Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. – Phil. 4:4
It is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which early Church Fathers had calculated to have fallen on the twenty-fifth of December at least a century before the events – the legalization of Christianity, the conversion of Constantine the Great, the making Christianity the official religion of Rome – that the hyper-Protestants believe initiated the syncretism that in their view corrupted Christianity with paganism, and, indeed, before there was even any pagan significance to the date of the twenty-fifth of December. I also demonstrated that the information that St. Luke provides us about the timing of the birth of Christ in his Gospel – the Annunciation took place in the sixth month of St. Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist, which pregnancy began shortly after St. Zechariah was visited by Gabriel in the Temple, which most likely occurred during the week of Yom Kippur if not the exact day – supports the placing of Christ’s birth in December-January. The exact process by which the Church Fathers calculated more specific dates is not clear, although the date of the Annunciation seems to have been calculated first and some theorize that it had to do with the idea that Christ was conceived on the same day He died. That the Church Fathers were looking for dates when the Jewish holy days that the events in St. Luke’s chronology fell on or around – Passover for the Annunciation, Hanukkah for the Nativity – matched up with the events on the solar calendar that they approximate (the spring equinox and winter solstice) is perhaps a likelier explanation than the influence of the Jewish concept of “integral age”. The twenty-fifth of March and December would not line up with the precise date of the solar events by our calculations today, but these were calculated differently back then. Looking for such convergence does not indicate a pagan influence. That the sun, moon, and stars were placed in the firmament for “signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” by God Himself is asserted in the first chapter of the Bible (Gen. 1:14).I debunked the neo-Cromwellian, hyper-Protestant claim that Christmas is actually a pagan holiday and demonstrated that it is of Christian origin.
Having debunked the hyper-Protestant claims about the date of Christmas, let us turn to their claims about the manner in which it is celebrated. In one sense they seem to be on firmer ground here. Every place in which Christmas is celebrated has its local customs as to how it is celebrated and many of these seem to have been adopted from traditions that were around before the area was evangelized. Nevertheless, this hardly makes Christmas “pagan”.
The sort of things we are talking about here are the accidents of Christmas, not its essence. What makes Christmas Christmas, is not the goose or turkey and pudding, the gift-giving, the holly and mistletoe, the stockings and Yule log, the wreathes and wassail, or any such thing. It is the Christmas story, which comes directly from Sacred Writ, the early chapters of the Gospels of both SS Matthew and Luke. Many of the most beloved of Christmas carols either retell the Christmas story in verse or proclaim the theological significance of the events narrated in the story or both. I am not talking about “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman”, obviously, but carols like Charles Wesley and George Whitefield’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, Dr. Martin Luther’s “Silent Night, Holy Night”, and “Adeste Fidelis” and its English translation “O Come All Ye Faithful”. The very name of the holiday speaks of Christians celebrating the Nativity of Christ by participating in the Holy Sacrament. Christmas is a contraction of “Christ’s mass”. Hyper-Protestants will no doubt read every last bit of Romanist doctrine regarding transubstantiation into the word “mass” but this word, taken from the Latin words used to dismiss (another word that we get from the same Latin source) the congregation at the end of the service, simply means a liturgical service in which the Eucharist is celebrated. Things are defined by their essence, not their accidents. Christmas is defined by the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, not by the decorations, food, and merry-making.
That having been said, if our hyper-Protestant friends persist in objecting some of the food and drink, gifts and games, and decorations having had roots in pre-Christian traditions, then the manner in which these came to be incorporated into the celebration of Christmas needs to be pointed out to them. This is because hyper-Protestantism is based upon the idea that everything in the pre-Reformation Christian tradition that the hyper-Protestants object to, which is basically everything for which they cannot find an exact Scripture verse either authorizing or commanding it, is something that was imposed upon the unsuspecting Christian laity by an evil clergy out to rob them of their Christian liberty. This is precisely the opposite of how elements from pre-Christian winter festivals became a part of Christmas celebrations. It was the people who brought these sorts of things into Christmas, not the Church that imposed them upon the people. If anything, the Church may have initially tried to dissuade the people from doing this, but tolerated and eventually accepted it on the grounds that these sort of things are not intrinsically pagan, are minor matters, and that what Scripture does not prohibit it permits (the hyper-Protestants operate on the reverse of this, John Calvin’s regulative principle, that what Scripture does not permit it prohibits, which is clearly far less compatible with the Pauline doctrine of Christian liberty).
One of the silliest examples of hyper-Protestant opposition to Christmas traditions with pre-Christian origins has to do with the Christmas tree. A Christmas tree is an evergreen tree – spruce, pine or the like – that people set up in their homes, usually in the living room, and decorate with stars, angels, tinsel, candles or electric lights, and other ornaments, and under which they place the presents to be opened at Christmas. It is a relatively recent addition to Christmas traditions and appears to be of Germanic origin. Dr. Luther is known to have decorated Christmas trees with candles and some have attributed the start of the tradition to him, others trace it back to the pre-Christian Germanic traditions of Yule. Either way, some hyper-Protestants maintain that it is explicitly condemned in the prophecy of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. They are referring to a passage found at the beginning of the tenth chapter of Jeremiah - specifically the third and fourth verses. Here are those verses:
For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
Now, the hyper-Protestants who interpret these verses as referring to Christmas trees, might have a point if the people who put up Christmas trees erected altars in front of the Christmas trees, offered sacrifices to them and burned incense to them, prayed to them, trusted them to deliver them from their enemies, and did any of that sort of thing. I don’t know of anyone who does this sort of thing with his Christmas tree, nor do I know of anyone who knows somebody else who does.
The entire passage in which these verses are found – the first sixteen verses of the chapter, make it abundantly clear that what is being talked about is not a custom of erecting a tree and decorating it for festive purposes, but the making of an idol. Consider the verse that immediately follows the ones quoted above:
They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.
When Jeremiah talks about how they “are upright as the palm tree, but speak not” this very similar to the places in which the Psalmist says of idols “they have mouths, but they speak not” (115:5, 135:16), and when he adds “they must needs be borne, because they cannot go” this brings to mind the verse that says “feet have they, but they walk not” (115:7). There would have been no need to point anything in this verse out if the decoration of trees for festive purposes were the custom being condemned here. If that is what the prophet had in mind, those to whom he was addressing the prophecy could have legitimately come back with “Well duh, what’s your point?” Jeremiah is speaking of images that the heathen make and worship instead of the True and Living God. In this case they are carved from wood and plated with gold and silver. The folly of placing faith in the works of men’s own hands, that cannot use the anthropomorphic features they are given by their crafters, and which cannot save their worshippers as the True and Living God can, is the point of all of this.
Anyone seeking a present day equivalent of what Jeremiah was speaking about in the tenth chapter of his book of prophecy may find one in the practice of the many who put their faith in their savings accounts, government social programs, or modern technology for their safety, security, and the solution to their problems. This is far closer to what Jeremiah was condemning than the practice of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. Idolatry is giving to that which is created, especially the work of man’s own hands, that which belongs only to the Creator. Decorating a Christmas tree may superficially resemble what Jeremiah was talking about in the third and fourth verses of his tenth chapter if the context is ignored but the resemblance is only superficial.
The hyper-Protestants who think that Christmas trees are condemned by Jeremiah are being incredibly silly indeed. They have allowed their hatred of the pre-Reformation Christian tradition, the pre-Reformation Church, and anything they associate with these, such as the celebration of Christ’s birth, to blind them to the obvious meaning of passages like Jeremiah 10:3-4 so that they can twist these verses into condemnations of entirely innocent things like Christmas trees that are part of a holy festival that brings joy to people’s hearts.
H. L. Mencken once said that Puritanism “is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is happy”. We are in the third week of Advent, which began with the Sunday that is customarily called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the plural imperative of a Latin verb that means “to rejoice” and thus is a command to rejoice. The commandment to “rejoice” is repeated over and over again throughout the Scriptures. Deut. 32:43; 1 Chr. 16:10, 31; Psalm 2:11, 5:11, 32:12, 33:1; Rom. 12:15, 15:10; Phil. 2:18, 4:4 are but a few examples. The last mentioned of these, quoted as the epigraph of this essay, is the traditional Introit for the third Sunday of Advent, which is the origin of its name. God is the Author of joy. It would be unseasonably uncharitable to speculate as to where Puritanism – the original name for hyper-Protestantism in the English-speaking world- gets the aversion to human joy, happiness, and merry-making that is prominently on display in its condemnation of everything associated with these things in Christian festivals and traditions as “pagan”, but this, at least, is clear - it does not come from God.