“Christmas is a pagan holiday,” several of our most trusted preachers insisted when I was a boy. To flesh out sermons that damned Christmas trees and Santa Claus and holy days, they ransacked the Bible to find random verses about ancient idol worshipers and their trees.
During my earliest years, I was always grateful that my own preacher-father was not an anti-Christmas zealot like some of his colleagues. True to their Puritan heritage, these good men refused to decorate a tree or put up lights or exchange gifts during December. I felt sorry for their kids.
We always had a tree. Usually a scraggly evergreen harvested from a hillside on some benevolent church member’s nearby ranch. Our Christmas trees were biblical, at least in one sense. Just as Isaiah described Jesus, they “had no beauty that we should desire them.”
Not once did anyone in our family attach any pagan meaning to one of those trees. But, in those now-distant times, we were also careful not to attach any Christian significance to them either.
Looking back now, I think I detect some spiritual schizophrenia in our observance of Christmas. For us in those years, Christmas was basically a non-religious event. We never read Luke 2. We never spoke of it as Christ’s birthday. But we did love the traditional carols of the season, so during December the grand strains of the Mormon Tabernacle and the Norman Luboff choirs filled our home with celebrations of our Lord’s birth.
I never believed or preached all that foolishness about Christmas being a pagan holiday. By the time I was old enough to be “the preacher” in a congregation, most of the folks in our small band of churches had outgrown such nonsense.
Whenever I did occasionally hear a colleague parroting the “pagan Christmas” tripe, however, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Why couldn’t he see the obvious reality that all the pagans in town dismissed Christmas as a Christian holiday, and the only people who saw it as pagan were a few uptight Christians like himself?
Personally, I have always been grateful that so many people find in Christmas a reason to pause and reflect on the fact that God chose to become a man.
I’m glad we have a season when hearts are more tender, when memories are more precious, when faith gets recharged by strong reminders of how much the God of heaven loves all of us on earth.
Gene Shelburne is minister of the Anna Street Church of Christ, 2310 Anna Street, Amarillo, Texas. Contact him at GeneShel@aol.com, or get his books and magazines at www.annastreetchurch.com. His column has run on the Faith page for three decades.