A Pagan Christmas

by | 22 Dec 2021

For early Christians, celebrations of birth were broadly viewed as sinful. With the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center of the early message, and with Jesus expected to return at any moment, early Christians recorded the dates of their deaths but not the dates of their births.

One prolific and influential early Christian writer (Origen, approx. 185 – 254), noted that both Pharaoh and Herod had birthday celebrations, and that each had “stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood.” As the Bible stories go, Pharaoh ordered the killing of his chief baker and Herod agreed to behead John the Baptist. As Origen put it:

[N]ot one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. [Indeed, the saints] not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day.[1]

Origen referenced passages in Jeremiah, Job, and Psalms wherein Biblical characters cursed the respective days on which they were born. He concluded that only the “worthless man who loves things connected with birth keeps birthday festivals.” Celebrations of life were for pagans, the paltry, the wretched. Thus, even before the New Testament had been compiled or fully drafted, a strain of disdain for ‘humanity’ or ‘human nature’ was already nascent.

That disdain still holds its strongest remnants in Paul, not Jesus. Paul’s Christianity depended upon a individually-discovered transcendent truth—something übermenschlich—that necessarily rendered the institutions and opinions of humans noxious. Amongst the various books eventually compiled into the New Testament, Paul is credited as author of up to half. His letters were written earliest. Those letters say nothing specific about the birth of Jesus; they emphasize his resurrection. The singularity of this event, combined with the recognition of it in the form of individual Christian conversion, produced in Paul an anti-philosophy that remains foundational to forms of universalism in the present—those that underpin the structures of capital markets, international trade and human rights law, or the concept of human dignity itself. Alain Badiou identifies Paul’s universal singularity as comprised of the following:[2]

  1. Knowing universal truth does not preexist the singular event that gives rise to truth. Thus, once internal knowledge of the truth occurs, external social conditions are revealed as impositions rather than anything true.
  2. Universal truth comes from individual recognition of the event giving rise to truth. Thus, universal truth is entirely subjective, it cannot be placed ‘under’ any objective thing, such as law or economy.
  3. Individual fidelity to recognition of the event is essential, since truth is a process, not an illumination. For Badiou, Pauline love is a conviction that is both a reaction to and a necessity for the assumption of faith. This creates the ‘process’: a feedback loop of conviction and validation.
  4. A universal truth is itself indifferent to the state of the world around it. It does not care about rules prescribed by States, and it certainly does not care about the opinions of human beings.

To take something as existing as universally true in the Pauline sense means that the truth cannot depend on anything, cannot arise out of anything but subjective recognition. Universal truth is produced by resurrection-like events, universal singularities. Because they are singular, generalities cannot account for them. They cannot be structural, axiomatic, or legal. Law can never be truth. Nothing historically established can lend its substance to the process of truth. A generality is normative and externally given whereas universal truths are singular and come from within, from subjective conviction (or Pauline ‘love’). Yet paradoxically, for something to be universally true for anyone—as the monotheistic logic goes—it must be true for everyone.

Some 1500 years after Paul, Calvin and Luther provided the commercial transition from the Catholic interpretation of Paul’s canon. Calvin’s emphasis on asceticism and predestination conflated the accumulation of earthly goods with heavenly favor; Luther’s rejection of Catholic ‘good works’ conflated morality with labor.[3] Luther’s justification by faith alone also meant that no part of faith could be the work of any individual. God had to give faith, and faith had to be pure. Luther’s core theological assumptions—that God is everything and humanity is nothing; that everything good exists by God’s grace alone; and that man’s desire either to be or to reject God is the source of all evil—produced a ‘truth’ that viewed raw humanity as nothing less than despicable. We are scum. We are sinful. We are filth in need of a divine universal singularity.

Early Christians had no Christmas. They appropriated it from pagans who believed in celebrating light and life in the dead of winter. European Christians initially kept it much the same as pagans—lights were nice in the dark of winter and the pine trees made everything indoors smell fresh. The indoor tree ritual likely started in Germany during the Middle Ages. Much later, the Americans, roaring drunk on Calvinist glorification of capital accumulation and Lutheran glorification of labor, commercialized the practice, leading first to a deforestation crisis and then to the advent of commercial reforestation. The multicolored glass globes (ornaments) also started in Germany, were also commercialized by Americans, and finally, also produced that classic one-two punch of exported suffering and concentrated wealth: sweatshop-like conditions in German glasshouses and untold riches to New York’s Bloomingdale and Macy families. Same story with synthetic trees.[4]

Pagans did not despise humanity, nor did they conflate material goods with moral desert. They drank together and celebrated humanity, and by most accounts, they shared their material goods within and amongst (some) communities. Most importantly (if generally), pagans did not understand God as separate from the Earth or humanity. God—or The Gods—lived here with us, among us, occasionally inside us. God was not only with all, but actually was all, or was part of all, and that meant that all was sacred—that the Earth and humanity were sacred by mere existence.

I want to suggest that a truth-procedure that tears God away from the Earth, places the Earth in the hands of humanity, and views both the Earth and humanity as unworthy of God is not only an unhealthy Grundnorm on which to base any social institution (much less an internationalized one)—it is also not something to celebrate. Nor is Christmas’s more recent history of commercialization, consumerism, and global exploitation something particularly worth celebrating or sustaining. For that matter, nor is Pauline universalism’s subjectively-discovered disdain for that which is human. And most especially, nor is a Santa that Coca-Cola invented to sell cold drinks to Midwestern Americans thirstless for suds in the dead of winter.

That said, I do like the smell of pine trees, I do like soft lighting, and I do love my communities. More importantly, I receive love from my communities, and there is nothing to disdain in that love. The only appropriate response to love—freely given rather than owed or demanded—is gratitude. And that is why I want to make an appeal for a return to the pagan traditions. Simply put, I’m dreaming of a Pagan Christmas.

One such tradition, Saturnalia, began in Ancient Rome approximately 200 years before the life of Jesus. Saturnalia marked a period of several mid-December days during which every person in Roman society was to be treated equally—and radically so. For example, one practice was to ‘christen’ a Mock King whose orders bound the community to obedience. These orders often involved required nudity or dancing (or both), sensory indulgence, mild desecration of the sacred symbols, and of course, good old fashioned public humiliation for laughs. But the more general theme seems to have been a recognition of humanity that broke with overlaying structures of social injustice. At its core, at least in my reading, Saturnalia was about human equality. As Lucian of Samosota (approx. 120 – 180) wrote:

Each [hu]man shall take the couch where he happens to be. Rank, family, or wealth shall have little influence on privilege.

All shall drink the same wine, and neither stomach trouble nor headache shall give the rich [person] an excuse for being the only one to drink the better quality.

All shall have their meat on equal terms. The waiters shall not show favor to anyone. […] Neither are large portions to be placed before one and tiny ones before another, nor a ham for one and a pig’s jaw for another—all must be treated equally.

When a rich man gives a banquet to his servants, his friends shall aid him in waiting on them.[5]

Another tradition—often called Yule or Jul—emerged much earlier than the Roman Saturnalia, though nobody knows precisely when. Only unreliable information remains about the traditions of the Teutonic peoples (Northern Germany, Scandinavia, and the British Isles), seen through the lenses of early Christian scholars that penned records of the spiritual logic long after the oral traditions faded. While truth remains vague, several records describe Yule as a feast that drew from all a community’s farmers and was shared with all that community’s members. Only one fact seems to be undisputed: ritualized beer drinking featured prominently in these festivals.

These are just two examples from which we could draw inspiration for our Pagan Christmas. But most of all—and taking a page out of Anthony Kronman’s Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan—what Pagan Christmas represents to me is the idea of ‘being at home in the world’. As Kronman writes:

[To be ‘at home in the world’ means that] we shall forever be dependent on the love of other human beings, which is always a gift when it comes. If we are able to receive it as such, without resentment or envy or the wish to rid ourselves of the dependence that love by its nature entails, we may find fulfillment in the creative expressions of gratitude […] We may find that we can be at home for a time in [the world’s] overwhelming reality, without being angry because we are finite and it is not. We may find pleasure in working collaboratively with our predecessors and successors in an endless program of home improvement. And we may be happy in the knowledge that we are able to love as well as we are loved because the love in question is that of human beings for one another, and not of men for a God beyond the world whose gifts exceed our power to give thanks.[6]

For Kronman, love is both a fundamental human need and the only legitimate basis of spirituality, yet it cannot possibly be demanded. It can only be freely given, can only arise spontaneously, not reactively or coercively. The God in the Sky that demands love in exchange for His sacrifice or sets up a metaphysics in which human beings cannot possibly give adequate thanks for the love, creates an inconsistent truth. For Kronman, any ‘truth’ that arises from this love cannot possibly be universal in the Pauline sense. Kronman’s human love cannot arise out of debt—even divine grace and forgiveness cannot evoke love. By contrast, Paul’s ‘love of conviction’ is such that both the singularity of God’s sacrifice and the universal truth it produced necessarily preexist the knowledge of God. One cannot have knowledge of God without knowledge of a gift for which we cannot give sufficient thanks—for which human love is necessarily insufficient. If God is Pauline love, humans cannot know it, cannot access it, cannot respond to it, so for Kronman, that God cannot be ‘real’. What matters to the pagan is human love, gratitude for it, and creative expressions of it.

I want a Pagan Christmas because human love is not in the Sky. It is ‘at home in the world’. I want to celebrate ‘being at home’ as a creative expression of gratitude for the love in my life and those people who freely give it. No Santa, no wrapping paper, no three wise men or nativity scene—no consumer goods. With a touch of Saturnalian equality, a dash of Yulian community, a tiny bit of ritualized beer-drinking and, of course, a whole lot of love and gratitude, I think that it is time we Pagans reclaimed (at least part of) Christmas.


[1] Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley (Catholic University of America Press 1990); Origen, “Commentary on Matthew,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 9, ed. Allan Menzies (Hendrickson Publishers 1994).

[2] The following are all paraphrased, and perhaps not entirely astutely, from passages in Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Stanford 2003).

[3] This is the summarized thesis of Max Weber (Talcott Parson, transl.), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930).

[4] Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (University of California Press 2007).

[5] Lucian, Lucian VI, trans. K. Kilburn, Loeb Classical Library (Harvard 1959). 

[6] Anthony Kronman, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan (Yale 2016).

3 Comments

  1. Wonderful read! Thank you

    Reply
  2. Thank you very much for this insightful article. Does the author have a link to their bio or a list of other work that they’ve written? It would be great to learn more about pagan perspectives on contemporary issues, be they legal or political.

    Reply
    • Hi Joe, I’m so happy to read that you enjoyed this post. If you’re still curious, you can find links to my other work and links to bios at http://www.kevincrow.org. Its not quite up to date but pretty close.

      Reply

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