A news report on the BBC last night stated that this year has seen a continuing rise in the number of pagans in the UK, with record numbers coming out to mark the winter solstice. I welcome this , and hope to see even more public recognition of this ancient festival. This is why.
For half a century and more, Christmas fell in the season of heat and summer holidays, a time for Braai (=Barbecue) and beach, picnics and poolside. Christmas was a religious festival and a family time, which had nothing to do with the weather. Some christmas cards it is true, had completely inappropriate pictures of robins in the snow, of sleigh rides and other (northern) wintry scenes, but it was easy to ignore them, as it was to laugh at the “Father Christmas” figures in heavy red suits sweltering in the summer heat. Christmas lunch presented a problem, as many people, especially the older generation, had an emotional attachment to the “traditional” (i.e. English) Christmas meal, of roast turkey, hot Christmas pud and all the trimmings, all washed down with copious Christmas spirits.
I always used to enjoy Christmas, but over the years became increasingly uneasy over the confusion of Christmas as a religious festival of the Incarnation, and the commercial money trap which cloaks itself in pseudo religious imagery, broadcasting canned Christmas Carols even before the start of advent, adopting window nativity scenes to ell perfume and consumer electronics, and pushing us all to spend, spend spend – when the real gospel message is on promoting a freeing of oneself from material goods (“sell them, and give the proceeds to the poor”; “Consider the lilies of the fields. They don’t toil, they don’t spin.”)
On moving to the UK, the experience of my first northern Christmas a few years ago brought sudden clarity. In the cold northern winter, with its grey short days, near constant cloud or drizzle, and permanently low temperatures, everything became clear. We need a time of celebration, with bright lights, mulled wine, hearty meals and song to cheer away the gloom. this has nothing to do with Christmas. When people complain that we are introducing inappropriate secular celebrations into the Christmas season, they have got it the wrong way around. It is we Christians who superimposed a religious celebration onto a pagan festival, widely celebrated across Europe, at the time of the winter solstice. The Romans called it the “Saturnalia”, elsewhere it had other names – “Yule”, for one example, as in Yule log. Many of the things that today we associate with Christmas owe more to the pagan tradition than to the religious festival – including carols, which originally referred to a range of songs which had nothing to do with religious themes, but instead celebrated warm food and cheering drinks. It was only later that “carols” came to mean “Christmas carols ” and in recent years there have many an increasing number of new Christmas songs which have nothing to do with Christmas.
So, I welcome the pagan celebration – divorced from Christmas alongside it. Let it flourish, I say. Then, allow Christmas to be what it it truly is: an annual celebration of Christ’s ongoing, permanent incarnation.
Happy holidays. Have some warming food and drink, enjoy the company of friends, and look forward to the gradual return of longer days . Then have a holy and blessed Christmas season, too.