Have you ever heard the smug criticism that Christmas is really a Pagan festival? While it is usually uttered with the air of being a devastating dismissal of Christianity, I’m not sure what actual point the critic thinks he has made.
Is he saying that Christmas isn’t Christian? Is he saying that Christianity is Pagan? Is he saying that Christmas is bad because it is Pagan because Paganism is bad, or that Paganism is good, but Christianity robbed it and ruined it?
And while critics go after the origins of Christmas, they also attack the modern rendering of it, as if this is also somehow the Christians’ fault. As G.K. Chesterton says, the modern world has “first vulgarized Christmas and then denounced it as vulgar.” Christmas has become too commercial; but “these thinkers” would destroy “the Christmas that has been spoiled, and preserve the commercialism that has spoiled it.” They “have performed this peculiar feat of first pelting a thing with mud and then complaining that it is muddy.”
So let’s deal with the mud on both ends: the muddy beginnings of Christmas, and the modern mud that it finds itself in.
To claim that Christianity just took a Pagan festival and tacked on the celebration of Christ’s birth is intended to belittle Christmas. Chesterton’s response to this is splendid. His responses usually have that quality. He does it by turning it around: it is Christmas that enlarges the meaning of the Pagan festival.
The Christians did not destroy all the Pagan things, because most of the Pagan things were human and civilized. However, those that were unnatural and degenerate were not only condemned but the majority of people were happy to see them go. But perversity was the exception even among the Pagans. Most of its rituals were respectful and concerned with fundamental, simple elements like wood or water or food or fire. Religion is a natural thing, and the Christians did not tear down the Pagan temples; they turned them into churches. They did not destroy Pagan art. They did not burn Pagan literature and philosophy.
On the contrary, they preserved it. They baptized it, as St. Augustine essentially baptized Plato, and St. Thomas Aquinas christened Aristotle. They did not engage in the modern “cancel culture.” Chesterton says, “The Christians were often criminals; but they were not Vandals.”
And he goes even further. “It is the greatest glory of the Christian tradition that it has incorporated so many Pagan traditions. But it is most glorious of all, to my mind, when they are popular traditions. And the best and most obvious example is the way in which Christianity did incorporate, in so far as it did incorporate, the old human and heathen conception of the Winter Feast.”
Christianity is a religion that defies the world; thus it should adopt as a ritual a feast that defies the weather. Even a crackling fire surrounded by snow is an act of defiance against death, fighting the cold with warmth. Eating and drinking and singing “in the bleak midwinter” is a signal of hope and joy, when the situation would call for despair.
Chesterton says that if heathenism is only hedonism, “the concentration of the mind on pure pleasure,” then it would make more sense to “concentrate on the conception of a Summer Feast” when everything is comfortable and in abundance. But a feast in the winter? “To choose that moment of common freezing for the assertion of common fraternity is, in its own intrinsic nature, a foreshadowing of what we call the Christian idea. It involves the suggestion that joy comes from within and not from without. It involves the suggestion that peril and the potentiality of pain are themselves a ground of gratitude and rejoicing. It involves the suggestion that even when we are merely Pagans we are not merely Pantheists. We are not merely Nature-worshippers; because Man smiles when Nature frowns.”
Most ancient cultures combined their winter feast with the idea of hospitality, “extending the enjoyment to others; of passing round the wine or seating the wanderer by the hearth. It is no controversial point against the Christians that they felt they could take up and continue such traditions among the Pagans; it only shows that the Christians knew a Christian thing when they saw it.”
Christmas occurs in the winter. “It is the element not merely of contrast, but actually of antagonism. It preserves everything that was best in the merely primitive or pagan view of such ceremonies or such banquets. If we are carousing, at least we are warriors carousing. We hang above us, as it were, the shields and battle-axes with which we must do battle with the giants of the snow and hail. All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad.”
And so the Christians preserved the Winter Feast and sang “tidings of comfort and joy” across the centuries all the way to today, where the world complains of Christmas being too vulgar and too commercial, and either too Pagan or too religious, whichever stick is good enough with which to beat Christianity.
But it wasn’t the Pagans that came up with the idea of a virgin giving birth to the Son of God, and angels announcing the news to shepherds in a nearby field, and kings traveling from a distant land so they could bow down before a baby. And that is the unique story that the modern mud tries to cover up. And that is why we joyfully and defiantly proclaim it again every winter.
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