Monday, November 28, 2011

Pagan Origins, My Donkey

My green and silver Christmas tree
This time of year I can’t get enough of Christmas trees. I love all Christmas decorations, really—except for big plastic snowmen—but trees are the quintessential decoration.

Apparently, the first Christmas trees date to the fifteenth century in Estonia and Latvia and the sixteenth century in Germany. Some say the Christmas tree has pagan origins, but there’s no evidence for that. Except that it’s a tree, it’s green, and you bring it into your house—which is enough for some people, I guess. It just seems pagan.

But in Europe, where most American Christmas customs originated, pagans did not cut down entire trees and bring them into their homes for the winter solstice. Goodness knows what other peoples and cultures have done with trees through the millennia. I don’t really think about it when I decorate my tree. I know what I’m celebrating, and I know the One who made the trees.

Other symbols of Christmas—mistletoe, holly and ivy, evergreen garlands—are clearly connected to pagan celebrations, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. If anything, I’m pleased Christians have taken them over and made them our own. They’re part of God’s creation. They belong to Him.

I don’t care what the Celts and druids did with plants when it got cold outside, or what Norse mythology says about mistletoe. Some Christians feel otherwise, but I think they’re mistaken. And I believe they’re caving to secular propaganda: "Pagan symbols are older than Christmas, so Christianity must be a myth." That’s called a non sequitur.

Are we supposed to cast back though human history, vetting each Christmas decoration we wish to use, making sure it was never misused?

When Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the crowd placed palm branches at the animal’s feet. If only they’d known that the Egyptians used to bring palms into their homes at the winter solstice to celebrate the rebirth of Ra, the sun god, they might have avoided the pagan scandal of it all. And the apostle Paul might not have compared grafted olive shoots to saved souls if he’d known that in Greek mythology, the goddess Athena planted the first olive tree.

Of course, the most frequently targeted Christmas symbol is the date of the holiday itself. I have to chuckle when someone on radio or TV announces, as if for the first time, that Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25, and that it wasn’t until the fourth century that the date was set (in the West). This is always pronounced in a spiteful, gleeful kind of way—along with the suggestion that Christians chose this date because the Romans celebrated Saturnalia in late December—as though Christianity itself crumbles in the face of the Great Date Affair.

Should you care what the Romans did during Saturnalia? Or what neopagans today do on the winter solstice? Maybe, but only because knowing these things will arm you the next time some anti-Christian busybody tells you that Christianity is a myth because the Norse god Baldur was killed with an arrow fashioned out of mistletoe.

Holly berries, garlands, the trees we decorate when we celebrate the birth of Christ—these are Gods gifts, His creation. They don’t belong to pagan mythology. Or to neopagans, in spite of their appropriation. If anything, neopagans have pirated God’s good gifts and denied him the thanks due for creating them.

Saturnalia, the rebirth of Ra? These were shadows pointing to the real thing to come: the birth of Christ. The God who created the sun—and winter, holly, and evergreens—made use of them all, throughout history. They were whispers: Look. Look what’s coming.



Amanda Stephan said...

Good post, Karin! Next time I see a plastic snowman, I'll be thinking of you! And we won't even mention the mistletoe thingy... ;)

smithsk said...

Hooray! So many good things have been hijacked by the ungodly. It is great they can be reclaimed for a godly purpose.

Cynthia Bruner said...

Excellent post. I'm happy to see you writing on this topic. Must go add more tinsel to my tree, now. :-)

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Great post, Karin! I have to laugh with you when people try to dismiss Christianity because of the day we celebrate Christ's birth. And I agree - we shouldn't go crazy with avoiding Christmas traditions because of what pagans did centuries ago. I think that borderlines on superstition. ;-)

Karin Kaufman said...

@Amanda I have a neighbor who used big plastic snowmen. I avert my eyes while passing by. :)

@smithsk "Hijacked" is a wonderful word! Wish I'd thought of that. I do get miffed when non-Christians hijack elements of God's creation then tell Christians "hands off." Or worse, tell them that the legends surrounding those elements are proof that Christianity is false.

@Cynthia Enjoy decorating your tree!

@Gwendolyn "Superstition" is another apt word. We can't allow ourselves to be afraid of, or even concerned by, trees and berries. Just think of what Christians really have to face in this life. What battles we really have to wage. If we're cowed by decorated evergreens (or allow non-Christians to make us so), what good are we in real battles?

Glenda Parker Fiction Writer said...

Sorry I like snowmen in every shape and size but I loved the rest of you post. Some times it is easy to get caught up in all of legalism people try to bring into Christianity. God grace will see us through. It's not about all the little details people get hung up on but what Jesus did for us.
Glenda Parker

Karin Kaufman said...

Glenda, if you could see my neighbor's plastic snowman, you might change your mind. :)

Thanks for your comments. I agree that it's not about the little details but about God's grace. Not that we should treat that grace as being cheap. And for me it all comes down to this: these things belong to God, and God gave them to us.

Post a Comment