An apologetic Gary Clayton explains why the date of Christmas is wrong, the festival is full of pagan influences and Santa is sending the wrong message to our kids
My wife loves Christmas, she thinks it’s great! At home, we call her Mrs Christmas. It’s thanks to Julie that our children, Christopher and Emma, have a Christmas tree, decorations, fairy lights and presents. But as a Christian who comes from a non-practising Jewish background, I’m a little more ambivalent.
That probably explains why I’m happy to point out that Christmas doesn’t appear in the Bible, that the date for Jesus’ birthday wasn’t officially settled on in the West until 350AD, and that the supposed date for Jesus’ birth, 25 December, was also shared by Mithras, the pagan god of light, and Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun – a Roman divinity originally followed by the Emperor Constantine.
Unaware of whether I’ve upset or bored people to death, I’ll then tell them that, in the East, the birth of Christ is celebrated on 6 January and that – through the ages – a number of other dates for Christmas were considered in March, April, May and November. Unlike Father Christmas, I tend to be more ‘No-no-no’ than ‘ho-ho-ho’ when it comes to the alleged time of our Saviour’s birth.
This of course brings me neatly on to the season’s extraordinary emphasis on Santa – Father Christmas’ contemporary appearance owing as much to his depiction by cartoonist Thomas Nash (1840-1902) or the Coca-Cola company in the 1930s, as it does to ancient images of the Roman god Bacchus: the red-faced, red-nosed god of the grape harvest. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why people tend to drink too much at Christmas or leave an alcoholic drink out for Santa! It might also explain why, like the sun god Sol, Bacchus or his Greek counterpart Dionysus, Father Christmas is often depicted driving a chariot – though we tend to refer to it as a sleigh.
And finally – and you’re probably saying, "Enough already!" - there’s also a possible connection with the Germanic god Odin/Wotan, who’s associated with the pagan winter festival of Yule, and was said to take part in the Wild Hunt: a macabre and ghostly procession through the sky! So, while Odin’s host travelled through the sky on black horses or he-goats, Father Christmas uses reindeer!
Loving Christmas as Julie does and I, with a degree of reservation, try to, I’m aware that it’s all too easy in the West to forget God’s free gift of new life and new birth, and major on the less important gifts that sit under the Christmas tree (itself a pagan symbol...sorry!) rather than the Messiah who started life in a manger and ended it on a very different tree.
Although Jesus’ birth, life and death for our sake and our salvation, offers a true example of undeserved grace, the capitalistic Father Christmas merely majors on materialism and works. "Have you been naughty or nice?" he asks. And although no one is good except God (Mark 10:18) and Christians are only sinners saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8), through a kind of behavioural blackmail, children are told that as long as their good deeds outweigh the bad, they’ll somehow get something in return.
Of course, that ‘something’ doesn’t necessarily reflect the extent of their apparent ‘goodness’. The size, usefulness or magnificence of the gift says less about the child’s yearlong good behaviour than its parents’ generosity, profligacy or wealth.
And then there’s the issue of ‘to tell or not to tell?’ What do we say about Santa if we’re parents? Our two, Christopher (14) and Emma (11), know one child in secondary school who still doesn’t know that Father Christmas isn’t real. They also know a year seven student who does, but who only found out recently and is devastated! We, however, wanted to tell ours the truth as soon as we could, so they wouldn’t grow up believing in something that wasn’t real. (I guess this really puts me in the Scrooge category!)
While it’s quite possible to see the whole 'fat man in a red suit' story as a white lie for a white Christmas, it’s also about money. On one occasion, when a shop assistant realised that we’d told our kids the truth about Santa and that he wasn’t going to get them the expensively unnecessary gift they craved, the lady looked as if we’d done something terrible.
We hadn’t, of course. We’d given our children one of the greatest gifts we had – the truth! Christmas, much as Julie loves it and I attempt to, is fraught with problems…as well as opportunities to share the Gospel and spend time with the family. As Just Inn Time, a nativity sketch I wrote ages ago for children, attempts to make clear: "For Christ was born that He should die, to save us all from sin – if there’s room in your heart to welcome the One, who found no room at the inn." Of course, to my eternal shame, this phrase presents my final Christmas fallacy for the year! The Greek word used in Luke 2:7 is ‘kataluma’, which more properly means ‘guest room’ rather than the word ‘pandokheion’, which means ‘inn’ – though Bacchus, Dionysus and Father Christmas would probably prefer the latter!
As the relief-giving, Gospel-sharing pilots and passengers of my employer, Christian aviation charity MAF – rather than Santa’s reindeer-powered sleigh – visit the world’s most vulnerable and isolated communities, my prayer is that the light of Christ will shine in the hearts of Jew and Gentile, rich and poor alike this Christmas.
And may the true reason for this anomalous season – whatever one thinks of it – be correctly preached, shared, accepted and enjoyed. Happy Christmas!
Gary Clayton is copywriter and editor at Mission Aviation Fellowship www.maf-uk.org