I took a look at the article from which Pen drew his information about the pagan origins of Christmas, and noticed it drew rather heavily on Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons. The name rang a bell, as it came up in the extremely long comment thread to this post by Lynn.
For some reason, Caldwell dates the work at 1959, but it was actually written in the 1850s. The original subtitle was "The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife," which should give you a pretty good idea of where he was coming from: he was out to prove that Catholics were idolatrous pagans. Hislop apparently didn't just call Christmas pagan -- he called communion, confession, baptism, last rites, and just about every other Catholic practice pagan. Recently the preacher Ralph Woodrow wrote a book in support of these theories, only to write another book retracting it all once he checked out Hislop's sources. (Another, longer deconstruction is here.) So, I'm no expert on this, but he sounds like a very dubious source.
Anyway, Lee Anne Millinger has a nice response to Pen's post up, where she addresses the paganism angle quite sensibly:
But before we go to pitching out all of our beloved Christmas traditions, perhaps we should give them a second look. As Augustine’s “City of God” let the metanarrative of Christ enter into and encompass the pagan story, I think that the church today can do the same thing with Christmas. Jesus’ story can encompass the lights, the trees and the gift-giving — infusing them with a meaning deeper and more profound than the pagan origins. After all, there were whispers of truth, touchstones of faith, even in Greek and Roman paganism.
Oops. I commented on the post below, following the link from Pen's place, before I read this post! Thanks very much for the mention and the link! My radar went up over the St. Nicolas thing. "Persecuted, tortured for the Catholic faith?" By my reckoning, this was before the Roman Catholic church formed. There was really one Christian church before Constantine institutionalized the Roman church, right? Why single out Catholic?Posted by: Lee Anne Millinger on December 11, 2003 06:48 AM
Well, I believe the church did call itself 'catholic' back then, but you're right, it's weird in that context. I think what got me most suspicious was the rather strained connection between Christmas trees and the villains of the Bible (Romans, Egyptians). I guess palm trees are 'evergreens,' but really, they have about as much in common with a Christmas tree as I have with a marsupial. I expect you'd find ritual and decorative uses of tree branches just about anywhere that has trees.Posted by: Camassia on December 11, 2003 08:46 AM
When I saw Pen's initial post, "Hislop" was a red flag. I read the source Pen linked at the end of the post (its written by a Methodist pastor), and the entire piece confirmed the source. Using Hislop is about as sensical as using the Elders of Zion. As you noted, Ralph Woodrow -- former popularizer of Hislop's thesis in our country and day -- did a bit of research, and found that it was all (anti-Catholic) bunk.
While I can sympathize with the points about consumerism, Pen needs to use better sources for the history side.Posted by: Chris Burgwald on December 11, 2003 07:24 PM
The venerable Thomas J. Talley's The Origins of the Liturgical year should shed some additional light on the Saturnalis/Christmas silliness. Talley even suggests that the Roman/pagan/whatever light festival was created to compete with Christian festivities at the Nativity of our Lord.Posted by: Greg on December 12, 2003 03:09 AM
Wow.. thanks for the corrections. Not being a historian nor an academic (just a humble pastor) ... the most interesting part of Caldwell's piece was not the logic but the conclusion that his church came to (that of having no Christmas festivities at all - not completely apparent in the article) and who he is Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell is the Senior Pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church - the largest UM Church in the States. He is also a close friend and 'advisor' of President George W. Bush.
The comparison to the elder's of zion really shook me up... I'll be printing a retraction today.
Thanks again for the dialogue.Posted by: Pen on December 12, 2003 08:23 AM