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Christmas trees: Pagan or Christian?

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Local News: Bells of Faith, the Handbell choir of the Mustard Seed (a community in Brandon, Mississippi for adults with developmental disabilities) has a busy week ahead. If you have never had the opportunity to see the Seedsters perform, this week holds five upcoming opportunities:

* Sunday December 15 – Riverside Methodist Church – morning worship 10:30.

* Sunday December 15 – First Baptist Church Carthage – play 6:00.

*Monday December 16 – Mississippi College Flowood (115 Laurel Park Cove, Suite 101, Flowood, MS 39232)– Christmas Open House – play 3:30

* Tuesday December 17 – Saint Paul’s Women’s Guild Christmas party – St. Paul’s Family Life Center – 5971 Hwy 25, Flowood, MS / 7:00 p.m.

* Wednesday December 18 – Brandon Baptist – play 6:00.

For more information about the Mustard Seed or any of these upcoming performances, go to www.mustardseedinc.org.

It may come as a surprise to some people (it certainly came as a surprise to this writer) that the first group in America to oppose the festive celebration of Christmas was the Puritans. At one point, they attempted to outlaw plum pudding, as it pertained to observing Christmas.

Why? Were the Puritans of the same mind as the modern-day ACLU, which would like to replace Christmas with a purely generic, and not specifically religious, December holiday? Far from it. Ironically, it was because the Puritans esteemed Christ so highly that they sought to suppress celebrations that, in their opinion, distracted people’s attention away from Him. The general gaiety of the Christmas season (and, yes, the plum pudding as well) did nothing to focus people’s attention on the Nativity event, said the Puritans, and therefore these trappings should be let go of.

Though in a minority, there are contingencies of Christians today who, for conscience’s sake, disapprove of the popular holiday known as “Christmas.” Reasons vary: for some, “Christmas” is strictly a commercial affair, no longer having any solemn connection to the Incarnation; for others, “Christmas” is a thinly white-washed version of an old pre-Christian winter festival, and should be ignored on that account.

It is no secret that December 25 was the date of a pagan festival to the sun god. The early Church’s intention was to adopt the date and convert it into a festival honoring the Son of God, since, after all, no one knows, with any degree of certainty, what day or month Christ was actually born in.

It is true that the custom of lighted and decorated trees did originate with the old pre-Christian holiday honoring the Sun god. As December 25 approached, the days were getting shorter and shorter, and the ancient people, not understanding meteorology, hoped that by putting lights in trees, they could encourage the sun to go on shining, and not die. So does this definitively prove that Christians have no business putting up decorated trees in their homes?

The answer to the question hinges on a person’s philosophy: is a Christian called, first and foremost, to redeem and conform culture, or are they first and foremost called to avoid and shield themselves from culture? This same question gets asked in the context of Christian music—should the church take the trends and styles of secular popular music and “Christianize” them, or should the church stay as far away as possible from worldly styles of music? Where do you draw the line, when it comes to being “in the world”, but not “of it”? If we hide out in our own private sanctuaries, unwilling to engage the culture in which we live, are we being the “salt” and “light”, the “city on a hill” God wants us to be?

Biblically speaking, nothing that God has created is inherently evil. Food, drink, recreation, nature, all of the things that bring enjoyment in life are not bad in themselves, although they can be used in bad ways. Biblically speaking, everything that has been corrupted by the world is capable of being “uncorrupted” by being brought back into submission to God. Trees are beautiful, made by God. Light and color—the whole realm of the arts—is an invention of God as well. If it’s possible to do such mundane things as eating and drinking to the glory of God, surely it’s possible to do creative things such as “trimming” a tree to the glory of God as well, isn’t it?

From the perspective of C.S. Lewis, many of the old pagan myths in ancient cultures are not simply pure falsehood, needing to be avoided at all costs. Rather, they are faint glimmers of actual truth—they are not thoroughly false, as much as they are only hazily true. If the ancients celebrated “Easter” as a spring celebration to the fertility goddess, why shouldn’t the Church redeem the holiday and have their own spring celebration to the true God, who’s the actual reality behind all fertility, as well as all of the other blessings of this life? Everything the ancient pagan myths hinted at is crystallized and perfected in the historical reality of the Incarnation. God, not just some god, but the God, has come down to the earth he created and has made everything new.

As Lewis said in Mere Christianity:

“God left the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”

In Christ, the ancient pagan myths are not so much proven to be utterly absolutely false, as they are culminated and perfected. In other words, as C.S. Lewis liked to say, in Christ “Myth became Fact.” While it would be wrong to believe in the pagan myths as containing the whole story, it would also be mistaken to overlook the fact that God may have been choosing to speak through them to cultures that didn’t have the Scriptures.

But no more digressing about Paganism vs. Christianity. The point is that, Biblically, Christians have the liberty to redeem and convert pagan practices that are not contrary to Christ, and use them to the glory of God. Personally, it seems that the conversion of the decorated, lighted trees from being homage to the sun god to being homage to the true Son of God is, therefore, entirely appropriate.

If you, like the old-school Puritans, can’t in good conscience embrace the festive holiday season surrounding Advent (which includes Christmas trees), then, by all means, continue to refrain. But in refraining, take care to avoid looking down other Christians who are attempting to glorify God in their eating, drinking, and, yes, in their decorating too.

Merry Christmas.

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