We've redeemed pagan holidays before, we can do it again.
Years ago, when I was in college and deep into New Age spirituality, my favorite topic to write research papers on was the intersection of Catholicism and paganism. Gleefully, I would write about how Catholicism hijacked ancient pagan celebrations and co-opted them to spread its patriarchal, violent message. In my mind, this simultaneously invalidated Catholicism while elevating paganism to glorious martyr status.
As time passed, and the Holy Spirit doggedly worked on my heart, I changed my understanding of the meeting space between the Gospel and the pagan. I saw the wisdom of the early missionaries, who observed the existing cultures of the people they’d come to serve, and took the gold from that understanding of God, and refined it in the fire of Christ’s love. I saw the similarities between ancient myths and Christianity as a sort of beautiful echo, where the impact of the Incarnation spread out not only forward in time, but also dimly backwards.
So we find ourselves now, 21st century Christians, sent out to evangelize something vaguely resembling a pagan land. The gods may have changed, the ritual different, but the need for Christ’s light is the same. Nowhere is that more apparent than during religious holidays.
Christmas, obviously, is the big player in this one. You have the usual reactions, irritation when the reindeer and santas are hauled out onto K-Mart shelves in September, the debate over whether it’s liturgical appropriate to tune into the local all-Christmas song radio station during Advent, that sort of thing. There’s the “Keep Christ in Christmas” car magnets and the “It’s ok to wish me a Merry Christmas” buttons and the handy etiquette graphics.
It’s easy to get swept up in these little skirmishes and think that you’re doing something for the Kingdom. But it’s a much harder line to walk that we realize, to navigate between the truly innocuous (getting upset when someone wishes you a “Happy holiday” instead of a “Merry Christmas”, for example) and the genuinely troubling:
(from a rambling, hit-or-miss essay by Austin Cline on About.com’s atheism page)
It’s tempting, in the face of such exasperating statements, to adopt a scorched earth policy on all Christian holidays, in an attempt to purge all non-Orthodox, non-religious, and possibly pagan influences from the Faith. This inevitably ends poorly, resulting either in Jack Chick-esque claims that liturgical holidays are nothing at all but pagan celebrations, or a well-meaning, but ultimately fruitless attempt to steer the holiday back to its original meaning.
It happens at Halloween, when well-meaning people try to evangelize the culture about All Saint’s Day and the etymology of the word “Halloween”. It happens at Valentine’s Day, when well-meaning people try to evangelize with clever old school Valentine memes.