The directive to “Keep Christ in Christmas” is a popular mantra rolled out around the holiday season, as Christian denominations attempt to combat the overly hyped, commercialized and material components of Christmas that seem to swallow up any reference to the birth of Christ.
An atheist group called The Freedom From Religion Foundation is offering their own thought – to keep Saturn in Saturnalia, a reference to an ancient festival in December that once honored the Roman god Saturn.
The Christian Post on Friday reported that some are not too happy with the group’s attempt to bring traditional Christmas origins to light. Arsonists attempted to torch one such billboard near Pitman, N.J., leading the atheist group to offer a reward for information leading to arrest of the culprits.
“It has gone too far this time,” said Pitman Mayor Russ Johnson of the attempt to destroy the sign. “It's absolutely out of control.”
Police Chief Robert Zimmerman reported that witnesses on Tuesday saw two men pull up in a silver and blue Ford 150 pickup truck with a ladder rack, pour gas on the billboard supports and light them on fire.
The men did not cause any permanent damage however, since the supports were made of metal.
“They were not successful,” Zimmerman said. “The posts are steel and didn't ignite at all.”
The arson underscores a general undercurrent of those who dislike the message promulgated by the atheist group, no matter how historically accurate it may be.
“That billboard was put up to mock the Christ in Christmas banner,” Mayor Johnson said. “It was said the same way, 'Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.' That's what has people upset.”
Is there truth to this billboard's message?
Indeed, the origins of almost every major element of the traditional Christmas celebration – from the date of December 25, to gift-giving, stocking hanging, even mistletoe – can be traced to un-Christian, or pagan, origins.
The Saturnalia played a part in the choice of December 25 as the birth of Christ. The Bible does not detail the date of Jesus’ birth, nor is there any evidence that Jesus or his Apostles ever celebrated his birthday. The Bible does speak of the shepherds “living out of doors” and tending to their flocks during the night in Bethlehem at the time Jesus was born. (Luke 2:8)
December is a cold, rainy season, and by the end of the month, shepherds in the even colder highlands in the vicinity of Bethlehem would have moved indoors. Jesus was likey born in the late fall, during the time of King Herod’s census, which was the reason why Joseph and Mary were traveling to Jerusalem to begin with.
The festival honoring Saturn – the Roman god of Agriculture – took place during December 17 through the 24, and was marked by feasting, gift-giving and worship to false gods. The Encyclopedia Americana says, “Saturnalia provided the model for many of the merry-making customs of Christmas.”
In order to facilitate the conversion of pagans into Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church appropriated December 25, also the date of the winter solstice, into the date of Christ’s birth.
“The establishment of December 25 evolved not from biblical precedent,” says The Christmas Encyclopedia, “but from pagan Roman festivals held at year’s end.”