The argument is practically as old as the holiday itself. During the season in December, does one greet another with a hearty “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays?”
I do have an opinion on this, but first some history;
Many theologians believe Jesus was not born in December but rather in the spring. The movement of celebrating the birth of Christ to December has less to do with a Christmas star and more to do with a planet. More specifically, the planet Saturn.
The holiday of December 25th was known as “Saturnalia.” It was an ancient Roman festival celebrating the end of the autumn planting season and commemorating the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn. This holiday was widely celebrated until nearly 300 years after Jesus. During the festival which would begin on December 17th, Roman authorities would choose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” The one chosen would spend the week indulging in free food, wine, and other physical pleasures. At the festival’s end, December 25th, Roman authorities would then murder the innocent person. They believed, by killing this random individual, they were destroying the forces of darkness.
In the family home, Saturnalia was celebrated with dining, goodwill and generosity to the poor. The wealthy were expected to pay the month’s rent for those who couldn’t afford it and masters and slaves traded clothes during the holiday. There was caroling, exchanging of gifts and cutting and decorating of trees. Not Christmas trees, but rather trees celebrating the winter solstice and the worship of trees.
Succeeding the early 300’s, after Emperor Constantine’s conversion of the church, The Roman Catholics adopted the Saturnalia festival in hopes to convert pagans to Christianity. Canceling pagan holidays like Saturnalia was considered unthinkable, so Christian Rome converted it to a Christian holy day instead. Church leaders promised Saturn followers they could continue their traditions under the new holiday of “Christmas”. The impact of Christian conversion running into pagan festivities lead to the adoption of many traditions by the church including, the Sigillaria, the day of present-giving on the 23rd of December and dies natalis solis invicti on the 25th, the birthday of the ‘invincible’ Roman sun-god Sol. Roman pagan traditions were eventually joined by Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. One tradition, kissing under the mistletoe, is credited to the Viking goddess of love and marriage, “Frigg,” whose legend is associated with the often suspended plant.
As conversions grew and traditions merged, so did the confusions as to what Christmas really was and what it really celebrated. Since its inception, Christmas has been celebrated by pagans, Christians, non-believers, and believers of other faiths. Sadly, very few people consider the celebration’s intrinsic meaning, history, or origins.
So the question beckons. Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?
Perhaps it is all in the way you celebrate it. If you spend this time of year with your only focus being, festive parties, shopping, and seeking that perfect gift… Well, then you will be joining many in rituals that have no origin in the birth of Christ. This would be a happy holiday.
But if your focus goes beyond the rituals and leads you to a baby, born in poverty, and angels welcoming the alone and outcasts into the kingdom of God… Well, then you are joining many in worship that, aside from the calendar date, is inherent of scripture.
Finding the Grey
Anyone who has tried to live a black and white life knows full well this is a world of much grey matter. I would never say that celebrating the holidays in the traditional way is wrong or sacrilege. I myself have had a tree for years and have been known to drink eggnog while watching holiday specials on TV that have very little to do with the nativity. I believe the early Roman church was sincere in their desire to introduce Jesus to many who had not heard of him and followed other beliefs.
The compromise of keeping some traditions was meant to allow people a chance to evolve into a life of Christianity and not push them away. It was meant to teach the gospel without coming off judgmental. Even today it is difficult to demand that people keep Christ in Christmas and not to say happy holidays when we continue to celebrate traditions that have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul said it doesn’t really matter if you eat pagan food if you do not believe in the pagan the food was prepared for. That being said, our holiday traditions should be free of pagan meaning if we do not believe in the pagans they developed from. However, if we are focusing too much on the rituals and traditions, we could find ourselves worshiping idols without realizing it. In simpler terms, we could be allowing the stuff to block us from the Savior.
So what should we as Christians do about all those happy holiday people out there? Perchance we can take a note from the angels who came on that glorious spring night. The ones who said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” We welcome them with open arms and show them the kingdom through our words and most importantly, our actions. Or in simpler terms, we show them during this happy holiday season, why Christmas truly makes us merry.