It was about a half hour past bedtime when my 5 year-old son Elias asked me the question. “Is Santa real Daddy?”
We had already been through this the year prior but apparently Elias had new ‘intel’.
“My teacher told me Santa is real” he continued, “not pretend real but really real! So is he? Seriously, I want to know.” I could see the desire to believe and yet know the truth no matter what shimmering in my son’s bright blue eyes. (How accurately does this describe many of our own faith journeys?) I tried an evasive tactic telling him it was fun to believe in Santa Claus at Christmas time but he would have none of it. “Knowing the truth changes things.” I warned him. “Do you want to change Christmas?” He insisted. So I told him the truth (for the second year in a row).
Well I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as they say. Like my son, I have always needed to know the truth – or in more appropriate postmodern language – to know with expanding perspective and greater understanding. I recall my own questions that changed Christmas for me around 10 years ago. These were not questions about Santa but about the birth of Jesus.
I can’t say I ever remember believing Jesus was actually born on December 25th but it wasn’t till my late twenties before I began wondering why we celebrate Jesus’ birthday on December 25th.
We do not know when Jesus was born. Some Biblical scholars speculate it was likely mid to late September but this is only an educated guess. Historical records indicate that most Christians may not have celebrated the birth of Jesus at all before the 3rd or 4th century and it was likely around 324CE when the church began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th.
Why did they choose this date in particular? It seems during the three hundred years between Jesus’ death and resurrection and Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman empire, the Christian church began adopting or was influenced by certain pagan practices, rituals, beliefs and observances.
In the Roman Empire, December 25th was the day worshippers of Sol and Mithras celebrated the sun god’s birthday. December 25th was known as Natalis Solis Invicti or the “birth of the unconquered sun”. December 25th was also the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, the day the sun starts pushing back against the threatening darkness. (It is December 21st according to the Gregorian calendar we use.) December 25th was also the last day of the Roman winter festival Saturnalia comprised of general merry making and gift giving.
When we look into history we find most of our Christmas traditions have pagan origins; from Christmas trees and gift giving to yule logs, hollyberry and mistletoe.
There are a number of other similarities between Mithras and Jesus in addition to many curious parallels between Christianity and Mithraism. One noteworthy commonality is our day of worship. Mithraists worshipped on Sun-Day as Mithras was a solar deity. At some point the early church stopped observing the Sabbath and began worshipping on Sun-Day, sharing the same “day of our Lord” as the Mithraists. Saint Jerome commented on this controversy in the fifth century “If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth.”
When I first discovered these pagan origins and influences it shook my faith a little. Now I see this assimilation as evidence of the incarnational approach of the early church. Incarnation means “embodied in flesh”. When the early church saw God’s story of love embodied in other cultures, religions, rituals and practices – they saw Immanuel (God with us) and celebrated it. This is what the apostle Paul did in Acts 17 when he saw the statue to the unknown God and celebrated it as a statue to Christ.
I have started practicing an incarnational approach myself. Whenever I see or hear something that reflects God’s story – I see Christ, Immauneal – I see God’s love embodied in the “flesh” of that culture, religion, practice or person. I am surprised at how often I see Christ these days in “unchristian” people and places. I am starting to see what Paul meant when he said “Christ is all and in all.” Jesus said even the rocks will reveal the truth of Immanuel (God with us).
Truly the story of God’s love is weaved into the very fabric of the universe if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.