The gods love a good festival. True to our hellenistic pagan past, millions of us around the world are about to celebrate one of Christianity’s most beloved holidays, Christmas, a celebration that has more in common with our Roman and Teutonic heathen heritage than it does with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The winter solstice, when light again overtakes darkness in the lengthening of the days that follow the harvest, was particularly significant in the eyes of our pagan ancestors in the northern hemisphere, and many of those ancestral traditions survive to this day, repurposed, in Christmas. Evergreen garlands and wreaths adorn our doors and windows, we drag a tree into our home, and light up the Yule log in our hearth, kiss each other under the mistletoe, we exchange gifts, and sing carols about “The Holly and the Ivy,” relicts of our superstitious folklore, harkening back through the ages, borrowed from the Druids, Scandinavians, German barbarians, Romans, and even the Egyptians. Jesus, as we know, was Jewish. He’d have a hard time recognizing Christmas, at least as we celebrate it today, and I think, would be bewildered by the assertion that its relevance is related in any way, to His birth. In fact, He’d probably think most of it was quite absurd, and might just ride into town on the back of a borrowed reindeer to make His point. His church, however, embraced, tolerated, incorporated, and supplanted many of these ancient traditions and rituals, most of them far more ancient than Christianity, replacing the feast of the solstice with its own creation, the feast of the nativity, the mass, or in accordance with the season at least, a new and improved, “Christ-mass,” or Christmas as we’ve merrily come to know it.
Some Christians, perhaps out of ignorance of their history, or because of it, assert that we need to keep “Christ,” in “Christmas,” proclaiming it on bumper stickers, lawn signs, and a barrage of social media posts, urging us to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” followed with defiant, and often ignorant, admonitions that it’s, “Merry Christmas (you heathen!), not, “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings!” – like there’s a war going on over the right to celebrate, and that somehow, the world is out to get Jesus out of it. Scripture sheds little solstice light on the birth of Christ, but most historians and scholars agree, that it is unlikely to have occurred anywhere near the end of December. Solstice, or “sun,” celebrations, represented a turning point in the year, and for an agrarian society especially, the significance of the season was firmly fixed in the minds of the people, and was their most important festival. As Christianity became the dominant religious force in much of Europe during the third and fourth centuries, rather than rally against pagan beliefs and custom, which represented the overwhelming consensus at the time, early church leaders simply adopted and made the festive celebration their own. They put Christ into the solstice, and looked to the liturgy for their feast, substituting the nativity in place of a less supernatural light. It was a square peg, shoved firmly into a pagan round hole.
The celebration of the last supper seems a bit morbid when you put that in the context of celebrating a child’s birth, but, that’s exactly what we do at mass. The eucharist, the breaking of the bread, the pouring out of the wine, the communion with the body and blood of Christ, commemorate His death, and His last days with us, and superficially at least, have more in common with Easter than with what we call Christmas. There was no feast when Jesus was born, and the only meal we Christians celebrate with Him is the Last Supper, just before His death. It’s a rite typically, and historically, exercised in the church. The term, “Mass,” is derived from it’s latin origin, “missa,” or dismissal, an invocation to go, or leave, as in, “take off, eh,” “you’re dismissed, it’s time to close up shop for another week.” In Christian usage, it gradually took on a deeper meaning, implying a “mission,” one that reflected the missionary nature of the church itself. If you’re a supporter of that mission, and believe that Jesus is the “light of the world,” maybe it’s time to step out from the shadows of our pagan pasts, and be a little less ignorant.
The liturgy, including readings from scripture, prayer, and communion, are important aspects of worship, and celebrating mass on Christmas does more to put Christ into the season than to keep Him in it – if ever He was. Modern day Christians might be better poised to lobby to keep the mass in Christmas, than to keep the Christ in the mass this time of year, and they’d have a more sensible argument when it comes to fulfilling their “mission” in the Christ mass. Instead of trying to get the “nativity” narrative right, cuddle baby Jesus, and chase after the star of Bethlehem, if you really want to keep Christ in Christmas, you’ll have to reach at least into Easter to do it. That is, if you intend on keeping the mass, in “Christmas.” If you’re a Christian, you might want to remember that your ancestors, too, probably weren’t all that Jewish, and that Paul opened the faith, not only to the Romans, but to all Gentiles. Are you inviting people into the faith by vain attempts to “defend” Christmas, or Christ “in” the mass? Where’s the communion in that?
I’ve been to many Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, masses, and there are, amazingly, many more Christians at church observing the liturgy during this time of year, than on any other Sunday, Easter being a close contender. For the most part, it’s a mass like any other – with the notable exception of pagan symbols adorning the pews and altar. Evidently, it’s more important to many Christians to show up for the solstice mass, than the one they can partake in pretty much any week of the year, but the function of the ritual remains the same. Communion with Christ. You don’t need a Christmas tree to do that, although if you’re having a hard time keeping your own pagan roots in the closet, you can let your hair down a little this time of year. As for the turf war you’re fighting for Christmas, leave it at home – and go to church. You might learn something there.
I hope to see you in the pews tonight – for mass. As for me, I’m happy to keep the mass in my Christmas, and I’m not worried about trying to keep Christ in the mass – He’s a part, and central to, every mass I’ve ever celebrated, or ever will. He’s in my heart, in my life, and as I walk with Him through the holidays, I hope I can still see a trace of Him underneath all that mistletoe while I share in His body and blood, and remember Him.