Every year it comes up, the contention over the nature of Christmas. It’s an argument that seems never to end … unfortunately.

On the one hand there are religionazis who claim there’s a war on Christmas (something I’ve blogged about already). On the other hand, there are people who claim it’s really “a pagan holiday in disguise.”

The truth of the matter is that Christmas is an assuredly Christian holiday … one which has developed over time, and in different places, in a variety of ways and has any number of different features depending on where you are, and some of those features resemble pagan practices. In other words, it’s a complicated matter with no easy, simple, quick answers.

It should not be surprising that this is the case, however, because we’re talking about a holiday now celebrated around the world with many centuries of history behind it. It’s simply not possible for something that old, and that stretched out demographically, to be a simple matter. This idea is alluded to in this piece in the New York Times:

Every Christmas, I re-read C .S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The holiday seems like the ideal time for an excursion into my imaginative past, and so I return to the paperback boxed set of “The Chronicles of Narnia” that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was 10. For me, Narnia is intimately linked with the season.

I’m not alone. In Britain, stage productions of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” are a holiday staple, for good reason. The book rests on a foundation of Christian imagery; its most famous scene is of a little girl standing under a lamppost in a snowy wood; and Father Christmas himself makes an appearance, after the lion god Aslan frees Narnia from an evil witch who decreed that it be “always winter, and never Christmas.”

That I’m not a Christian doesn’t much hinder my enjoyment of either the holiday or the book, but the presence of Father Christmas bothered many of Lewis’s friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, whose Middle-earth was free of the legends and religions of our world, objected to Narnia’s hodgepodge of motifs: the fauns and dryads lifted from classic mythology, the Germanic dwarfs and contemporary schoolboy slang lumped in with the obvious Christian symbolism.

But Lewis embraced the Middle Ages’ indiscriminate mixing of stories and motifs from seemingly incompatible sources. The medievals, he once wrote, enthusiastically adopted a habit from late antiquity of “gathering together and harmonizing views of very different origin: building a syncretistic model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoical, but out of pagan and Christian elements.”

Lewis had a point about medieval Europeans. They assimilated things into their worldview, without regard to their origins, and reinterpreted them as part of their own world and in their own way. For instance, some of the medieval romances spoke of Jesus Christ has having been “the first knight” — this is, of course, a ridiculous notion, since the knighthood did not exist until centuries after Jesus’ time, meaning there is no way he could have been one; moreover, nothing in the gospels suggested he was a warrior in service to a lord (which is what a knight is). Nonetheless, medieval people had no trouble envisioning him that way.

Christmas is very much the same thing … it’s an amalgamation of local practices and Christian legend, nothing more, and nothing less. It contains a bit of this, a bit of that, and is ever-changing. Early in Christian history, it was not observed at all; for the first several centuries the only major Christian holiday was Easter. Sometime in the 4th century, Christmas became a solemnity — a day upon which a specific Mass was said — but it was not a holiday that Christians celebrated in their homes, just a special day for the clergy to gather for a particular Mass. Private Christmas celebrations, in fact, are not documented to have happened until the early Middle Ages (8th century perhaps).

Lots of Christians say they’d like to celebrate Christmas as it was originally. Well, bully for them … I hope they like spending all day in church, because that was the first manner in which it was celebrated, beginning in the 4th century! If they prefer to go back even further, then they must not celebrate Christmas at all, because in its first few centuries, Christianity did not really care about that holiday.

Complaints that people have forgotten “the Reason for the Season” are common among Christians, but honestly, all this means is that they’d prefer Christmas was celebrated as it was in their youth — however that was. The truth is they know very little about the holiday itself, or how it was celebrated historically.

As for Christmas being “a pagan holiday,” history suggests otherwise … as I said, the very first manner in which Christmas was observed, was in the saying of a Mass. (In fact, holding a church service on Christmas remains the only thing Christian denominations around the world have in common, about that day.) There is nothing pagan, however, about saying a Mass. Some Christmas customs have a similarity to pagan practices, but there is no substantive, firm linkage, merely an association. For instance, decorating Christmas trees supposedly derives from Celtic tree-worship, or the belief that spirits inhabit trees. There is, however, no connection between the ancient Celts (who may or may not be correctly characterized as having “worshipped” trees) and the modern Christmas tree custom, which dates back no earlier than the Renaissance in Germany. There is, instead, a gap of many centuries between the two.

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