The Paganism is the Point: A Theological Reflection on the Yule Goat and Advent

#advent #theologicalreflection #indigenous #Lewis #Tolkien

My own family has always been festive beyond the norm when it comes to the holidays. We inherited that trait from my maternal grandmother, who was full-blooded Scandinavian and raised by a family who came to America on a boat from Norway. Thus, our Christmases were always filled with Scandinavian Christmas motifs, such as lefse, which is a common Norwegian desert.

However, being raised in the Bible belt of Texas, I was aware of some people who did not participate in certain Christmas practices because of religious convictions. In their reasoning, Christmas, in the modern sense, was a holiday filled with pagan symbolism and haunted by the ghosts of our pre-Christian heathenry, hell-bent on distracting us from Jesus. Kirk Cameron even made a movie about the problem (though ultimately arguing in favor of Christmas).

I respect these people's sincere convictions regarding proper religious practice. But I actually think that their disavowal of pagan Yuletide misses important theological insight that arises when one compares Yule and Advent. In fact, I think pre-Christian Yuletide witnesses to an important theological truth, which is given concrete reality in the Advent of Christ. Perhaps not all of the practices associated with Yuletide are in accordance with Christian holiness, but there's certainly an important theological resonance between the two celebrations.

Yuletide refers to a period of festivities originating in the Scandinavian and Celtic regions of the world. The festivities occurred during the darkest season of the year — which were especially brutal in places like Scandinavia, where winter is harsh and the nights last much longer. Yuletide was a means of choosing joy in the midst of such a bleak period. Instead of caving to seasonal depression, the people chose merriment and celebration.

The Yule Goat was a key figure within this proclamation of hope. Often within the community, someone would masquerade as a goat-like figure and trot through the community. The popular figure, “Krampus,” is one such example that has continued to the modern day. The Yule Goat would sometimes be understood as a spirit of the forest who would come out and greet the community on special nights, such as the winter solstice. Importantly, the Yule Goat would come bearing fire, which is why, in Krampus festivals, many of the performers hold torches. A creature emerging from the forest holding light is a symbol of hope that promises renewal. In due time, the forests and land will once again be teeming with life. The season of winter will not last forever. Spring and rebirth will come.

(For more information on the Yule Goat, you can watch this video: [Link] (

It seems to me that Christ fits rather well into such a narrative. Christ is himself the Light of the World (cf. John 1:4 and John 8:12) — or “True Light from True Light” as the Nicene Creed says. Christ is the beacon of hope and the promise of redemption in the midst of despair, who brings resurrection into a season conditioned by death.

The Yule Goat was often a forest spirit who brought hope for the renewal of the land. Christ performs a similar function. For example, it is common to read the “suffering servant” songs from Isaiah as being applicable to or describing Christ (this is especially done around Christmas). Consider Isaiah 11:6-9.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Or, consider what is written in Colossians 1:19-20.

“For in (Christ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

The incarnation of Christ ushers a type of 're-creation' into our world. This is why Christian art has often used the egg as a symbol of resurrection: from out of the shell of the old world, Christ's new redemption springs forth. Within this new creation, “all things” (Col. 1:20) shall be reconciled to God. This is not only for human creatures but for non-human creatures as well.

The nativity story of Christ shows all of these facets coming together to witness the dawning of the new creation: humans, angels, non-human animals, and celestial bodies come together to celebrate God's light breaking into the darkness. All of these themes fit rather well with the themes of Yuletide.

Hopefully, what I've written comes across as slightly more sophisticated than mere “Jesus-juking.” For those unaware, “Jesus-juking” is when you start down the direction of a popular topic, and then you quickly juke to a new direction by shoehorning Jesus into the conversation. You see it all the time in the “youth pastor voice” memes.

youth pastor voice “Tom Brady retired and then after 39 days returned. I know someone who did it in three. Who needs the GOAT when you got the Lamb?”

But beyond my potential Jesus-juke, I think that seeing a theological resonance between the ancient practices and wisdom of pre-Christian traditional knowledge and later Christian beliefs can be fruitful for thinking about what it means for the Universal Christ to interact with all people. For example, I've been fascinated recently by Indigenous Native American/American Indian Christian theology and how they relate Christ to their traditions and identity.

Consider a statement written for the United Methodist Church:

“Through corporate and personal conviction, our people individually and tribally are led by the Spirit of God to a greater awareness of God. Traditional beliefs, consistent with the gospel and the historic witness of the Church should not be understood as contrary to our beliefs as Native Christians. The testimony of historic and contemporary Native Christians should be counted in the historic witness of the Church. [...] Many Native traditions were erroneously feared, rather than understood as vehicles for the grace and the knowledge of God. Such fears have resulted in the persecution of traditional Native peoples [...]. Many Native traditions have been misinterpreted as sin, rather than varying cultural expressions leading to a deeper understanding of our Creator and the Creator’s divine presence and action in our world.”

The testimony of Native American/American Indian Christians shows how God uses pre-Christian traditional wisdom to reveal God's truth and act as witnesses to the revelation of Christ. Under this light, perhaps the Yule Goat mythos and tradition is part of the mythology that, as C.S. Lewis postulated, God has written on the hearts of humanity. “Myth” in this context is the technical sense, which means a people's deepest meaning written in narrative form. Lewis argued that many of the pre-Christian myths contain important truths that align well with the Gospel, and perhaps were means by which the Holy Spirit prepared people for the revelation of Christ. Christ is then a type of “true myth” (Lewis's term) or myth-made flesh. Lewis's own work in the Chronicles of Narnia — as well as his colleague, Tolkien — are illustrations of how Christian theology can interact with pre-Christian myths and serve as vessels for theological insight.

If we are going to believe that Christ is the universal Savior for all people, then we should not be afraid of, e.g., indigenous traditional knowledge or “pagan” mythology in themselves. Rather, we ought to celebrate the ways in which the Holy Spirit was speaking to people before they heard about Jesus.