Pagan Aspects of Christmas Celebrations a Non-Issue, Says Church Leader

A prominent leader within the United Methodist Church believes that pagan origins for certain parts of the Christmas observance are a non-issue.

Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of Worship Resources with the General Board of Discipleship of the UMC, told The Christian Post that using older pagan symbols is not the same as worshipping as a pagan.

"The United Methodist Church has no ritual for Christmas with explicit pagan grounding," said Burton-Edwards, who also serves as an elder in the North Indiana Conference of the UMC.

"While Christmas trees may have had some connection to some German and Nordic indigenous religious practices, Christians have more or less adopted the symbol of the evergreen tree and reinterpreted it at a Christian symbol for eternal life.

"Still, our ritual does not address Christmas trees nor call for nor prohibit their use as part of worship spaces during Christmastide. Congregations use them, or not, as they see fit."

Burton-Edwards also told CP why he believes the American culture continues to advance mythologies like Santa Claus, reindeer, and other holiday items even though denominations like the UMC does not officially condone them.

"Cultural traditions are set and largely transmitted by the communications organs of a given culture and then may or may not be incorporated in similar ways in local or family practice," said Burton-Edwards.

As has been documented by many scholars, there are several traditions in the American Christmas observance that derive from pre-Christian practices.

Through the centuries since English colonies appeared in North America, these pagan connections led some Protestant denominations to denounce or ban Christmas in their communities. Puritans and Baptist churches are among those with a history of such bans.

According to a 2011 column by Stephen Douglas Wilson, member of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, American Baptists once shunned Christmas for its "association with worldliness and even paganism."

"After the Civil War, Southern Baptists began a slow process of incorporating Christmas themes and activities into their church programs and services. One reason for this was the growing popularity of Christmas during the Victorian Era," wrote Wilson for the Baptist Press.

"By the late 20th century and early 21st century the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches had fully incorporated celebrations of the birth of Christ into its culture. Large suburban churches produced elaborate Christmas programs to honor the nativity and also proclaim the Gospel."

Chas S. Clifton, editor of The Pomegranate, an international journal of pagan studies and co-chair of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group in the American Academy of Religions, stated that many Christmas rituals derive from pagan traditions.

"A great many Christmas traditions reflect seasonal attributes that have nothing to do with the Jesus story," said Clifton in an earlier interview with The Christian Post.

"I would say that all celebrations having to do with light and the sun have a pre-Christian origin, even when given a Christian interpretation – Advent wreaths and candles, Scandinavians celebrating St. Lucia's day, 'festivals of light and carols,' all that."

Clifton also told CP that this should not be considered a point of concern for Christians as "Christianity should transform everything it touches."

"I don't think that just because there's a pagan origin to something that that should disqualify it from being used for an entirely Christian purpose," said Clifton.