I’ve been meaning to respond to a discussion my father recently posted on his blog “The Puntocracy”. My dad’s post was regarding a decision by some politicians to ban the Easter bunny, Easter eggs and other symbols of Easter. My father goes on to point out that their is nothing even remotely Christian about the Easter bunny or Easter eggs except that they are somehow randomly associated with the Christian celebration of Christ’s crucifixion and ascension. My father is right (of course), but he also touches on a subject that is very dear to my heart – paganism in modern society. Even though most pagans stopped practicing about two thousand years ago their influence is still heavily felt today.
First, some very high-level and brief history….
Paganism and Judaism coexisted. While Paganism was popular and polytheistic in nature, Judaism had a small following and was monotheistic. Part of what was working against Judaism was that it was based on a moral God who had all the right answers – rather intimidating. The Pagan gods were anything but moral, rarely right and were generally a meddling group of gods that could be easily blamed for everything that went wrong in anybody or any country’s existence. Thus, it didn’t take a great deal of discipline or sacrifice on the part of the individual to be a pagan while Jews demanded more. You can see why it took time for Judaism to catch-on. Judaism had some powerful leaders – inspirational people that helped build their following including: Moses, Abraham, Joseph, et al. Judaism began to become a bit of a force within the vast Roman empire and this began to worry the Roman leaders. They were trying to strike a delicate balance between religious tolerance and civic peace.
Enter Jesus Christ.
Now, Judaism coexisted with Paganism for a long time and so Jewish rituals, ceremonies and holidays were all created and established long before Christ was born. Christianity as a religion is a relatively young religion and was created, spread and established in the backyard of paganism. As a result the combining and assimilation of pagan traditions into the Christian faith was inevitable. You add to that the idea that every learned or educated person since the written word has studied ancient Greece and ancient Greek philosophers and you have an entire Judeo-Christian society full of pagan symbols and traditions.
I don’t have the space here to touch upon all the references to paganism in our life and I am sure there are books written on this very topic. However, I will quickly discuss Christmas since the season is upon us.
Jesus was not born in December. It is widely believed that Jesus was born in the spring. So, why do we celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December? Well, that is one of the great stories of our shared religious history. During the first 300 years after Christ’s death we see Christianity quickly spread across Europe. Conversions were often done at the tip of a sword (see Charlemagne) but were often encouraged by the church abdicating pagan holidays. From the very first Pope Leo we see the church taking pagan holidays and turning them into Christian celebrations which is how we end up with crazy holidays like St. Valentine’s day and St. Patrick’s day.
The Roman calendar was based on 30 day months and so as a result there were 5 extra days at the end of the solar calendar. The Pagans took these five days and turned them into one of their famous festivals filled with debauchery and drink. The church struggled in getting pagans to give up these holidays in the name of Christianity, so around 400 A.D. Pope Liberius officially makes December 25th Christ’s birthday and insists that the celebration on that day be in the name of Christ. Thus, pagan and Christian traditions merge with the result being Santa Claus, Christmas trees, elves and the drinking of warm mead.