I never had kids and when I look at Facebook friends’ photos of their own I realize that that’s probably a good thing. I am a graduate of the school of hard knocks. I know how tough life can be. Children’s dewy, defenseless skin, their huge eyes, the easy pleasure they take in puppies, dandelions, and bubbles, break my heart. As a parent, I’d be wracked by anxiety.
The other day, a grandchild photo, rather than making my palms sweat, brought forth from me a rare and hopeful smile. The towheaded toddler’s cherubic face, unblemished by time or woe, was illuminated by a white glow. He was holding in his two hands something he’d likely never encountered so closely before: a string of Christmas tree lights. The anxiety I usually feel when exposed to photos of children was replaced by the promise of joy and hope voiced in Luke’s Gospel. “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them … ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.'”
Yes, the boy in the Facebook photo, like all children, armed only with limited intelligence and resilience, will naively march into a world boobytrapped with threats and disappointments. Yes, he will be rejected in love, fail tests, not be picked for the team or the school play or the plum job. He will, one day, thanks to a speeding car or meteor, a tired heart or some as yet unimagined pathogen, die.
Many belief systems insist that we humans resign ourselves: death is the end of the story. What was the point of it all? Life’s only point is the pleasure you managed to enjoy, however briefly. For Christians, suffering is never permanent, death is not the end, and mere pleasure is not life’s telos or its meaning. Those Christmas tree lights, shining in the darkness of night, are a material symbol of that light that transforms human lives.
I know that most people are not Christians, and I know that others draw forth hope and strength from a variety of wells, from work to family, from friends to art. I respect those paths. I offer this meditation on Christmas lights because we are in the midst of a culture war. Our Woke overlords would like to denigrate and then erase Western Civilization and replace it with a Woke Utopia. Before we surrender Western Civilization, it is important to understand it, and one of its three foundations. Whether we are atheists or believers, we arm ourselves in the Culture War if we educate ourselves about the Ancient Greeks, the Enlightenment, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, even in so small a manifestation as Christmas tree lights.
Light is a symbol for God found throughout the Old and New Testaments. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined,” writes Isaiah. In Genesis, God creates light before he creates the sun. Light as a concept, not just the sun as a source of light, is privileged in Genesis.
The most eloquent equation of God with light appears in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Here God is “light.” God is also “the Word.” In the Greek original, John uses the term “logos” for “Word.” We encounter “logos” in “biology,” the study of life, and “cosmology,” the study of the cosmos. The PBS series “Faith and Reason” defined logos as “A principle originating in classical Greek thought which refers to a universal divine reason, immanent in nature, yet transcending all oppositions and imperfections in the cosmos and humanity. An eternal and unchanging truth present from the time of creation, available to every individual who seeks it. A unifying and liberating revelatory force which reconciles the human with the divine; manifested in the world as an act of God’s love in the form of the Christ.”
John writes of God as logos and as light. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And that, in short, is why Christians make use of light at Christmas. Light symbolizes God’s incarnation on earth as a human; light come to mankind.
I smiled at the toddler holding his first string of Christmas tree lights because, rather than feeling my usual anxiety, I felt confident for him. I believe that faith strengthens believers, as described in one of Paul’s letters. “Put on the full armor of God,” Paul writes. Clearly, he is speaking metaphorically. At this time, Christians were persecuted unto death; Paul was not encouraging his readers physically to fight the Roman Empire. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of evil … when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground … with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”
When I gazed at that barefoot toddler in his adorable little-boy pajama set, holding Christmas tree lights in his hand, I did not see a defenseless creature at the threshold of this vale of tears. I saw a human being armed with light in darkness and logos in an irrational world. I saw a boy gripping a material symbol for “the full armor of God.”
Christians believe that our lives manifest logos – meaning – and are illuminated by light in darkness. This conviction affects us. Churchgoing Catholics like myself have significantly lower suicide rates than the general population. Citing a JAMA Psychiatry study, the L. A. Times wrote in 2016, “Against a grim backdrop of rising suicide rates among American women, new research has revealed a blinding shaft of light: One group of women – practicing Catholics – appears to have bucked the national trend toward despair and self-harm … Among especially devout Catholic women – those in the pews more than once a week – suicides were a vanishing phenomenon.”
Not all religious beliefs or practices generate the same statistics. “Muslim adults in the U.S. were twice as likely to report a history of suicide attempt compared with individuals from other faith traditions, according to results of a survey … published in JAMA Psychiatry.” The study’s author was herself a Muslim, Rania Awaad, MD, director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Those without faith appear to have higher suicide rates. According to The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, “Concerning suicide rates, religious nations fare better than secular nations … of the top ten nations with the highest male suicide rates, all but one are strongly irreligious nations with high levels of atheism. Of the top remaining nine nations leading the world in male suicide rates, all are former Soviet/Communist nations … Of the bottom ten nations with the lowest male suicide rates, all are highly religious nations with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.”
America has been experiencing a demography-skewing epidemic of “Deaths of Despair,” that is deaths by drug and alcohol addiction and suicide. Some observers relate this epidemic to America’s retreat from religion. “There’s a spiritual void in America, a loss of meaning,” opines a New York Times op-ed writer. “Secularization is killing middle America,” pronounces author Tim Carney. “The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University has assembled a body of evidence that suggests that about 40 percent of the increase in suicides from 1996 to 2010 was attributable to declining religious participation,” reports Brendan W. Case. Princeton scholars Anne Case and Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton, whose work brings attention to deaths of despair, write, “We believe that much more important for despair is the decline of family, community, and religion.”
When I look at innocent, defenseless babies, with all of life’s pains before them, I tremble. When I see a towheaded toddler holding, as if they were a jump rope, a string of Christmas lights, when I see his face lit up like a candle, I think, hey, he’s in good hands.
I read the caption of the photo. My Facebook friend identified the lights the toddler was holding as “holiday” lights. My heart sank a little. My Facebook friend, if she posts about Christianity at all, posts to alert her readers to some Christian somewhere who did a bad thing. A pastor preached an obnoxious sermon; a reality show Christian was arrested on morals charges. This toddler, I fear, will be raised on a bigoted distortion of Christianity.
After I saw the caption that identified Christmas lights as “holiday” lights, I posted on Facebook that I believe in Christ and Christmas.
My friend replied. She said that Christmas lights are not Christmas lights at all. Rather, she said, “these *are* holiday lights.” The asterisk before and after the word “are” adds emphasis. My friend informed me that people from many religions have holidays. Use of the word “Christmas” indicates a lack of “kindness and respect.” To use the word “holiday” lights “is inclusive, not exclusive.”
I’ve celebrated Diwali, Shiva Ratri, Holi, Buddha’s birthday, Eid, Passover, the anniversary of the liberation by the Red Army, Burns Night, and various Wiccan solstices with Hindus, Muslims, Jews and others, in the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia. I live in a city where the Muslim call to prayer is announced over loudspeakers, and where there were several historic synagogues, and Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Hindu houses of worship. My friend has lived her life in an area with virtually no Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or Jews, and with a one percent African American population. And yet it is my friend who must lecture me on diversity. So often Woke’s lectures don’t follow any real-world logic, but, rather, counter-factual Woke dogma.
My friend argued that it is “exclusive” not “inclusive” to speak the words “Christmas lights,” because, after all, lights on a string decorating a tree is a custom belonging to many traditions. Was her statement based on facts – and was it really “inclusive” – or was it representative of a Woke attempt to erase one chapter in the history of Western Civilization, by being as “exclusive,” and as divorced from real history, as possible?
The Library of Congress reports, “Before electric Christmas lights, families used candles to light their Christmas trees. This practice was dangerous, and led to many home fires. In 1882, Edward H. Johnson, Thomas Edison’s friend and partner, put together the very first string of electric lights meant for a Christmas tree. He hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs.” Smithsonian magazine quotes a witness of these first Christmas tree lights. “At the rear of the beautiful parlors was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with … eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue … One can hardly imagine anything prettier.”
Smithsonian continues. “Johnson’s lights were indeed ahead of their time – electricity was not yet routinely available – and they weren’t cheap. A string of 16 vaguely flame-shaped bulbs sitting in brass sockets the size of shot glasses sold for a pricey $12 (about $350 in today’s money) in 1900. But in 1894 President Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree, and by 1914, a 16-foot string cost just $1.75. By the 1930s, colored bulbs and cones were everywhere … it all started with Johnson’s miracle on 36th Street.”
Light is a symbol for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Lights on a string, used in December to illuminate evergreen trees, were not invented, as my friend wrote, as “holiday lights” belonging to “a multitude of religions and spiritual practices, including, but not limited to, Christianity.” Rather, they were invented quite specifically as “Christmas lights.”
When interacting with our friends on the left, it’s impossible not to collide with selective outrage. The left tells us that Christmas lights are “holiday” lights, but the left also tells us that it’s a very bad thing to “appropriate” someone else’s “culture.”
On April 22, 2018, Utah high school student Keziah Daum posted photos of her prom on Twitter. She wore a cheongsam, that is, a Chinese-style dress. Keziah, pretty, young, and fit, is drop-dead gorgeous in the form-fitting red dress with the thigh-high slit. Tens of thousands of outraged tweets followed. “My culture is not your goddamn prom dress,” read one. Keziah was a white thief, guilty of “cultural theft” from “BIPOC.”
In 2017, a Portland burrito shop was forced to close, and proprietors Kali Wilgus and Liz Connelly received death threats, because they are not Mexican. “These appropriating businesses are erasing and exploiting already marginalized identities for profit and praise,” The Portland Mercury said. “Because of Portland’s underlying racism, the people who rightly own these traditions and cultures are already treated poorly.”
Wikipedia defines “cultural appropriation” as “adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures.”
The very definition of cultural appropriation relies on selective outrage and morality-by-identity. One must condemn “dominant culture” members who make use of cultural products associated with “minority cultures.” No one condemns a black professor for teaching Shakespeare or calculus. Similarly, whites associated with the left are much less likely to be accused of cultural appropriation. The Beatles famously cribbed from African American artists. An online petition demanding that the Beatles pay Black Lives Matter ten million dollars in reparations for this cultural appropriation garnered only twenty-six signatures.
Keziah Daum, Kali Wilgus and Liz Connelly never claimed Chinese garb or Mexican cuisine as their own. Daum did not lecture Chinese people, “It is unkind to refer to the cheongsam as Chinese. Please be inclusive. The cheongsam is an American garment.” Wilgus did not tell Mexicans that they were being “unkind” and “exclusive” by claiming burritos. Woke appropriators of Christmas do insist that Christmas is not Christmas, but, rather, a deracinated, relativized “holiday.”
Cultural appropriation is related to another Woke concept, land acknowledgement. The Microsoft 2021 Ignite event began with a so-called “land acknowledgment.” “First, we want to acknowledge that the land where the Microsoft campus is situated was traditionally occupied by the Sammamish, the Duwamish, the Snoqualmie, the Suquamish, the Muckleshoot, the Snohomish, the Tulalip, and other coast Salish people since time immemorial – a people who are still continuing to honor and bring to light their ancient heritage.”
Land acknowledgement, like cultural appropriation, is a concept whose ethics apply only to certain ethnicities. No one expects contemporary Comanche to acknowledge the Apache whom they displaced. A nameless people once lived in northern North America from Russia in the east to Greenland in the west. This people disappeared as Inuit, a.k.a. Eskimo, moved into their territory. No one expects contemporary Inuit or other northern tribes to perform a “land acknowledgement” for the nameless people they replaced. No one would dare demand a “land acknowledgment” from Muslims occupying what had been Christian North Africa, the Christian Middle East, Zoroastrian Persia, or Buddhist and Hindu Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
Woke demands that white women who sell burritos in Portland be threatened with death for doing so. For whites to make burritos is “cultural appropriation.” Woke demands that Microsoft acknowledge that the land its campus occupies was once home to Salish Indians. At the same time, Woke insists that “Christmas lights” be dubbed “holiday lights,” belonging equally to “diverse spiritual traditions.” Woke exercises this selective outrage because Woke conflates Christianity with the West, and the West is bad, and the West must be erased in a cleansing cultural genocide. BIPOC are good. In Microsoft’s words, we must “honor and bring to light the ancient heritage” of the Muckleshoot, proprietors of “The Northwest’s Biggest and Best Casino.” Simultaneously, one must trash Christians. The Woke’s march to triumph tramples over the appropriated cultural products of the West.
But, you may be thinking. Christmas lights aren’t really Christmas lights because Christianity stole, or appropriated, Christmas from Pagans. If you think that, propagandists have successfully brainwashed you.
Early Protestant Reformers sought to discredit Catholicism. Some disseminated stories insisting that Catholicism was all just revamped Paganism. Though many Protestants came to embrace Christmas, celebrating Christmas was actually against the law in seventeenth-century New England. To Puritans, Christmas was “Papist idolatry,” that is, Catholic Paganism.
Hostility to Christmas among Christians did not die out when the very last Puritan, wearing a tall, black hat and a long woolen cloak, disappeared into the mists of history. Many fundamentalist, “sola-scriptura” – “Bible only” – Christians today are adamant that no Christian should celebrate this Pagan day. These Christians disseminate the same anti-Christmas myths that have been circulating for centuries. See, for example, here, here, and here.
What “facts” do Atheists, Christophobes, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pagans, and fundamentalist sola-scriptura Christians cite to prove that Christmas is a Pagan festival, “stolen” by Christians from Pagans? The following:
* December 25th was chosen as the date of Jesus’ birth because it was once the date of the birth of a Pagan deity, Mithra;
* Ancient Germanic Pagans brought evergreen trees into their homes and decorated them with baubles and candles;
* Santa Claus is based on a Pagan deity;
* Yule logs are a Pagan custom.
As is so often the case with “everybody knows” facts, none of these facts check out. That Jesus is Mithra, for example, is roundly rejected and even mocked by serious myth scholars. You can read more here, here, here, here, or watch this short video here.
Michael Jones is a prolific YouTube Christian apologist and University of Arizona grad student in philosophy. He has investigated the claims that Christmas trees, Yule logs, and Santa Claus were originally Pagan festival items. Citing ancient sources and modern scholarship, Jones argues that every one of these “everybody knows” claims lacks support. Christmas trees, Yule logs, and Santa Claus, whatever you think of any of them, were, Jones argues, first recorded as customs associated with Christians celebrating Christmas. Jones is interviewed here.
“Everybody knows” that early Christians selected December 25th to celebrate the birth of Christ because that date was a Roman holiday. Have a look at one listing of holidays in Ancient Rome. Of course, not only Roman Pagans celebrated holidays in Ancient Rome. Various imperial populations, Persians, Egyptians, Jews, etc, celebrated their own holidays as well. No matter what date early Christians selected, that date would inevitably fall near or on some Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Persian, or local holiday. That December 25th falls near some Roman holidays proves nothing.
The Bible does not report the date of Jesus’ birth, and the few things we know about that event provide no definitive clue. Shepherds were watching over their flocks by night, Luke reports. Readers ask when that activity likely occurred. Henry Baker Tristram was one of those Victorian polymaths – he was a clergyman, a Bible scholar, an ornithologist, and an early supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution. During his travels in Israel, he noted that what little rain that does fall in arid Bethlehem falls in winter. This rain brings forth growth; growth that the surrounding hills cannot support during the dry summers. Only, he wrote, “during the winter and spring months … is pasturage is to be found on these bleak uplands.” Thus, he argues, it is quite possible that Jesus was born in winter.
Luke 1:5 mentions Jewish priestly divisions. These divisions entailed fixed terms of service. These terms may provide a clue as to dating. Dr. Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish convert to Christianity, used the information in Luke 1:5 in his calculations. He decided that the December date is acceptable.
Andrew McGowan is Dean and President of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School. His scholarship has focused on early Christian thought and history. In the December, 2002, edition of Bible Review, McGowan introduces readers to the scholarship of Louis Duchesne and Thomas J. Talley. Their scholarship showed that early Christians came to believe that Jesus was conceived on the very same date as the date of his death.
Jesus’ death date was relatively easy to calculate, or at least estimate, given the Gospel accounts of the Passion. Jesus died, they calculated, on the 14th of Nisan, or March 25th. Thus, Jesus was born nine months after that date, on December 25th. The idea that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date is not Biblical, and it is utterly foreign to modern Christians. But it did take hold among early Christians, as written records from that period attest.
This concept was popular among Eastern Christians as well. They, though, held to a different calendar than those in the West. Their dates were April 6th for Jesus’ conception and death, and January 6th for his birth. These different dates were informed by the same idea: that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date.
McGowan writes, “Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary – the moment of Jesus’ conception – the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death … The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud … ‘In the months of Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they will be redeemed in time to come.'”
Yes. Christmas lights, history shows, are indeed Christmas lights, not generic “holiday lights.” Yes, Christmas is a Christian holiday; it was not “stolen” from Pagans. Yes, some Woke today would like to culturally appropriate Christmas as a relativized, deracinated “holiday,” and erase the true meaning of the day. And that’s not all. Our Woke overlords desire to appropriate more than strings of lights to claim as their own. They want the Biblical deity. They want to relativize the God revealed in the Bible into a generic deity, as Christmas is relativized into a generic holiday. Solstice is the new Christmas; sunlight itself is no longer a symbol of God, but the new god.
On December 21st, 2013, the winter solstice, I posted the following on my Facebook page:
“Light doesn’t care about you, my Pagan friends. It is inanimate. It is not sacred. It is insensate. It is impersonal … Seeking consciousness in light is really no more deep or romantic than seeking consciousness in consumer items. It’s a spiritual dead end. Humans are hungry. Light is not that for which we hunger. Light is only a metonym, a figure of speech, for that for which we crave that we associate with light. Our souls cannot find rest until they rest in that for which we truly hunger. We hunger for a consciousness that loves us. That consciousness is not light. It is something we associate with light. It is God.”
I was immediately denounced as a “judgmental douchebag” and an “intolerant inquisitor.” Stating that the solstice sun does not care about humans hit a bit too close to home.
Those who appropriate Christmas very badly crave the Biblical God. And so they re-invent him, in everything from the solstice sun to the TV show “The Good Place” to the phrase “The Universe,” as in “The Universe wants me to take the job in Buffalo.” “The Universe Has Your Back” promises the title of a 2016 bestseller by Gabrielle Bernstein, a scantily clad millionaire blonde. The Universe sent us here, Bernstein promises, “to be love and spread love.” In fact the Universe is an extremely cold, silent, and empty place. It has no consciousness with which to evaluate whether or not the job in Buffalo is a good idea, and no heart with which to care about you or your job. The Universe has no arms to support your back. The God who is love is unique, and he is found in Biblical verses, like 1 John 4:16.
Read Barbara C. Sproul’s Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World. You will meet the Zoroastrian Ahriman, who gives birth to demons by sodomizing himself. You will meet Egyptian Khepera, who masturbates, swallows his sperm, and spits out his children. You will meet Hindu Parusha, whose sacrifice establishes the caste system, and all its evils. In what is now California, the Old Woman of the Sea and the Eagle fought to the death; the Eagle’s victory over the Old Woman resulted in the world. In Australia, the Djanggawul, a brother with a giant penis and his sisters with clitorises like snakes, have sex, wander around, and drop children. Dogon high priest Ogotemmeli recounts the creation story that sacralizes female genital mutilation. Ogotemmeli’s country, Mali in Africa, has an over 90% FGM rate.
In no other creation myth from no other culture will you read of one, transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, loving God, who creates all of creation in one act of love, and pronounces it good, a God who knows each one of his creations intimately, “in whom we live and move and have our being.” It is that God who is most often culturally appropriated.
The Christmas tree lights the toddler was holding cannot be understood through my friend’s relativism, her insistence that those lights represent “a multitude of religions and spiritual practices, including, but not limited to, Christianity.” Those lights do not represent Ahriman’s auto-sodomization. They do not represent Eagle killing off Old Woman. They do not represent ancient justifications for the caste system or FGM. They represent the light that shines in the darkness, a light the darkness will never overcome. Please, I beg of you, take this God if you want him – believe me, he wants you even more. But do not take him in an act of cultural appropriation that disguises the truth through cultural relativistic mumbo jumbo. Take all of this God. No matter how hard you try to hide it, your heart’s yearning for him is revealed by the tracks of your own search.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.