The Reformation

Our Separated Brethren Defend Christmas - An Unwitting Contradiction?

by Mark Bonocore

Here in the United States, the most powerful and dynamic social ally of devout Catholics is, without question, the evangelical Protestants. It is evangelical Protestants who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with devout Catholics in the struggle to defend life and safeguard the values of our Christian civilization.

The Nature of the Celebration

It was the evangelical Protestants, more than any other group, who achieved the re-election of President George W. Bush and his administration’s stance against wholesale abortion, “gay marriage,” and the like. And, just this Christmas, the evangelical Protestants, in the form of activist groups like Focus on the Family, once again displayed great valor and determination in combating secular forces and their attempts to exclude the celebration of Christ’s birth from schools and other government institutions.

Indeed, while the Catholic Church may hold the moral and institutional clout to be the leading voice for Christian morality and traditional values, it is clearly the evangelical Protestants who are our motivated, “crack troops” — the zealous front line in the ongoing war for the cultural heart and mind of America. So, while far be it from me, or any other Catholic, to criticize or undermine the heroic efforts of our evangelical Protestant brethren in this area, I would like to present a friendly challenge to our beloved allies when it comes to their defense of Christmas itself. For, as a Catholic apologist who is constantly accused by the evangelical camp of dabbling in “idolatry” and “vain ritual” (a.k.a. the Liturgical customs and traditions of the Catholic Church), it seems to me that our evangelical brethren are contradicting themselves when they defend the celebration of Christmas against those who would take it away from us.

As the name itself implies, “Christmas” (from an ancient English derivation: “Christ’s Mass”) is an intrinsically Catholic celebration — a liturgical feast day of the Catholic Church, first observed in the West on January 6th (the original date) in the year A.D. 336, and then moved to December 25th some time in the late 400s. Now as all scholars admit, both Protestant and Catholic, we simply do not know what time of year Jesus was actually born. So, Christmas is not, and was never intended to be, a commemoration of the Lord’s historical birthday. Rather, like all other liturgical feast days of the Catholic Church (e.g. the feast of the Annunciation, the feast of Epiphany, or the feast day of a particular saint, etc.), Christmas was designed to commemorate (and institutionalize) an important aspect of Christian theology — in this case, the dogma of the Incarnation: the reality that God became man in the Person of the Holy Child of Bethlehem.

Yet why choose January 6th or December 25th? Why celebrate the Nativity of the Savior in the middle of winter? Well, as history records, the reason that the ancient Church chose this season was to intentionally compete with, and so obscure and replace, a number of pagan festivals celebrating the Winter Solstice which fell on, or close to, the same dates.

The week before we celebrate Christmas is when the northern point of the earth’s axis tilts furthest away from the sun. The northern hemisphere experiences its shortest day of the year on December 21 or 22 every year. Ancient people noticed that the sun seems almost fixed in this position for several days around this time, hence “solstice” or sun standing still. When the sun began, from the perspective of earthbound observers, to reverse course and the days to start to lengthen, this was seen as cause for celebration, with the hope born anew that winter would draw to a close and spring would arrive.

In our modern culture with electric lights and well-heated homes the deep connection ancient peoples felt to these natural cycles may be lost on us, but they were not lost on our Christian forbears. The ancient Christians, therefore, seeking to communicate their belief that Jesus is the “light of the world” (Jn 9:5) chose to do so at a time when all peoples of the Roman Empire would be able to see and appreciate such a statement.

Vigorous in Defense

However, what of modern American Evangelicals? While a great many of them are no doubt (like most modern Catholics) unaware of the historical origins of Christmas, why do they subscribe to, and zealously defend, a celebration that is so blatantly Catholic in nature? For example, in response to this year’s secular opposition to the Christian character of the season, a number of evangelical voices have encouraged their followers to avoid making the vain and politically correct statement, “Happy Holidays,” but to be sure to say “Merry Christmas” at every opportunity. However, in making that statement, do the Evangelicals realize that they are endorsing the celebration of a Catholic “Mass” (“Christ’s-Mass”) — that is, a liturgical celebration of the Catholic Eucharist?

Evangelical Protestants see the Catholic Mass as, at worst, a dangerous error (in which, they mistakenly think, we "sacrifice Jesus again and again"), and, at best, as an empty and fruitless "human ritual" which supposedly distracts from effectively preaching the Gospel. This is one of the main reasons why so many Evangelicals reject liturgy and liturgical calendars. Yet, in saying “Merry Christmas,” the Evangelicals are not only proclaiming the Catholic Mass to be a good thing, but they are also recognizing the existence of a liturgy and a liturgical calendar to which they do not subscribe. In doing so, they are unwittingly honoring their own Catholic heritage — that is, the heritage of the first Protestant reformers who (inconsistently) retained the Catholic feast day of Christmas when they parted ways with the Church and its “distracting rituals.”

Indeed, this issue is especially significant when it comes to the more extreme and radical elements of the evangelical Protestant community — that is, those who see the Catholic Church as the godless “Whore of Babylon,” and who believe that Emperor Constantine and the 4th-century Catholic bishops tainted their Christian worship with paganism, etc. Since the feast day of Christmas was the product of this very time (initiated officially only in AD 336); and, if 4th-century Catholicism represents an abandonment of the true Gospel, then, once again, why would an Evangelical of this mindset wish to preserve and defend one of Catholicism’s feast days, especially when the date itself has pagan roots?

It is not merely the date and name of the celebration that Evangelicals are vigorously defending, but they extend their defense to many Catholic elements of the celebration as well:

• Christmas carols: In a number of American public schools this year, the singing of Christmas carols — that is, seasonal songs that directly refer to the birth of Jesus — has been prohibited on the grounds that they supposedly alienate the non-Christian minority and violate "the separation of Church and State."

In response, our evangelical brethren have spoken out boldly in defense of singing such time-honored classics as “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Yet most Christmas carols were written for, and are, in essence, an intrinsic part of, the Catholic liturgical feast. “O Come All Ye Faithful,” for example, is merely an English translation of the classic Latin Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles.” So, once again, in defending the singing of these beloved carols, our evangelical brethren are actually promoting elements of the traditional Catholic liturgy — a liturgy that they otherwise reject and disdain.

• The Christmas tree: Related to their defense of Christmas carols, many evangelical groups have also bitterly opposed a move by the secular liberals in our nation’s capital, whereby the traditional Christmas tree that stands on Capitol Hill has been renamed “The Holiday Tree” — an attempt to disassociate the tree from the name of Jesus Christ. However, here, once again, the Evangelicals find themselves in contradiction. For, the Christmas tree is also a product of traditional Catholic devotion, being yet another adaptation of an old pagan form — namely, a custom stemming from the ancient tribes of Germany, who believed that their nature gods dwelled within the evergreen (thus explaining its ability to remain lush and alive during winter), and so brought such trees into their homes and decorated them as shrines to these pagan gods. When first evangelizing the German tribes, the Catholic Church wisely permitted them to retain their native custom, but merely revised and adapted it to stand for, not the indwelling of some pagan god, but rather the eternal life that Christians have in Jesus Christ. And so, like the solstice itself, the evergreen was robbed of its ancient pagan meaning and reborn as a Christian symbol. And it is of course this Christian symbol that our evangelical brethren wish to defend.

In contradiction, however, these same Evangelicals are often quick to condemn other Catholics forms that may be, or may seem to be, drawn from similar pagan origins. We need to lovingly help our dear brothers to see that they cannot have it both ways. If pagan forms cannot be adapted or Christianized (with the old pagan meaning replaced with a Christian one), then the Evangelicals should be applauding the Washington secular liberals, not opposing them, for renaming the Congressional Christmas tree. We applaud them for rightly seeing this move as a violation of their Christian culture. Gently we need to ask then if they are willing to admit that Christian culture is intrinsically Catholic.

• Nativity scenes: It seems that more than any other move to secularize the Christmas season this year, the evangelical Protestants have been outraged by secular liberal attempts to remove nativity scenes from schools and other public venues. As with Christmas carols, the liberal argument is of course based on the "separation of church and state" and the claim that nativity scenes somehow “victimize” non-Christian citizens. And while we must certainly congratulate and encourage our evangelical brethren for defending nativity scenes and speaking out against such liberal nonsense, this nevertheless represents yet another blatant contradiction when it comes to what Evangelicals supposedly believe and what separates them from us Catholics. For, as Catholic apologist John Betts points out, aren’t the Evangelicals the ones who take the Old Testament Commandment against graven images dead literally? Aren’t they the ones who condemn Catholics for having churches filled with statues and other religious images?

Now, an Evangelical might try to avoid this problem by claiming that there is a difference between having a statue (such as in a nativity scene) and venerating it or “praying to it.” However, this is an empty argument for two important reasons: Firstly, we Catholics do not pray to statues, but merely use them as symbols and reminders, which of course serves the same purpose as a nativity scene on someone’s lawn. And, secondly, the Commandment, as written, does not forbid merely praying to a graven image, but rather making or having one. So, if Evangelicals are going to cite the letter of the Mosaic Law in order to argue against statues in Catholic churches or homes, then they of course must apply the same standard to nativity scenes as well. Otherwise, they are being highly inconsistent.

As for nativity scenes themselves, one should not be surprised to learn that these too are the product of Catholic devotion — the first “Crèche” (a wooden manger holding a figure of the Christ Child, flanked by figures of Mary and Joseph) being invented by none other than St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th dentury — that is, long after the establishment of full-blown Catholicism and its supposedly “vain” and “paganistic” ritualism. But, even so, this is the tradition that Evangelicals are defending. Again, the question must be asked: Why?

The Argument Comes Full Circle

In short, and as I initially said, we Catholics can only applaud and admire our evangelical brethren for their bravery, their passion, and their tireless commitment to defending the most holy season of Christmas, in all its forms and expressions, against a godless, secular liberal agenda that desires nothing less than the destruction of the Christian Faith. However, at the same time, our beloved allies must be called to account for their inconsistencies, and hopefully be moved to appreciate the importance of liturgical forms and their influence in and over secular society. For, just as modern seculars are trying to marginalize and/or adapt Christian forms to suit the demands of their “religion” (for secularism is indeed a religion unto itself), we Catholics did the same with the ancient pagan civilizations of the Roman Empire, starting in about 320 AD. This is the nature of the so-called “pagan” aspects of Catholicism; and our evangelical friends would do well to appreciate the fact that these forms now belong to them just as much as they belong to us. For, it was the same Holy Spirit, Whom we both worship, Who moved the ancient Church to adapt these previously pagan forms for the glory and expansion of the Gospel.

Yet perhaps the issue would be better viewed this way: Assuming that the secular liberals eventually succeed in eliminating Christianity from American culture, would an Evangelical then say that things like a “Holiday Tree” or the singing non-religious Yuletide songs (e.g. "Frosty the Snowman"), or wishing someone “Happy Holidays” is in any way “Christian” in nature? If not, then why should he assume that Catholic forms adapted from pagan culture are still “pagan” or still retain their pagan character? Again, our evangelical brethren cannot have it both ways. Yet, perhaps in seeing their own Christian culture threatened by hostile forces (i.e., the secular liberals), the Evangelicals can appreciate why we Catholics hold so strongly to our own, and come to see how close to Catholic culture they themselves actually are.

May the Christ Whose birth we have all just celebrated bring us together in the unity He intended for His followers.

Mark Bonocore
The Catholic Legate
January 15, 2005

This article originally appeared on Catholic Exchange.