Some religious people, however, aren’t too happy with this and continue to dismiss it as pagan – something they judge as being quite separate from religion, possibly even seeing it as evil. Somehow paganism disturbs the religious establishment. This was obvious recently in Rome during the Amazon Synod called by Pope Francis to look at how the Church should respond to the needs of Catholics in Sth. America. Synods are basically for bishops but indigenous natives came to be in Rome at the time and as part of their pilgrimage presented Pope Francis with a statue of Pachamama, a pregnant woman and ancient goddess revered by the people of the Andes. A display of Sth. American artefacts set up in a Roman Church so upset some people that two statues of Pachamama was stolen and thrown into the River Tiber. Pope Francis actually apologised for this lack of respect. Many criticised what they called idolatrous events and the new idolatrous Pachamama religion on social media.
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this outlook. Pachamama could so easily be seen as a symbol of life or an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus who after all was pregnant for 9 months before giving birth to her son, though sometimes Church doctrines such as the Virgin Birth would suggest her pregnancy and birth were in a different order from that of other women. It’s as though the Church doesn’t quite like to think of Mary and Jesus as truly human with all the normal functions of more ordinary human beings. Why should Pachamama not be seen as an image of Mary? One was presented to the Pope by and Amazonian woman as “Our Lady of the Amazon”. It’s possible that Our Lady of Gudalupe, whose image is of a pregnant woman had origins in some ancient fertility goddess and in Japan when Christianity was being persecuted Catholics honoured statues of the Bodhisattva Cannon and her son as being Mary and her son Jesus.
It’s not unusual for world religions to integrate something of pagan and indigenous religions into their beliefs and practices. Many holy sites are associated with sacred places which are given new meaning. And Christmas itself is celebrated at the time of the solstice and the Roman festival of Saturnalia which had the tradition of decorating homes with wreaths and other greenery, wearing colourful cloths, feasting with family and friends and the giving of gifts. For some Christians, like the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the northern islands of Scotland, the way Christmas is celebrated is simply a continuation of the pagan Saturnalia and they don’t celebrate Christmas at all spurning Christmas trees, parties and gifts. For them religion has to be pure – but maybe also uninteresting, certainly not very colourful?
There are probably many reasons why the Church chose to celebrate Christmas at Saturnalia time. Was it that the new Christians were still celebrating this pagan feast and it was an attempt to wean them away from this? Did it seem appropriate to have a feast with a Christian meaning to give hope and the promise of new life and light at the darkest time of the year? For Christians Jesus is seen as a Light to and for the World so it’s quite appropriate to remember and celebrate his birth at this time of year. The Christian belief in Jesus can build on the indigenous celebration of the solstice; the two don’t contradict one another. However today with the decline in religion, and while there are often nativity scenes in public squares, celebrations of Christmas seem to be very secular rather than religious. Some Christians feel that Christmas has become too commercialised. They want more simple meals and gifts which is commendable especially if people get into debt which they often do. But I often wonder if the Christmas celebrations are a return to a pagan spirit which finds joy and hope at the darkest time of the year. Perhaps it’s something deep in our humanity and I find it touching at the love and concern people have for one another as they enjoy the celebrations and think of appropriate gifts. And if as a Christian I believe that the birth of Jesus teaches us that there is no distinction between the secular and the sacred then people are participating and rejoicing in religious values and concepts whether they know it or not.