Sunday, 13 December 2015

Coffee and a History of Christmas

Well, things seemed to have well and truly settled down from the Starbucks Christmas debarcle, which is good because it was pretty much a non-issue for a number of reasons:
1. Their coffee’s not that great, so there’s plenty of other places to get caffeinated,
2. It’s not the responsibility of a coffee-chain to promote Christmas, and
3. It turned out to be quite unfounded anyway. There was no ban on Christmas (Green), just a change in cup design.
And of course with any controversy like this one, the humorous memes came out. One that stood out in particular was this one…


The pagan symbol in the Starbucks logo is a 16th Century Norse siren whose origins go back to a snake-legged goddess from Greece in the 4th century BC. And of course, to not drink coffee at Starbucks because of a logo might be a bit extreme. But, that’s not my point. My point is that while looking at this image it dawned on me that this actually reflected the nature of Christmas.

It is very widely accepted that many elements of Christmas have come from pagan practices and traditions from around the time of the winter solstice. And occasionally, when we approach Christmas, we might encounter some kind of debate as to whether it is right or not for Christians to celebrate Christmas because of its apparent pagan heritage. Those who are on the side of the objectors, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and what can be best described as ‘High-Puritan’ Christians, will be labelled as unreasonable, legalistic kill-joys, a Scrooge or Grinch accompanied with a ‘bah-humbug.’ And we might agree that in some ways they are. But, if we are to be Berean Baptists, wanting to live obedient to scripture rather than popular tradition and opinion, then we need to be willing to ignore that stigma. Not only does the enemy like to hide the truth by deception, he also likes to hide the truth by associating it with heresy. Take prosperity for example. God wants to bless us materially, but because of the abuses of the prosperity Gospel, some people have a knee-jerk reaction and take hold of a poverty Gospel, and the enemy has successfully kept them disempowered. And so, by letting go of the fear of being labelled as ‘one of those people’, we can come to the Scriptures and examine history with fresh and less-biased eyes. And this is true for either side of the debate. We need to be willing to come back to our conclusions and convictions and test them.

So, just as people were asking, ‘should Starbucks celebrate Christmas?’, let us ask ourselves ‘should Christians celebrate Christmas?’ I should clarify what I am not asking here. I’m not asking if Christmas is ‘bad’. Spending time having fun with the family, expressing generosity through giving, celebrating the birth of Jesus, telling the world the message of Jesus. These are all good and wonderful things. But the question is, is it biblical? To be honest, I don’t have a definite answer. I’m still unsure because working this out. There are good points on either side, but I haven’t heard enough to help me make a conclusion. So, I thought I would share some of the things I’ve come across and hopefully it will inspire you to consider the question further.

I want to begin by talking about the date of Christmas. It appears that no one began trying to calculate Jesus’ birth until late second/early third century. Origin of Alexandria, who lived between 165-264 rejected the Roman practice of honouring births as Pagan. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) reports that a number of dates had been proposed by Christians in Egypt, but December 25th was not one of them. He writes:

There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21]. (Stromateis 1.21.145)

Thus, the earliest calculations placed His birth in the Spring. But it would seem that this is based on philosophically connecting Jesus’ birth to his crucifixion, rather than the bible or history. For example, “A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun” (Coffman). But still at this point, there was no celebration of the birth of Jesus.

The earliest reference that we have for the birth of Jesus in December is “a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: ‘Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea’” (McGowan). There was also at this time the observance of Epiphany on January 6, primarily by those in the east, as mentioned by Augustine of Hippo around 400AD.

The most popular theory for why this date was chosen was because the church had commandeered pagan festivals to make it easier for people to transition from their pagan past into Christianity. The two main attributed feasts are the Roman Saturnalia, and the Natalis Solis Invicti, or ‘Birth of the Unconquerable Sun,’ which was the birthday of the Roman Sun god, and celebrated on the 25th of December. Also, related to Sol was the Mithras cult which goes back to the first century and attributed his birthday to the 25th of December.

The problem with this theory is that although the parallels in symbology do suggest some kind of relationship, there is no historical evidence directly linking Christmas with the Roman Saturnalia, or Sol Invictus. There is not one contemporary in the mid third century who wrote about ‘taking over the pagan days.’ The earliest connection we have is from a marginal note made by a Syrian Bishop, Jacob Bar-Salibi, in the twelfth century. Thus, Christmas as a redeemed day is difficult to prove. Moreover, as discussed above, the contemporary evidence we do have for the December 25th and January 6th dates reveal that both groups used the same formula, but they ended up with different results because they used different calendars: “we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6)” (McGowan).
However, that these explanations are philosophical rather than historical suggests that they may actually be justifications and defences for observing a contextualised festival. Also, Tertullian does mention (and rebukes) Christians observing Saturnalia (Tert. On Idolatry. 14) which means the church at that time was no stranger to participating in pagan customs. It also suggests that they just enjoyed Saturnalia so much they Christianised it, rather than the popular theory that it was an evangelical strategy. Moreover, the shared dates and iconography of Christmas does indicate some relationship.

The evolution of Christmas to today is a long and complex one. In fact, much of its present form didn’t emerge until the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Nonetheless, much of our current traditions can be traced back to pagan origins. For example, the Christmas Tree finds its origins in Germanic and Norse paganism where trees were considered the dwelling place of their gods, with homes being decorated with evergreen branches during the winter solstice, or Yule, and were considered a symbol of fertility. This was carried on through to the Middle Ages when evergreen branches were hung on either the door or inside the home to keep evil spirits away. The wreath finds its roots in Ancient Greece when after offerings were made to Helios, an olive or laurel wreath was hung on the door in the hope of protection for their crops. Perhaps this was incorporated into the Roman Saturnalia as Saturn was considered the god of the harvest and its celebration marked the end of the harvest season. This practice was also found in the Scandinavian harvest wreath and used
as an animistic amulet.  The same can be said of Santa’s elves. Considered either a companion or alter ego of Saint Nicholas in the 17th century was the Krampus (left); a goat headed monster who was said to take naughty children to hell on the night before St Nicholas day, the 6th of December. The Krampus actually pre-dates Christianity and is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. This pagan demon evolved over time into a variety of Santa’s Helpers, including the American (and more marketable), friendly helper elves we know today. For the Norse, Germanics and the Romans, these were not neutral decorations as they are for us. For them it wasn’t just a tree or wreath, they were sacred objects with carried a strong symbolic meaning.

The bible does give actually give some indication of when Jesus was born. We can begin with Zechariah’s time of service in the Temple (Luke 1:8-13), because from that, using 1 Chronicles 24 we find that being from the division of Abijah he would have served his first course around June. We read that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary during Elizabeth’s sixth month. Provided Elizabeth conceived shortly after Zechariah’s service, Jesus’ conception can be said to have occurred in December and with His birth nine months later in September. However, if it was the second course, then Zechariah would be serving around October, pushing Jesus’ birth to late December. However, being the middle of winter, and during an important festival and season of rest, it is unlikely Ceasar Augustus would have called an Empire wide census (Lk 2:1). This method is not quite conclusive and fool-proof as it assumes Elizabeth fell pregnant almost immediately after Zecharius’ course in the Temple, but there is a sense in which it was soon after. And despite being inconclusive, it is the closest we can come. Moreover, it is based on biblical evidence more than philosophical assumption.

As mentioned above, Christmas as an intentionally redeemed day is difficult to prove. But let’s assume for a moment that Christmas is a redeemed day and that the philosophical argument for December 25th was a justification. Is this possible for the Christian? Is it biblical to ‘Christianise’ a pagan festival?
Critical contextualisation teaches that when it comes to contextualising the Gospel and Christianity into a new culture we are to reject the unbiblical, accept the biblical, and redeem the neutral. That culture might pray to a false god, so that’s unbiblical. But praying is biblical, so they can pray to God. Their culture may use a particular genre of music and speak a particular language. These are neutral, so they can use those to worship God with. And so when we come to Christmas, it might seem like there’s nothing unbiblical about decorating a tree on a certain day. There’s certainly no verse forbidding Christmas trees. And honouring God for the things he has done in Salvation History, the very focus of the day’s origin, is definitely biblical. So how should we approach a redeemed-day-Christmas according to the critical contextualisation process?
There is a passage of Scripture that we need to consider and begin to take seriously if we are to biblically answer this and comes from Deuteronomy 12:29-31

When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? - that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods…

Quite simply put, we cannot take a pagan practice and redeem it for worshipping God. This is because when we do, He doesn’t see us honouring Him; He sees us honouring that false god. This was the sin of the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. Two things from this story need to be noted. One is when the people said to Aaron “make us gods who shall go before us” (Ex 32:1). The Hebrew for gods is Elohim, which is not only the plural form of El (god): gods; but also the name used for God in verses such as Genesis 1:1. The second is the words of Aaron, ‘“Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord (YHWH)” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings’ (Ex 32:5-6). This, and other factors such as how they only built one statue and the declaration that the statue was the god who brought them out of Egypt, strongly suggest that the second meaning of Elohim was what was intended. Also, consider that the statue was a calf, a symbol of strength. Coming out of Egypt where gods were worshipped through mediums such as statues and people this interpretation makes sense. They didn’t know what happened to Moses, their mediator, and demanded Aaron give them a new one. The Israelites had attempted to redeem elements of Egyptian religion for worshipping Yahweh, and what was His response to Moses: “…let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Ex 32:10). It’s not about what it means to us; it’s about what it means to Him. Even if we’re sincere, if we worship God in an unacceptable manner, He will reject our worship (Gen 4:5-7, Isa 1:11-17). So if Christmas was intentionally established as a redeemed Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, or Yule, then we need to reconsider whether or not Jesus would be happy with us honouring his birthday on the birthday of a sun god according to their customs.
I am yet to hear an argument from those who say Christmas is okay for Christians that deals with this biblical principle properly. Normally comparisons such as ‘druids drinking hot chocolate’ are made, but this is irrelevant as hot chocolate is neutral, and it fails to address the ‘package’ that is Christmas. They also appeal to how fun and nice Christmas is, and as I mentioned in the introduction, this is very true. But there’s also many fun and nice things in New Age Spirituality and Buddhism, so we cannot use that as an argument because the Christian needs to be biblical, not emotional.

But what if it is not a contextualised holiday? What if any relationship to pagan worship is merely coincidental? In that case, it would be extra-biblical rather than non-biblical, and therefore posing no problem with Christians celebrating Christmas. Any day is a good day to remember and give thanks for the incarnation, and setting aside some time to intentionally remember Jesus coming into the Earth is good. The Gospel Coalition explains that the ‘waiting’ of Advent reminds us in the midst of this difficult world, that there is one

final Advent that is yet to come. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news through the Messiah’s return in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.

However, God has already given us holidays to remember and celebrate the things He has done for His people in the Feast Days, none of which were ever repealed (see September Celebrations). Why would our creator take away days of celebration? And why is it that we pour out so much time, energy, and money honouring human traditions, but we are unwilling to celebrate His days? Should we not put His ordinances before our traditions? God has already given us a week-long festival to remember Immanuel and to give thanks for all He has given us and will give us, and that is the Feast of Tabernacles, or in Hebrew Sukkot. During Sukkot, God’s people remember their time in the wilderness as they awaited their entrance into the promised land, and how God lived among them in His own tent during this time. And now that Jesus has come, we now remember how “The Word became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us” (Jn 1:14), and how He now dwells within us as we await our inheritance in the promised world to come where we will live near the tent of God for eternity (Rev 21:3). Considering it is closer to Jesus’ birthday, that it’s in the Bible, and how its symbology and iconography better reflect the Gospel than Christmas, wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate Jesus’ birthday then and make Christmas more of a time of general thanksgiving? If we want to go extra-biblical, that’s fine. But let’s not ignore the biblical in the process.

If we are to be Berean Baptists and not make null and void the word of God according to our traditions (Mark 7:13), we need to evaluate Christmas scripturally, apart from social perception, stigma, or attachment to tradition. And if we conclude for whatever reason that Christmas is unbiblical, getting rid of it doesn’t have to be the solution. It’s a great time of year, lots of fun and great memories. Maybe the day just needs to be redeemed. Maybe we should keep the Saturn in Saturnalia and take the Christ out of Christmas, especially since it’s most likely not even His birthday. Maybe we need to remove the pagan iconography. But maybe it is just a tree. Then again, maybe Yoga is just stretching and maybe Israel just made up their own feast day. The matter of Christmas is a tricky question and a big issue. Yet, if we are to walk with God in His ways, it’s one we need to honestly work through.

List of References

Basu, Tanya. ‘Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil’., 19 December 2013.

Coffman, Elesha. ‘Why December 25?’, 8 Aug 2008.

‘Goat-Headed Christmas Cheer: Run, Kris Kringle, Krampus Is Coming!’., 2 Dec 2008.

Green, Emma. 'The Inanity of the Starbucks Christmas Cup ‘Controversy’' 10 Nov 2015.

Hastings, James. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 16. Bloomsbury: New York, 2003.

McGowan, Andrew. ‘How December 25 Became Christmas’., 8 Dec 2014.

Pearse, Roger. ‘The Roman Cult of Mithras’

Pasori, Sazan. ‘Daniel Kalman Reveals the Origin of Starbucks’ Loge and its Trademark Siren’., 1 Sept 2013.

Setzer, Ed. ‘What is Contextualization’, 12 Oct 2014.

The Gospel Coalition, ‘Why Celebrate Advent’., 26 Nov 2013.

Image sourced from: