When I was the Director for a Bible school in Tulsa I'd often take students to lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant after classes, and it was always a time of rich questions and answers. One December some of the students were sharing how they were raised without a Christmas tree though they gave gifts, and another was raised just ignoring the holiday altogether.
Now that they were out in the 'real world' they wanted to know balance concerning the holidays because there were so many voices saying so many things about what honored God and what was an abomination to Him.
I shared a little history with them before going on to New Testament truths, so we'll start there as well. Christmas began as a pagan festival, Saturnalia. Saturnalia was celebrated by the Romans from roughly December 17-25 in the belief they were banishing the forces of darkness. Remember the shortest day of the year is December 21, and after that date the earth adds roughly 1 minute per day of daylight to the longest day on June 21, when days begin shortening again by roughly that same amount. (Northern Hemisphere)
Saturnalia comes from Saturn, 'to plant', and marked the end of the fall planting season. It was a time when the wealthy exchanged clothes with the poor, gifts were given, human shaped baked goods were given and sold, and dice games were played. At its worst, Roman communities chose 1 poor victim, man or woman, and forced them to a week of overeating and sexual acts, and then on December 25 the person would be offered as a human sacrifice. They believed doing so appeased the forces of darkness and the 'Lord of Misrule', and the sun would begin warming the earth again as a result.
Fill those auditoriums
In the 4th century Roman church leaders tried to gain members to fill their auditoriums (they had recently called people out of home based meetings and into former pagan auditoriums to gather for 'church') and so tried to make Saturnalia a Christian festival, choosing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at that time.
The word Christmas is short for 'Christ-mass' or the 'Mass of Christ'. A 'mass' at its root is anything with body and density, so a gathering of people is called a mass of people. In the Roman church it is a gathering of the people in the auditorium to worship Christ, therefore Christ-mass. Christmas. Thus the celebration of Saturnalia was merged with the celebration of supposed birth date of Jesus. (He was born in either spring or fall, but that's for another discussion perhaps)
Abuse of Jews
Saturnalia didn't disappear entirely however. In 1466 Pope Paul II forced Jews to run naked through the streets of Rome after having been force fed to the point of being stuffed. By the time of the Pilgrims in America, Christmas was banned until about 1681. As late as the 18th and 19th centuries Jews were abused and Rabbi's were dressed up as clowns and paraded around cities. In 1881 in Poland it escalated to attacks against all Jewish citizens, with many women raped and many men killed. That was only 133 years ago!
The holiday is filled with pagan roots
Saturnalia as mentioned above is just one example of pagan roots. Evergreen trees were brought indoors and worshipped as not dying in winter like all other trees, as part of the Asheira religion. They danced around them, adorned them with ornaments, and that practice was sanctioned by the church as a Christmas tree in order to further merge Christianity with pagan practices.
Mistletoe was used by Druids to poison their human sacrifices, and kissing under the mistletoe is a blending of the sexual excesses after coming under the influence of food and drink at Saturnalia with the Druid's human sacrifice at that time, watered down to our day of coming 'under' its spell and being kissed.
The god of Santa Claus
Many know of Nicolas of Parara, Turkey, made a saint in the 1800's. He became the Bishop of Myra and died on December 6, in the year 345. He was generous and idolized for centuries, and his bones were eventually moved to Bari, Italy.
Bari had a local goddess honored every December called 'the Grandmother', who used to fill children's stockings with gifts, and was blended with the worship of Nicolas to be celebrated on December 6, the date of Nicolas' death. The cult of Nicolas worship moved north into Europe and was adopted by the Germans and Celts and blended with the Norse god Woden, father of Thor. Woden had a long white beard, wore a heavy winter robe, and rode a horse across the sky one night each autumn, so when blended with the Nicolas cult his flight took place on December 6.
And once again the Roman church stepped in to include the Nicolas cult so that the giving of gifts, filling of stockings, and him riding a horse across the sky were moved to a couple of weeks later, December 25.
From there you can follow the line quite easily: Washington Irving wrote a popular satirical American article in 1809 entitled 'A History of New York' or 'Knickerbocker History' which poked fun at Dutch culture who were the aristocrats at the time in NYC, and mentioned several times their white bearded, horse flying through the sky giver of gifts, using the Dutch name Americanized, Santa Claus.
(Knickerbocker was the last name of some of the founding Dutch families of NYC. The Dutch founding of NYC is why we have for instance, the New York Knicks NBA team, and numerous organizations to this day including 'Knickerbocker' in their name,)
Modern Santa Claus
Less than 13 years later, in 1922 Dr. Clement Moore read 'Knickerbocker History' and made a poem for his children, published in December of 1823 which we know as 'The Night Before Christmas'. In the poem he brought these elements together, but made Nicolas flying by 8 reindeer instead of a horse .
Illustrator Thomas Nast worked for the US magazine, Harper's Weekly from 1862-1886, and based on Dr. Moore's poem over the years gave us our modern Santa Claus, including his list of good and bad children, his workshop at the North Pole using elves to make gifts, and so on.
In 1931 the Coca-Cola company contracted Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom to create a Coke drinking Santa Claus. Drawing from elements above, and asking his friend Lou Prentice to model due to his cheerful and chubby face, Sundblom completed the blending of the once pagan god to the modern Santa Claus.
What is a Christian to do?
As I shared many of these things with the students and they shared other details their parents had taught them of the evils of Christmas (and Easter, but that's for another time perhaps), I noted the ingredients in our food: beef, chicken, vegetables, grain, dairy, oil, salt.
I asked them if they realized everything they were eating had at one time, or were in our day and age considered holy or sacrificed to various gods. They looked at me like I'd slapped them across the face.
The beef we ate was considered holy by Hindus and beef offerings are common in many religions. Catholic/native religion blends in Central and South America offer beef, goat, chicken, grains, vegetables to the various gods and idols. They realized that various people in the past and present make idols of everything from food to animals to figurines of owls, frogs, cattle, elephants and more - so that having even a figurine in their house could mean they had an idol on their shelf.
Where to draw the line? What does God expect of us since we are surrounded by idols? The answers are found in the pages of the New Testament, and that is where I'll pick it up next week. Until then, blessings,