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Have a merry pagan Christmas: Get Religion, December 19, 2011 December 19, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Popular Culture, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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The Daily Mail loves its crazy American stories — articles that show the quirky (I’m being polite) or bizarre (a little more true to life) aspects of American culture — or the lack there of.  Today’s installment is entitled: “Families shockedto find ‘hate mail’ claiming their Christmas lights honour ‘Pagan Sun-God.”

Yes, the guy who delights in shouting “you kids get off my lawn” has been stuffing mailboxes in Hudsonville, Mich. with flyers denouncing those who have decorated their homes with Christmas lights.

A group homeowners on one street with Christmas decorations have received an anonymous note saying the lights honour the ‘Pagan Sun-God.’

The residents in Hudsonville, Michigan, were baffled by the notes which were attached to their mailboxes on Wednesday night.

The note said the lights have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, according to ABC News affiliate WZZM.

The letters begin on a warm note by saying ‘Hi neighbour, you have a nice display of lights.’

But it swiftly become serious by talking of how the ‘pagan tradition’ of putting up lights began.

The article quotes an offended homeowner, who found the note ridiculous. (Question. Would the Scrooge of Hudsonville have written Hi neighbour? Adding in the “u”. Just asking.) The Daily Mail’s stage American displays outrage, independence, Christian piety — and a hint of ignorance.

Miss Hoekman added: ‘It’s a sin to judge other people and to tell people that if they have Christmas lights they are Pagans.

‘We’re not Pagans, we go to church regularly, my kids go to the Christian school.

A “Miss” whose kids go to the Christian school? That would be news. It is a silly story of course. But it does reflect a meme often found in Christmas related stories that December 25 is a Christianized pagan holiday.

Here’s how a Dec 15 piece in the Huffington Post puts it:

Because early Christians didn’t have a specific date in scripture, they chose one with metaphorical significance that also coincided with two preexisting Roman celebrations. December 25th was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar — the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day that represented the transition from dark to light would have been an appropriate symbol for those who saw in Jesus the birth of a man who would lead them to salvation. The Bible abounds in symbolic language of Jesus represented as light, a metaphor found for the divine in every other major religion as well.

The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Christians because it corresponded with two Roman celebrations centered on the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving. … Many Romans in the fourth century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Christian tradition of Christmas naturally absorbed elements of these popular pagan celebrations.

This bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to scrutiny. It will disappoint the crank of Hudsonville no doubt, but he (and the Huffington Post) have it backwards. As Prof. William Tighe wrote in Touchstone magazine a few years ago:

… the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date [Dec 25] in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.

In other words, it was the pagan Emporer Aurelian who sought to paganize the Dec 25 holiday of the Christians, not the Christians who sought to Christianize the Roman pagan holiday. For those who are interested in this topic I urge you to read Prof. Tighe’s popular treatment of the subject — or the scholarly study The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas Talley.

I do not doubt that some will dispute Prof. Tighe’s conclusions on this point and reject his scholarship. However, from the perspective of journalism an unthinking acceptance of the conventional wisdom — and not checking sources — is a mistake.

Photos: the holiday home is courtesy of Shutterstock and the disc of Sol Invictus is from the British Museum courtesy of Wikipedia.

First printed in GetReligion.

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