In the weeks leading up to Christmas you will often find magazine articles and television specials referencing the alleged pagan origins of Christmas. The Christmas tree is part of the Roman Saturnalia festival, we are told, or the Christmas feast is actually the Norse Yule feast devoted to Odin. The suggestion being made is that since Christianity is really just repackaged paganism, it offers nothing novel to the world, or that because Christianity just copied pagan rituals, its claim to unique divine origins is suspect, or that the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to apostolic authority is merely the last gasp of imperial Rome dressed up in religious garb, or, finally, that since it is obvious that Christianity is pagan, it cannot be the Jewish messianic fulfillment and that Jesus, accordingly, cannot be God incarnate. One way or another these whispers as to origins arise every December, maligning the Faith and challenging its credibility.
Why would we think that the pagans never got anything right?
What appears to undergird the many forms of this origins challenge is the suggestion that if Christianity were to have copied a pagan religious expression, then that mimicry is proof of religious corruption. But why would anyone suppose that that were true? Why would we think that the pagans never got anything right? And why would we further suppose that if they had gotten things right that there would be anything wrong with incorporating those elements into our faith?
If we look at ancient Judaism, we will find the same sort of religious appropriation of pagan forms. The structure of the tabernacle God provided to Moses includes a three-tiered architectural representation of increasingly restricted-access holiness. While most of the Israelites could access the outer area, only the priests could enter the second holy space. But the holiest of all, the Holy of Holies, was reserved solely for the High Priest and, even then, only on the Day of Atonement. The pagan Egyptian temples used exactly the same kind of tiered system, only theirs used up to five tiers. The Egyptians also had a holy of holies at the finale of the corridor of holiness. The Egyptians even had an ark therein that was carried on poles by acolytes for festivities and ceremonies outside the temple.
The fact that God used forms of religious expression that were already meaningfully identified by the Israelites as religious forms is hardly surprising.
Does it then follow that the giving of the Law to Moses is entirely bogus, that Moses simply copied and modified what he had learned in Egypt and dumped that on the ignorant Israelites? Not at all. Why? The fact that God used forms of religious expression that were already meaningfully identified by the Israelites as religious forms is hardly surprising. Religious forms express religious significance, so if the Israelites already understood that frankincense is that religious smell, then not using it would be the bewildering choice. If you have smelled burning frankincense on a high Christian feast day, then you will know why everyone in the ancient religious world used it. It just is the religious smell. So, God told Moses to use frankincense in various preparations for Israelite worship at the tabernacle, because everyone already understood “religious aromas” in terms of frankincense. Similarly, God told Moses to use a tiered holiness system to represent the problems of sinful man’s access to God, because it does in fact represent our limitations and the Israelites already understood holiness in those terms. There is nothing wrong with using what came before if what came before is right!
There is nothing wrong with using what came before if what came before is right!
Now, the pagans didn’t get everything right. The Egyptians would periodically take their gods in their arks out of their temples and sail them down the Nile River to meet up with their consort goddesses in order to perform the fertility rites that they presumed were necessary to maintain cosmic order. We find nothing like that within the Israelite worship system, because the Israelite God, being omnipotent, creates out of nothing, needing no consort feminine deities. Similarly, in the Christian era, the Christians made wide use of imagery from the sun god, Apollo, because Apollo was the son of Zeus—an unmistakable parallel to Jesus as the Son of God. However, the Christians represented Jesus not only as fulfilling but also as superseding the imagery of Apollo, since Apollo’s mythological characterization was mixed with truth and error. You will find the same type of thing in Christian churches in the Imperial Forum in Rome, where the walls of the church include the occasional pagan temple column. The column performs no architectural service to the building, but was nevertheless deliberately included to pronounce two declarations: first, yes, we beat you (in spite of your four hundred years’ worth of attempts to stamp us out in the arena), but second, you weren’t all wrong, and everything you got right, we accept.
Christianity claims total universality of faith in part because it happily incorporates everything that is decent and just from paganism and Judaism.
C. S. Lewis once wrote that had Christianity not included so much imagery from paganism, he would have found it less credible. Christianity claims total universality of faith in part because it happily incorporates everything that is decent and just from paganism and Judaism. Probably one of the greatest artistic expressions of this syncretism of the new incorporating the old is Michelangelo’s masterpiece frescoes in the lunettes of the Sistine Chapel. In every other lunette he painted a stunning representation of one of the masculine Jewish prophets, showing that the Church stands on the foundation provided by Judaism. However, in each of the other lunettes he also painted a stunning representation of one of the pagan feminine sibyls (prophetesses) who had foretold tidbits of the coming King. How else did the Magi know of the meaning and significance of the star of Bethlehem? God did not leave the pagans without witness to what was coming. And so, Michelangelo represented the Church as standing on the twin foundations of paganism and Judaism, something the Church has historically asserted since its beginning.
So, if fir trees represented eternal life (since the trees don’t die in the winter), why wouldn’t the Christians make use of them to celebrate the birth of the eternal Son of God? The fact that the pagans noted the symbolism first is to their honor and credit. Our use of the same symbols and our feasts on the same dates as pagan events are all part of Christianity’s grateful recognition that God has always represented himself within the world. So, the next time someone tells you that the yule log represents honor to Odin instead of Jesus, laugh.