A merry solstice to all! The repaganizing of Christmas

It is commonplace to observe that Christmas is increasingly a pagan festival. Most of its features have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus: tree, gifts, turkey, naff jumper, tinsel, crackers, robins, reindeer, lights, candles, cake. Very few of the cards I receive have any Christian content these days. The carols we sing are increasingly the ones that don’t mention the birth of the Saviour, but instead dwell on the colour of a reindeer’s nose, or the noise made by sleigh bells. Not everybody goes to church…

Indeed, there are signs that we are simply removing some Christian layers from Christmas to reveal its older traditions buried beneath. While the Christmas tree is a German 17th-century addition, the habit of bringing greenery into the house at the time of the winter solstice is almost certainly far older than Christianity and was a Yule tradition of northern Europeans with origins lost in the fog of antiquity. Likewise gift-giving and the lighting of candles to urge the return of light in the darkest time of winter…

The early Christians at first ignored all this pagan, mid-winter jollity. They probably disapproved, in a long tradition of anathematising idol-worship going right back into Judaism. “For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold,” moaned Jeremiah, 600 years before Christ. How he would gnash his teeth if he came back today and saw all our Christmas trees.

It was not until the 4th century that Christians began to celebrate the birthday of Jesus at all, let alone fix it in mid-winter, and to appropriate the festival of natalis invicti in particular. The first mention of Christmas Day comes in a calendar dated to 354 AD. It is striking how much of the Christian rhetoric around the nativity stills seems to echo the language and iconography of sun and solstice worship. Think of the glowing haloes around the head of the baby Jesus.

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