Christmas lovers in a quiet Michigan neighborhood were shocked to find a note appended to their mailboxes denouncing their holiday light displays. It began:
Hi neighborYou have a nice display of lights and this love note explains how that pagan tradition began. For thousands of years Sun worshippers have celebrated the Sungod's rebirth after solstice. Pagans honored the birth of the "invincible sun" with a "festival of lights." They used big bonfires, pigs fat tallow candle lights, and today, billions of colored christmass [sic] lights. Rome's seven-day December Saturnalia was religious revelry with decadent drunkenness outrageous adultery and giving Saturn's nativity birth gifts to the children. The Norseman's yuletide solstice carousal used sexual soliciting mistletoe, Yule-log bonfire, and decorated evergreen wreaths and tree worship. None of this honors the life of Yeshua the Christ.
But for the invective, that could have been written by a pagan. (I particularly like the way Sungod and Saturnalia are capitalized but "christmass" isn't.) In fact, last year I offered a bit of history regarding the pre-Christian roots of bringing evergreens into the home during solstice and the Bible's condemnation of it. But light-displaying Michiganders scoff at such litmus tests of their Christianity and do not take kindly to the grievous insult of being called "pagan."
Danette Hoekman, who received the letter, said: 'I laughed because I think it’s ridiculous that people would get upset over Christmas lights.'
. . .
Miss Hoekman added: 'It's a sin to judge other people and to tell people that if they have Christmas lights they are Pagans.
'We're not Pagans, we go to church regularly, my kids go to the Christian school.'
The mash note writer isn't the only one calling Hoekman's faith into question. George Conger at Get Religion points out that Christianity and single motherhood are oxymoronic and strangely conflates the whole thing with lesbianism.
A “Miss” whose kids go to the Christian school? That would be news.
But facts and George Conger don't seem to be well acquainted. Conger also takes both the Michigan do-gooder and the Huffington Post to task for claiming that it was Christians who coopted the pagan holiday when it was the Roman Emperor Aurelian.
This bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to scrutiny. It will disappoint the crank of Hudsonville no doubt, but he (and the Huffington Post) have it backwards. As Prof. William Tighe wrote in Touchstone magazine a few years ago:
… the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date [Dec 25] in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.In other words, it was the pagan Emporer Aurelian who sought to paganize the Dec 25 holiday of the Christians, not the Christians who sought to Christianize the Roman pagan holiday.
Never mind that Christianity owes ancient Rome and its emperors for most of the Christian foundations we hold dear. It was the pagan Emperor Constantine who formally legalized Christianity and organized the Council of Nicaea which was responsible for hammering out Christian doctrine and assembling the Bible that fundamentalists today consider the irrefutable word of God. Constantine was only baptized into the Christian faith on his deathbed after a living a thoroughly debauched, wife-murdering, life.
More to the point, "the crank" doesn't appear to have said anything at all about who it was who so thoroughly enmeshed Christmas with paganism. But that enmeshment cannot be reasonably disputed.
The Wild Hunt has more on the link between Saturnalia and Christmas.
So get out your statue of Saturn, or if you don’t have one, I suppose a statue of Santa will have to do, place him on your best couch, and let the merriment begin!
“According to the Augustan historian Livy, following the sacrifice the Roman senate arranged a lectisternium, a ritual of Greek origin that typically involved placing the deity’s image on a sumptuous couch, as if he were present and actively participating in the festivities. A public banquet was held (convivium publicum), and afterward the shouting of io Saturnalia began, originally only on the single day.”