or around Dec. 25.

And in the early years of Christianity, that specific day was celebrated as the birthday of the Persian sun god, Mithras. The religion built around this deity, Mithraism, had become a major rival to the Church in fourth century Rome, and Dec. 25 was a big party day for the pagans whom Christians hoped to convert. Which posed a problem: How do we convert these guys if we immediately make them give up their favorite feast?

So, even though the early Church hadn’t really bothered to observe Christ’s birth at all, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the official feast day to honor Baby Jesus. And what a coincidence that this date not only competed with rival religions but made it a lot easier for new converts to drop their paganism while holding on to the day’s merriment, feasts and fun. The papal pronouncement became official in 375 A.D. Suddenly Jesus had a birthday.

Redeeming the Season

What does this all mean? That we shouldn’t decorate trees, kiss under the mistletoe or exchange gift cards because doing so is somehow a nod to paganism? That by eating Christmas dinner on Dec. 25, we’re affirming Mithraism? That we should feel bad for stealing all the best pagan traditions from the years before Christ?

No. Despite my humbuggery, I love Christmas. I love evergreen trees and kissing and presents. What I don’t love is the assumption that, as Christians, we own this stuff. What I don’t love is the attitude that cries foul the minute someone removes the cross from the top of the department-store Christmas tree, or that gets upset at the “Happy Holidays” banner outside Wal-Mart.

We call it Christmas and have named it after our Savior, but let’s not be so arrogant as to suggest the holiday is exclusively ours. A better perspective is to admit we have co-opted the season, along with many of its traditions, for the purpose of pointing toward Bethlehem.

Christmas is the story of the Incarnation—of the insertion of Christ into the dust of humanity, of the infusion of grace into something worldly and pagan. In the process, mankind was redeemed. If so, then our theft of these solstice traditions is no crime against history. Instead, it’s yet another picture—a beautiful, generous, peaceful, evergreen metaphor—of redemption.

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