Many centuries ago, Christians got tired of the dominant culture celebrating pagan feasts which seduced their weaker members and corrupted their young. So the Roman Winter Solstice feast, an extended drunken and immoral extravaganza (sort of like the prototypical office Christmas party, only a lot longer) dedicated to the god Saturn, was co-opted for the celebration of the birth of Christ. Similarly, Halloween, a night of for ghouls and ghosts to run around unfettered, became a night to remember the faithfully departed.
We see the same thing today. As Halloween has gotten meaner, churches hold wholesome Hallelujah Nights to keep their kids out of danger. This is a good thing.
It’s important to understand that those old Christians were not sitting by passively as an antagonistic culture assaulted their values and their children. They instead went on the offense and took their beliefs into the culture.
The Christians eventually won their culture war, as Christmas, not the Saturnalia, came to be universally celebrated. But as with much of the growth of Christendom and its manorial church, there was a cost to the victory, as pagan and commercial elements gained entrance into the church itself.
I used to be very down on Christmas for that reason, but time has given me a better perspective. Though 12/25 is undoubtedly not the correct date of Christ’s birth, and the feast has pagan strains that continue to this day, and commercialism has no intention of letting go of its greatest golden goose, nonetheless the original, authentic message of Christ becoming man still rings clear when it is allowed to get through.
The problem, however, is that in the last two decades that central message is increasingly disallowed. It’s a rare pleasant surprise to hear the name Christ in “holiday season” mall music. And forget about getting the Gospel message into the schools – the same schools for whose operation the government forcibly takes our money.
And so we’ve come full circle, and we find ourselves in a similar situation to that of those early Christians. We are in the midst of a hostile dominant culture, struggling to hold on to our message and our families. And while the culture doesn’t celebrate the Saturnalia, per se, being relegated in the public square to wishing people a “happy holiday” does nothing to advance the Gospel.
We need to acknowledge the antagonism, and in response, as did our forebears, we need to take our message into the culture, and not allow the culture’s message to corrupt or dull us.
Understand that nowadays when we wish someone a Merry Christmas, it is not a syrupy hearkening back to an idyllic yesteryear, one that we secretly suspect is gone forever. Rather, it is a war cry signaling that under no circumstances will we ever be reconciled to a Christless existence, and that if we cannot actually take back the culture itself, at the least we fully intend to take back individual souls for Christ.
Perhaps our laziness brought this distress on us. Or perhaps it is just time that we learn to fight once again. Whatever the cause, we find ourselves in a very real confrontation. We need to understand the times, so that we can know how to take the Kingdom message to those who need to hear it – and we all need to hear it. This is no time to go passive and roll over for Christless humanism. Too much is at stake.