The past two days made me so happy to be Catholic! What a wonderful (if exhausting) celebration it was. We may do a lot of things poorly, but we know how to do Christmas as a community.
This is also my favorite time to get into conversations with non-Catholic experts on Catholicism. One of my favorites that usually takes place over the last cup of eggnog is the person who pushes back in his chair with a crooked grin and announces, “Well, you know, Christmas is just a pagan holiday that Catholics are celebrating.” Then, for some inexplicable reason, Catholics feel they have to save the honor of the Church by fighting this accusation.
Catholics: Relax. There are a number of reasons not to get excited.
#1 True pagans are not evil. Paganism gave way to Christianity. It passed for a reason. Neo-pagans are trying to reclaim something like guys in midlife crisis trying to reclaim college dorm life. (I know neo-pagans are not going to like that. But this is not a pagan blog, it is a Catholic one and is expressing Catholic beliefs. Counter this on your own blog.) It may not have given birth to it the same way that the Jewish faith did, but in many ways it too prepared the way for a belief in God. Chesterton spoke highly of them. (Search for Chesterton and pagans and find various essays.) Don’t take the bait about being “tainted” with pagans.
#2 So what if the 25th isn’t the exact date of Christmas? What if it was just decreed that day, say in the year 350 by Pope Julius I, to help Europeans being introduced to Christ to make the transition from their pagan roots to Christianity? The whole of society is celebrating and were Christians supposed to sit at home and twiddle their thumbs? If we don’t know the exact date of Christmas, why not make it on this day? Does that taint the day somehow and if so, how? Once we “baptize” the day, does having it on the same day as a former pagan holiday somehow make it evil? Is it really that far beyond the power of God to overcome? Really?
Does that mean we have to investigate every day of the year and make sure there was not a pagan holiday on that day so that Christians will not accidently celebrate something evil? (Just how does one accidently worship a pagan god when their intent is to worship Jesus anyway?) Here is just another example of something forming (worship of a god no matter how poorly conceived) giving way or blossoming into truth. That is really quite beautiful.
#3 All that being said, there is some argument over which god was being celebrated and when. There is some belief that it is possible that this was in fact THE DAY though we won’t know for sure in this life. There is some scholarly evidence out there that in actuality it was not until AFTER Christians started really celebrating Christmas that the pagan holiday took off in order to counter it.
In the end – who cares? God is so powerful in can purify any day. He is so awesome that He is not disappointed in us if for 2,000+ years we celebrated His birth on the wrong calendar day. And so to the guy trying to be the (birthday) party pooper, the only response needed is, “And isn’t it so cool that God is so good and powerful that that doesn’t really matter?”