On The Winter Feast

To claim that Christianity just took a Pagan festival and tacked on the celebration of Christ’s birth is intended to belittle Christmas. But it is Christmas that enlarges the meaning of the Pagan festival.

(Image; Ricardo Gomez Angel/Unsplash.com)

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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About Dale Ahlquist 48 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

16 Comments

  1. “There is strong evidence that the solar feast of Natalia Invicti, in honor of the Unconquered Sun and observed on December 25 throughout the Mediterranean world, is responsible for our Christmas date. A solar cult of the Mithraic religion competed with Christianity for dominance within the Empire. Set up to climax the older Saturnalia which lasted from December 17 to December 24, the feast of the Sun climaxed a period of merrymaking when all classes of society mingled together in a carnival spirit of gift exchanging, the carrying of torches, and the wearing of colorful and outlandish costumes. In grafting the spirit of that pagan celebration onto Christmas, the early Father transmuted heathen revelry into Christian joy” (Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, “Citizen of Rome: Reflections from the Life of a Roman Catholic,” 1980).

    BUT, as for the symbolism of current interreligious fraternity, how might such “grafting onto” really work in a post-Christian world, IF at all (as with Pachamama and Laudato si’s “Mother Earth”)?

    Conversion or reversion? Christianity departed from the intermediate symbolism of the mystery religions of the ancient world when, instead (!), it drew from Classical thought and the contribution of human reason in articulating “faith” in the historical Incarnation…

    “…In the formative period of the New Testament comes a completely unexpected event in which God shows himself from a hitherto unknown side: in Jesus Christ one meets a man who at the same time knows and professes himself to be the Son of God. One finds God in the shape of the ambassador who is completely God [!], not some kind of intermediary being [!], yet with us says to God ‘Father” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity,” 1968/2004, 163).

    • Christians may have used Christmas to pre-empt Saturnalia, but Natalia Invicta was created by the emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) in the latter part of the fourth century AD to pre-empt Christmas.

      • Richard – your comment is EXACTLY to the point and seems to transform the article into a bunch of somewhat interesting fluff. The date observed predates that pagan holiday which was created in reaction to it. Besides, the Romans (and all the civilizations of that day) were extremely aware of the exact date of the winter solstice which, of course, is and was not December 25.

  2. “I’m not sure what actual point the critic thinks he’s made.”

    Permit me to quote either Ann Landers or Dear Abby from many years ago in response to a particularly boneheaded remark from someone:

    “You’ve got a point, but if you keep your hat on maybe no one will notice.”

    Thanks for the opportunity to bring up that quote – it gets the day off to a promising start.

    • In response to your pointed remark, the issue is one of apparent and unwitting syncretism.

      The Faith can be grafted onto genuine paganism (while, as the CDF explains, also eliminating the contradictions), but today to attempt the reverse by implying a sort of pantheon (e.g., with Pachamama awarded a niche in St. Peter’s Basilica, or even exchanging the crosier for a Wiccan stang at the Synod on Youth) raises a few questions on flawed messaging about the nature of evangelization.

      This is not to say that we have a fundamentally compromised pope, not at all. Only to say that careless messaging renders vulnerable any genuine fraternity clearly rooted in the Incarnation than in, say, the maelstrom of history.

      Very generally, it all goes back to the ambiguity of good principles imprinted on Evangelium Gaudium if exploited by whomever: When is “time is greater than space” at risk of HISTORICISM (syncretism, above)? When is “unity prevails over conflict” at risk of CLERICALISM—e.g., replacing the incarnational Trinity with free-form pseudo-spirituality (the German “synodal way”)? When is “realities are more important than ideas [concepts?]” at risk of NOMINALISM (concrete cases prevailing over Veritatis Splendor)? When is “the whole is greater than the part” at risk of GLOBALISM (Mathematics, the Fundamental Option, Proportionalism/Consequentialism)?

      How to truly evangelize, and evangelize truly, in a post-Christian world? I doubt that your gurus Ann Landers or Dear Abby would get that point even if they sat on it.

  3. “As part of the process of conversion the Christians took over traditional pagan sites. A good example of this can be seen at Gamle Uppsala in Sweden, where the remains of an early church stand alongside a series of huge pagan burial mounds. The raids on the Frankish kingdoms and the British Isles brought increased contact with Christianity. Although Vikings often seem to have maintained their beliefs throughout the periods of their raiding, there was considerable pressure to convert to Christianity if they wished to have more peaceful relations with the Christians. This could happen on a political level, as in the Treaty of Wedmore in 878” (Gareth Williams BBC History).
    An interesting subject by Ahlquist reminds me of a vignette on pagan, in this instance, barbaric culinary practice of pre Christian Skandinavia. Likely a rationale for invasion of English monasteries. Gamlaks. To avoid starvation during the cruelest of winters Nordics wrapped salmon in birchbark then buried it. The fish fermented exuding acidity that prevented total rot remaining edible. Although the smell and taste of rotten fish remained. To this day in Denmark,Norway, Sweden chunks of gamlak are served in bowls atop the bars of taverns during Christmas. Perhaps a subliminal reminder of past pagan fare likely a force for ransacking English, Frankish monasteries for real food eventually the cause of their embrace of Christianity. God works in subtle and strange ways.

    • And Lutefisk should be added to reasons why Vikings pillaged and sought improved cuisine besides loot. If you’ve ever past a grocery where barrels of lutefisk stand outside [if they were inside the smell of ammonia would be overwhelming] you’ll know what I’m saying. The Portuguese are said to have 248 recipes to disguise the taste of the stuff. Insofar as I’m aware Our Scandinavian brothers never got past a quick boil and on the plate.
      Today thankfully Scandinavian cuisine especially Christmas treats, Swedish meatballs a personal favorite [Ikea markets them especially during the Season] is evidence that pagan habits can adopt to Christian sensitivities.

      • I’ve often imagined nineteen-year-old Ragnar, watching in anticipation the long dancing blonde hair of his bride of last summer as she bustles about the counter to prepare their first Christmas dinner, only to be served a plate of lutefisk. He screams in frustration, charges out into the winter night where he meets his buddies who were also married last summer and who just had the same experience he did. So they pile into a boat, row hard for two days in search of a decent meal, and where do they end up? England! No wonder they killed everyone they met.

      • As a matter of curiosity the Scandinavian word Gamlaks is two words, Gam [buried] and lacks [salmon]. לאַקס, or Lox is Yiddish for brined salmon. Pronounced like laks, lox makes me wonder if there was a little known Jewish deli somewhere among the Norsemen that offered a welcome improvement. ‎

  4. Interesting episode of Anglican Unscripted (707), remarking on the LACK of the usual cranky reports in the media about Christmas as a variation of pagan celebrations.

  5. A good article, however I’m going to say something that is heresy among many orthodox Catholics…here it goes…I can’t stand GK Chesterton’s writing! There, I said it.

    His constant use of paradox is tiresome (boring even). I much prefer the direct and clear writing of writers like CS Lewis, F.J. Sheed and Fulton Sheen.

    I don’t understand the obsession that many of my fellow orthodox Catholics have with Chesterton.

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