My Christmas started with the midnight service in Swaythling. Candles, cribs, blessing the tree, carols to the organ, midnight communion — a heady world of smells and sounds, mingled with the child-like excitement of staying up for a late night service.
Christmas has come under sustained attack over the last few years — more so than in the past. I’m not sure whether this is the rise of general internet connectivity, or a surge in grumpiness caused by people’s need to post something on Facebook.
The other day someone posted that they were eagerly awaiting Saturnalia. I had to point out that they would be waiting a long time: Saturnalia is 17 December, later extended to the 23rd, but never, at any point in recorded history, on 25 December.
Then there are the people who tell me that Christmas is just co-opted pagan Yule, or Jul. I always wonder at people who speak so learnedly about Germanic mythology, and yet fail to recognise that i) our earliest references to Yule come long, long after Christmas was established as 25 December and ii) Yule was a solstice festival which was subsequently moved to 24 December in order to coincide with Christmas, after Norse Christianisation.
Santa, people tell me, is just a pagan figure adopted. Santa, of course, is not really part of Christian Christmas at all, but there’s certainly no evidence of him being a pagan figure. The tradition begins with Saint Nicholas, and really becomes what it is today with Coca Cola’s famous advert, which established red and green as the Christmas colours. If you look at Victorian Christmas cards, you’ll see firelight colours much more often, with just a bit of red and green creeping in.
I have nothing against people being interested in pre-Christian origins of traditions. Part of my degree was in Old Icelandic and another part in Anglo-Saxon archaeology: I am fascinated by the world before AD600. I get a bit troubled, though, by the casual attribution of absolutely everything to paganism.
What about Christmas trees, then? Surely these must be pagan. Actually, no. The evidence that there is suggests that they were a distinctive German protestant tradition, something which distinguished protestantism from Roman Catholicism.
All these are ephemera, though. 95% of the content of Christmas (if you just count them up) is what is set out in the four Gospels. Shepherds in the fields, wise men, three gifts, the star, the manger, no room at the inn, Herod, the virgin birth, Joseph and Mary. Again, there are people who talk learnedly about these elements being borrowed from pagan myth. The problem with this is, exactly which pagan myth are they supposed to be borrowed from? There are simply no parallels to this story anywhere in the ancient world. Such parallels as do exist are subsequent to the Christmas story.
The current tide of scepticism owes more to Dan Brown than to Richard Dawkins. Most particularly, I’m now meeting a lot of people (and even more on Facebook) who believe that the Gospels were not written down or accepted until hundreds of years after the events. Again, the evidence shows otherwise. The John Rylands manuscript, for example, gives a confident carbon-date for a copy of the Gospel of John to around 110 AD, indicating an original no later than 90 AD. In other words, within living memory of the events. William Ramsey, at the back end of the 19th century, demonstrated that Luke’s gospel and Acts were highly accurate histories which could only have been written within a few years of the events, before the context changed and the distinctly Lucan details would no longer be current.
I can quite understand people who find the events of the Gospels incredible. Just because a document is contemporaneous does not make it true. But the Da Vinci Code style scepticism is pure fiction.
Whether or not you are prepared to accept the truth of the Christmas story, there can really be no doubt that it is distinctively Christian. In carols such as Once in Royal David’s City, While Shepherds Watched, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels sing and Nowell you will find nothing which is not directly derived from the Gospel narratives.
So, happy Christmas everyone. Enjoy the season, and don’t try to over think it.