First Unitarian Church of Rochester
Myths Of the Season: a Pagan Christmas
The secret is out. After all, when you read it in The New York Times, it must be true: Unitarian Universalists are “striking the chord of spirituality.” That’s right! We are no longer merely logical, colorless cold fish in the goldfish bowl of religions – we actually have heart – and, dare we say it, soul.
This revelation appeared in last Sunday’s Times to the pleasure of some, the chagrin of others. As for me, I never entertained the notion that we were merely a “bastion of rationalism.” I always thought Unitarian Universalist religion was of heart and hand, body and soul – in short, for the whole person in the whole of life.
The Times makes much of First Parish Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose minister Tom Mikkelson is a humanist turned theist. He sometimes invites people forward after the service for a healing ceremony. I’m not sure I’m ready – or we’re ready – for such a public healing. However, I like to think healing happens even now in our midst. It is not dramatic healing of body or spirit effected by the laying on of hands.
It is more like moral and spiritual osmosis, a gradual process that helps us feel whole again and able to face the possibilities and predicaments of our lives.
Last Sunday I encouraged us to celebrate the season’s darkness – to embrace all those weighty elements of nature and human nature that make for growth. And Mother Nature has cooperated with me – we’ve hardly seen the sun in a week. But this darkness merely tweaks our faith, for we know the sun is there. Today I speak of light amidst the darkness of the season – our very human need for illumination. Throughout human history humanity has had to be reminded that it is hope that fuels faith.
We sometimes call our ancestors primitive, but they were as fully engaged in the religious quest as are we, perhaps more so. For us, the changing of the seasons – Christmastide, the winter solstice, New Year – means family get togethers and gift exchanges, candlelight and mistletoe, pleasant ceremonies to help us get through the darkness and cold of winter.
For the ancients, however, these rituals were matters of life and death itself. While we may be disgruntled with the darkness, they were fearful such a loss of daylight might lead to a perpetual winter. When they discovered that the winter solstice was really the “hinge of the year” and longer daylight and greater warmth would come again, that the earth would be reborn, it was time to make merry – and not just to have a party – but to thank the gods for another reprieve from death. Midwinter festivals were a celebration of their very survival.
Winter Solstice celebrations were common in the pagan, pre-Christian world. Pagan is often used as a derogatory term for one not of the dominant faith, but literally means villager or country person. Pagans are strongly rooted in the earth and its rhythms. The Anglo-Saxon Yule means the “yoke” of the year, the balance point with the lowest ebb of sunlight, but with promise of lengthening days. The Yule log was burned both to emulate and to attract the sun.
The Advent Wreath had its beginnings in the pagan fire wheel, made from greens to symbolize life. Some people burned greens on the hillsides; others made great wheels set them afire and rolled them down the hills.
Yggdrasil, the World Tree, is a universal symbol of life whose roots and branches were thought to hold the universe together. It early times it was the sacred tree before the house of the gods, decorated with small lamps, bowls of fat and cedar wicks. As we light our Christmas tree we simply reenact that ancient ritual. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, for it was supposed to have healing powers. It was also a symbol of peace – enemies would stand beneath a spray to make peace compacts, sealing them with a kiss.
In Rome the solstice was marked by Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun. The Saturnalia festival meant seven days of extravagant decadence and intense merrymaking. This must have been the forerunner of contemporary office parties. Saturnalia had an egalitarian dimension, too. Slaves were allowed to meet their masters as equals. In some traditions kings and peasants, lords and serfs, exchanged places for a day and all rejoiced in the rebirth of the year. These festivals were sometimes called “Days of Misrule.”
I find it fascinating that the New York Times article featured a New England church as an indicator of our growing spirituality, for it was the New England churches that in Colonial times explicitly prohibited the celebration of Christmas. They were simply carrying on the English tradition. Carols were popular in England but outlawed in 1667, as part of “wanton Bacchanalian feasts,” which were once forbidden by an Act of Parliament.
The Puritans, our Unitarian forebears, made celebrating Christmas illegal: “Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by feasting, forbearing labor, or any other way…every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.” Increase Mather found Christmas nothing but “mad mirth…highly dishonorable to the name of Christ.”
The early New Englanders charge that Christmas was both pagan and Popish, an interesting combination of epithets. One argument against it was that most of the customs were of pagan origin – too much eating and drinking and merry-making. Then, too, it was argued that since the Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrated Christmas, Puritans could not.
In 1776 George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night and surprised the Hessian troops, “who in blissful ignorance of local custom had supposed that there could be no fighting on Christmas Day and had given themselves over to revelry.”
The Rev. William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts, in a diary entry for Tuesday, December 25, 1810, wrote that “Christmas has a public service in the morning for English Episcopalians and in the evening from the Universalists. Our Congregational churches stand fast as they were from the beginning,” by which he means, ignoring the day.
A 1686 satire of the Puritan repression of Christmas was “the Tryal of Father Christmas,” featuring Puritan jurors named Mr. Cold-kitchen, Mr. Give-little and Mr. Hate-good. In 1839 there was a Broadway production of “Santiclaus: Or, the Orgies of St. Nicholas.”
The two most controversial issues debated in Christian churches in the pre-Civil War era were slavery and the celebration of Christmas. Liberal clergy denounced the first and advocated the second; conservative clergy the opposite.
Things changed quickly in 19th century among the Protestant churches, and especially among the Unitarians, who figure prominently in Christmas celebrations. Charles Dickens wrote his Christmas Carol; Louisa May Alcot’s Little Women evoked a family Christmas; Thomas Nast’s line drawing of Santa Claus is with us yet; “Jingle Bells” was written by the Unitarian James Pierpont, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Edmund Sears, minister of the Unitarian Church of Weston, Massachusetts.
Charles Follen, a German-born lawyer and radical thinker, became minister to the Unitarian villagers of Lexington and introduced the decorated Christmas tree to America – with its pagan symbolism of the evergreen for immortality.
While we generally think of Christmas as a uniquely Christian holiday, it was, in fact, created by people in many times and traditions. For example, the virgin birth of a supernatural savior was common in the mythology of the ancient world.
Consider the pantheon of those supernatural saviors born of a virgin: Krishna, the Hindu god-man; Buddha, the Enlightened One; Confucius, sage of ancient China; Zoroaster’s of ancient Persia.
In the pagan world similar stories were abundant about Plato, Alexander the Great, Hercules, Dionysos; The Egyptian god Osiris was supposed to have been born on December 25.
The narrative of the birth of Bacchus led one writer to rephrase one traditional Christmas song to, “I’ll be home for Bacchanalia.”
Perhaps most interesting of all is the story of Mithraism, a Greco-Roman mystery religion which thrived in the early centuries of the Common Era. It was in direct competition with Christianity for hegemony in the Roman Empire. It lost out because Mithra, an abstract sun god, was simply no match for stories told of a flesh and blood Jesus, this prophet from Nazareth. His spiritual, and especially his ethical teachings about how people should live in the world, gave a meaning and direction for living absent in Mithraism. This emphasis on moral conduct was decisive.
But since there was no biblical reason for it , and since birthdays were nothing but a pagan custom, a birthday was not assigned to Jesus until 336 of the Common Era. But should it coincide with spring on March 28, April 19 or May 20, or winter, January 6 or, in keeping with most winter solstice festivals, December 25?
After all, the shepherds tended their flocks around Bethlehem by night from about mid-March to Mid-November. They never go out during the cold midwinter season. That decision was called by some critics, “a pact with pagans.” It was St. Francis of Assissi, who in 1223 created the manger scene complete with animals.
I cite these miraculous religious birth legends, these pagan practices of winter solstice, not to belittle the birth of Jesus 2000 years ago, nor the Christmas celebration they have prompted, but to remind us how deeply we believe in the hope symbolized by the birth of a baby; how deeply etched in our bones is a communion with the workings of the earth; how fundamental is our need for festivity, ritual and ceremony; how universal are humanity’s spiritual yearnings no matter how varied their form.
The term “a pagan Christmas” may seem an oxymoron. Christmas is a magical time of the year not only because of the fabled birth in the stable, but because it is the amalgam of so many myths and practices that come out of the pagan world. At heart, we are all pagans – dependent on the coming and going of the seasons.
But we need more. We need to assign meaning to this blessed reality in which we live, and so we depend upon prophets of the human spirit, including Jesus of Nazareth, to help us understand the miracle of life, our mutual responsibilities, and our finite role in an infinite cosmic drama.
The New York Times is right. We are striking a chord of spirituality, if not always as dramatically as it was portrayed in last Sunday’s Times, then more ordinarily in countless churches, like our own, where we blend the best of humanity’s traditions in a common spirituality which sustains us when the very stars wander.
As W.H. Auden puts it in his For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio:
Music and sudden light
Have interrupted our routine tonight,
And swept the filth of habit from our hearts.
O here and now our endless journey starts.
And so it does.
December 15, 1996
Not bad … not bad at all.