Aren’t some Christian holy days, such as Christmas, just pagan holidays that were “Christianized”?
August 23, 2020, 12:00 PM
Yes. Christianity assimilates what is human and redeems it, baptizes it, fulfills it, and raises it to new dignity. That is what Jesus did when He became flesh, what the Holy Spirit did when He inspired men to record the Word of God in human words and literary genres, and that is what God did for us when we were baptized and made His children. That is also what the Catholic Church did when determining the dates to commemorate and celebrate specific events and mysteries of our faith. It baptized “time” itself, making both natural time and pagan time become, in a sense, Christian time.
Christmas is an excellent example of this. Although we do not know for sure the exact day Jesus was born, many historians believe it was around the date of December 25. The Church chose to replace the pagan celebration of Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year which was marked by many rituals to celebrate the return of light) with the celebration of the birth of God. This shows us some of the wisdom of the early Church. You do not take something bad away and leave a void. Rather, you fill it with something good. It is fitting to celebrate the coming into our world of “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5) on the day when the sunlight hours begin to lengthen. Six months earlier, we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist on June 24, the Summer Solstice. St. John the Baptist signifies all the prophets of the Old Testament pointing the way to Jesus. He once said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). Appropriately, from the day chosen to celebrate his birth the days get shorter and shorter until we reach Christmas. Another example is Lent. “Lent” comes from the Ango-Saxon word Lethen, which simply means “Spring.” Lent coincides with the start of spring. This is an appropriate title for this season, since a season of penance is also a season of spiritual re-birth.
It was not only Old Testament prophecy that pointed to Christ, but many of the dreams and longings of the human heart that are expressed in religions and myths throughout history. Even the cosmos, the seasons and the elements of the natural world point to God and His action in our lives. The Liturgy assimilates and baptizes all of this, fulfilling what is human in what is divine, and what is natural in the supernatural.
And when the Church celebrates these great holy days (a.k.a. “holidays”) on earth, we can count on the fact that we are celebrating them together with the Church in heaven (see Mt 16:19).