Sunday, December 26, 2021

Would you have celebrated Saturnalia?

           Saturn driving a four-horse chariot on the reverse of a denarius issued in 104 BC. Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Imagine yourself, as a Christian, living in Rome in the first century.

In the year 56 of our calendar, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the brothers and sisters in Rome. He named specifically a married couple, Prisca and Aquila, as well as a couple dozen others. You can read the list in Romans 16: 1-16. Check it out when you have a few minutes, and try to imagine a face for each name. They were real people, with real lives and problems. They had jobs and kids and bills. They had relatives who thought they were crazy for adopting Christianity. And there were many other Christians living there that Paul didn't name specifically. 

Every December, the entire city went into a celebratory frenzy. Can you imagine what Prisca, Aquila, Mary, Andronicus and the others had to deal with?

December 11 was a holiday called Sol Indiges. Sol was the sun god. The meaning of the word indiges is obscure, but it was a festival of some kind, worshiping the sun. How it was observed is unknown today.

On December 13, the birthday of the Temple of Tellus was celebrated along with a banquet for Ceres the goddess of agriculture who embodied "growing power" and the productivity of the earth. Tellus was a goddess associated with fertility, ‘Mother Earth' and harvest.

On December 15 there was a festival called Consualia. The altar of Consus lay buried all year, but it was dug up on that day. Consus was a god associated with preserving the harvest: grain storage, for example. It was a day off for all laborers and slaves, as well as work animals. 

December 19 was a festival called Opticonsivia. It celebrated Opis, goddess of wealth and, again, food supplies. The festival was presided over by a vestal virgin priestess wearing a white veil. Horses and mules were decorated with flowers, and chariot races were held. Another work holiday. Chariots and horses were a big theme in December. A coin with Saturn's name on it depicts a chariot being pulled across the sky by four horses. It looks a lot like Santa's flying reindeer.

December 21 was a festival called Angeronalia. Honoring Angerona, the goddess of joy and pleasure, the festivities were intended to drive away all feelings of sorrow or sadness.

December 25 was the culmination: The dies natalis of Sol invictus; that is, the birthday of the sun god, Sol the unconquerable.

The entire week of December 17 to 23 was Saturnalia, a festival to the god Saturn, celebrated with a carnival atmosphere of partying, drunkenness, and gluttony. It was said that it was rare to see a sober person during Saturnalia. Pliny the Younger - famed persecutor of Christians - was said to have had a soundproof room added to his house so he could get some peace during Saturnalia. The holiday featured a loosening of morals and playing games, including gladiatorial games to the death. The dead gladiators were considered sacrifices to Saturn. All work was suspended, including courts, school and exercise. After an opening sacrifice, an image of the deity was placed reclining on a luxurious couch, as if he were present and participating. If this puts you in mind of a baby with a halo lying in a manger, you're not imagining things.

Gift-giving was a large part of the festival. The most popular gifts were candles and wax copies of fruit or idols - items purposely made to be temporary. The merchants wanted to make sure your money went to waste. Children were given toys. Employers gave their slaves and employees year-end bonuses, and merchants did the same with valued customers, to help them buy gifts. 

There was an atmosphere akin to Mardi Gras. Roles were reversed: Masters waited on their slaves; men dressed as women and vice versa. A commoner would be crowned ‘king of Saturnalia’ and give silly orders to others. While this custom is less known in America, in Europe it is still common in December to elect a “lord of misrule”. 

Homes and streets were decorated with wreaths and other greenery. Saturnalia is also referred to as a ‘festival of lights’: candles and bonfires were everywhere. By the first century, lit candles were viewed as substitutes for the heads of dead gladiators displayed in earlier years. The wax and pottery figurines given as gifts may also have been substitutes for the gladiatorial human sacrifices. 

Everyone called, io saternalia!” as a greeting to everyone they met. Normal white togas were set aside in favor of brightly colored garments that a classy Roman would normally not be caught dead in. (Think ugly Christmas sweaters.) 

Now: with all this information as a backdrop, try to imagine that you are Aquila or Prisca, or one of the others listed in Romans 16. You have 100 or so good friends, fellow Christians, scattered throughout the city of Rome, amidst a population of well over 450,000 pagans. Perhaps the congregation meets in your home once or twice a week, and you discuss the scriptures, read the latest letter from Paul or Luke, sing songs, and pray together. And it's December.

Going to the market or to your shop where you make and sell tents you are bombarded with neighbors and shopkeepers calling out "io saternalia!" The streets are littered with drunks sleeping off the party of the night before. Those not falling down stagger past singing bawdy songs, slap you on the back and try to force their wine-skins into your hand. They tease you about your white toga, pointing out their own gaudy garments.  Candles burn in every window of every house but yours, and all but your house and your shop are decorated with wreaths and greenery. 

Perhaps a customer buys a tent in your shop and, after paying, stands there with his hand out, waiting for you to give him some lewd wax figurine of Tellus with exaggerated breasts while wishing him "io saternalia!" and instead, you smile and say, 'Thank you for your business.'

 Perhaps you would have tried to share the good news about God's kingdom with those who were finding the false gaiety depressing, those who were disturbed by the greediness, or were distressed by the money they were wasting on trinkets when their own families were suffering. Perhaps some of your neighbors were perplexed by the nonsensical and contradictory whims of the so-called gods and really needed to hear the truth about the Creator and his messiah.

If you were living back then, would you have explained to them why you opted out of all the festivities?  Or would the financial losses at your shop, or the pressures from your neighbors to conform, have been too great to tolerate? 

Would you have decorated your house with wreaths and candles? Donned an ugly toga? Given gifts to neighbors, friends and employees? Called out "io saternalia!" to everyone you passed on the street? Would you possibly have reasoned, "These people put so much emphasis on birthdays. What if we just pretend that December 25th is Jesus' birthday? Then, when people yell 'io saternalia!' we can respond with 'Felix dies natalis christos!' Maybe they'll be too drunk to notice."

Of course you wouldn't have done that. You would have considered that as disgusting as idolatry. But someone in the congregation eventually gave in to the the peer pressure. And then another one did. And time went by, and their kids did, and their grandkids... 

And here we are today with all these pagan traditions, pretending they have anything to do with Christ. 

If you haven't done it yet, take a minute to read Romans chapter 16; read the names, pick one of them and pretend it's you. Ponder how that person may have resisted the pressure from the Roman world to conform to their pagan celebrations. Then decide whether you're going to keep pleasing your family and neighbors by continuing to celebrate a thinly disguised Saturnalia, or whether pleasing God is more important. 

Please feel free to share this page with your friends. Leave a polite comment. Comments are monitored, so those with their own agendas shouldn't waste their time.  

Read more about Christmas here.

Bill K. Underwood is a columnist, Bible scholar and photographer. He is the author of several books, all available at this link.You can help support this site buy purchasing a book.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Are Christmas trees really pagan?


I read a column this morning by a pastor promoting Christmas. “If you encounter someone telling you Christmas is pagan,” he said, “Ask them how they feel about using the calendar, since every day-name and nearly every month-name is honoring a pagan god.” I’m sure he felt that was a real zinger of an argument.

Here’s why he’s wrong.

God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel, were not condemned for using the month-name “Tammuz”, named for a Babylonian god, for their summer month corresponding to the latter half of our June (named by the Romans for the god Junus). The Jews had been exiled to Babylon, whose calendar dominated the entire Middle East - at the time, and for centuries after the Babylonian nation ceased to exist. Interacting in that world required the Jews to use words with which others could identify. Calling their summer month Tammuz did not mean they were honoring or worshiping that pagan god.

However, when the Jews in the wilderness built a golden calf and began dancing around it in what they called “a festival to Jehovah”, Jehovah did not shrug it off. He ordered the slaughter of those celebrants, and 3,000 died. The apostle Paul later explained, “You cannot eat at the Lord's Table and at the table of demons, too." (1 Corinthians 10:21)

As one commentator on 1 Corinthians 10 put it, “It's not that the food, in either case, necessarily carries some supernatural power. It's that the act of eating from those tables is an act of joining oneself to that specific ‘lord’.”

So, is a Christian who uses the words ‘January’ or ‘Wednesday’ worshiping the gods Janus or Woden? Of course not.

'Aha!' some might say. 'Christians aren't "worshiping" their Christmas trees, are they?' 

Are they?

A Christian who sees or walks past an evergreen tree in winter isn’t worshiping Woden (Odin). Woden's worship involved bringing evergreens into the house at the winter solstice and decorating them. 

But a person purposely bringing a tree into the house and decorating it - even though they don’t know the origin of it, even though they claim their actions are in memory of Jesus - they can no more claim to be Christian than those Corinthians Paul accused of eating at a table set for demons.

Does the Bible talk about using trees in a worshipful way? Actually, it does:

  • You should completely destroy all the places where the nations you will dispossess have served their gods, whether on the high mountains or on the hills or under any luxuriant tree. You should pull down their altars, shatter their sacred pillars, burn their sacred poles (carved tree trunks) in the fire, and cut down the graven images of their gods, obliterating their very names from that place.” (Deuteronomy 12:2, 3)
  •  “You worship the fertility gods by having sex under those sacred trees of yours. You offer your children as sacrifices in the rocky caves near stream beds.” (Isaiah 57:5)

That last quote is from a rather loose translation. Most Bibles spare us many of the lurid details of how exactly the pagans used trees in their worship. But a few minutes on Google will satisfy the curious that many, many cultures around the globe have had pagan rites that involved tree worship, trees linked to various gods, sacrifices under trees, and sex amid ‘sacred trees'. 

On the other hand, the Bible is completely silent about any tree, decorated or otherwise, having anything whatsoever to do with remembering Jesus.

Decorating a tree in your house with any idea that you associate with worship is inexcusable. It has nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with worshiping a false god. And no amount of justification makes it otherwise. 

Read more about Christmas here. 

Please feel free to share this page. Or leave a polite comment.

Bill K. Underwood is a writer, Bible scholar and photographer. He is the author of several books, all available at You can help support this site by purchasing a book.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Should the Pope apologize?


An activist group is pressing for Pope Francis to come to Canada and apologize.  

As of this date, more than 1,100 bodies have been found in unmarked graves at sites of former Residential Schools – the official term for boarding schools put in place by government decree starting in 1874, and managed for the most part by the Catholic Church – a few by the Methodist and United Churches –  for over 100 years.  This on top of the decades of stories of misery and abuse from the kids who survived but, for the most part, were ignored.

An apology from the pope. Really? How does that help?

Imagine you lived and raised your kids in Hinkley, California, in the 1960s. You watched as many, many of your neighbors got sick and died, had kids born with deformities, perhaps you lost a child or two of your own. The water supply for the town was polluted by hexavalent chromium and other proven cancer-causing chemicals from a Pacific Gas & Electric plant draining right into the aquifer, but they vehemently denied that there was anything wrong.

Finally, in 2011, a spokesperson for PG&E apologized for the pollution in Hinkley and swore that the company was dedicated to ‘doing the right thing in Hinkley.’

 If you had lived there, would you have felt any better? I wouldn’t have. PG&E had spent literally decades lying and covering up the story about the pollution. They even had literature printed to tell the townsfolk that chromium was good for them! The town became famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich”, after PG&E was forced to shell out over $300,000,000, the largest medical settlement in history. “Forced” being the operative word; their actions proved they weren’t even remotely contrite. None of the corporate officers were even threatened with punishment for their crimes.

In case that example doesn’t work for you, let’s try another one: In 1976 a very young priest named Jorge Mario Bergoglio became head of the Jesuits in Argentina. That same year, there was a military coup in Argentina, leading to what has been dubbed “The Dirty War”, in which some 30,000 people were arrested, tortured, and in many cases “disappeared”, simply for objecting to or reporting on what the military government was doing.

Two of those kidnapped, priests Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, were interrogated and tortured for over three months before finally being expelled from the country. Both of them placed the blame for their arrest on the head of the Jesuits, Bergoglio, who, they said, cooperated hand-in-glove with the new military dictatorship. One even claimed that Bergoglio was present during some of his interrogations.

Now: suppose someone came up with rock solid proof against Bergoglio – proof similar to the skeletal remains of native children that are now being dug up near those residential schools. Would his apology be sufficient? Or might we reasonably expect a modern Argentine court to demand that Bergoglio return to Argentina to stand trial for kidnapping?

Considering that Bergoglio is now better known as Pope Francis, that probably won’t happen.

The Residential School program began almost as soon as Europeans began settling in North America. The nominal Christians referred to the Indians as pagans and believed strongly that the best way to Christianize them was to forcibly remove their children from the pagan environment and teach them ‘Christian’ ways.

While Canada’s system is in the news now, they were not alone. Carlisle Indian Industrial School was opened in 1879 in Pennsylvania and ran until 1918 on the same principle: Take Indian children away from their parents and teach them ‘Christian’ principles. It was in fact official U.S. policy from 1819 through the 1960s. While few if any records were kept, anecdotal evidence suggests there were over 360 such boarding schools in the U.S. – more than twice as many as Canada had. 

When the former sites of those schools are discovered and searched, will the ground-penetrating radar somehow prove that U.S. boarding schools were more Christian, more caring, than their Canadian counterparts? Not likely.

But maybe the pope will show up and apologize.  That will fix everything.

Bill K. Underwood is a columnist and author of several books, all available at can help support this site by purchasing a book.


Thursday, July 8, 2021

How to Choose the Right Church

There are about 4,300 religions in the world. Is there one right one? Are several right, or all of them? 

Or none of them?

Is there a way to reason out which ones have a core of truth, and which ones are complete hokum?

Perhaps you think that I’m making an unfair assumption; that in our current politically correct world, no religion should be dismissed out-of-hand. But consider a couple examples:

  •  Reliable sources have quoted L. Ron Hubbard, a starving science fiction writer trying to live on the penny-a-word his publisher paid, as having said, back in the late 1940s, “The way to make a million dollars is to start a religion.” Shortly thereafter he started Dianetics and the Church of Scientology.
  • Rastafarianism was born in the 1930s in Jamaica when a black political activist, Marcus Garvey, told his audience to watch Africa for a black king to come to power. He would be their redeemer. Shortly thereafter, Haile Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia, and Garvey’s followers hailed him as the returned Messiah, the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ foretold in the Bible. They claimed he would never die, and that he would lead black people to superiority over their white oppressors. Selassie was embarrassed by the claim. He died in 1975, but the religion lives on.
How long would it take you to study one religion in order to know if it was the right one? A week? A month? A Year? You aren’t going to live long enough to spend one year, or even one month, studying each religion. Even if you only spent a week on each one, 4,300 weeks would equal your whole life. There have to be shortcuts. Let's see if we can find some: 
  • There are more than a dozen real religions that have their basis in UFO sightings – from Scientology to Heaven’s Gate to the Order of the Solar Temple to Ashtar Galactic Command. I believe we can safely subtract those from the 4,300.
  • There are at least 5 major Satanic religions. I’m subtracting those – if Satan exists, he is the antithesis of God, so why would I want to worship him? And if he doesn’t exist... why would I want to worship him?
  • Let’s eliminate religions that have come along recently.  By that I don’t mean when their current organization was set up. I’m talking about the teachings their religion is founded on. Scientology was founded on some principles written on a bar napkin. Mormonism is founded on some supposed gold plates that didn’t come to light until the 1830s. Wouldn’t God, if He exists, have taught humankind from the beginning or nearly the beginning of human life how to have a relationship with Him? Wouldn’t such guidelines have been written down, and wouldn’t such writings have 1., substantial proof of age, 2., widespread availability? That eliminates pretty much all the Neo-pagan and New Age religions.
  • Can we safely rule out any religion that glorifies a particular individual? No one is so great, so above the rest of us that he deserves adoration. That rules out the cults that formed around Jim Jones, David Koresh, Bagwan Rajneesh, Sun Myung Moon, and Marshall Applewhite. It should also eliminate religions that claim divinity or near-divinity for individuals like Muhammad. Ellen G. White, one of the founders of modern Seventh Day Adventists, is virtually revered by some adherents. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to be inspired, and his followers seem to agree with the claim, based on no proof whatsoever. The philosopher Siddhartha Gautama came to be known as the Buddha, a title that implies he had reached perfection, and millions worship images of the man. 
  • By that same rule, we could also relegate to ‘cult’ status those churches of Christianity that worship Jesus. I’ve studied the Bible exhaustively, and nowhere does Jesus ask anyone to worship him. There are, in fact, several accounts where he deflects worship aimed at himself. His consistent message to his followers was to worship only God. (John 4:23; John 5:24)
  • Can we also assume that God doesn’t need your money? Therefore, any religion that begs for your money is a scam. That eliminates the three richest religions – Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism. It also deletes the Buddhists. One of their primary doctrines is that monks should spend all their time begging for money. And, of course, it also exposes all those TV preachers with their private jets and super cars.

What about religions whose practices contradict their own messages? With some religions you can recognize the lies and contradictions within minutes. 

Here are a couple obvious examples:

  • Some sects of Islam foment terrorism, killing – in the name of “Allah the Merciful” –  any ‘infidels’ who don’t share their beliefs. If Allah is real, and if he is really offended by some humans, wouldn’t he be able to do his own killing?
  • The Catholic Church has been claiming to be God’s representative on Earth for over 1,600 years. For most of that period they have claimed that the pope and, depending on the point in history, the cardinals and bishops, were infallible. Yet if you read their history, it is jam-packed with evil people doing evil deeds.

While their defense is that there are always going to be sinful men, how do they explain shuffling those evil men to other parts of the world to avoid prosecution?  Shouldn’t the Catholic Church have excommunicated:

  • The thousands of priests who, over the centuries, molested so many hundreds of thousands of children?
  • The hundreds of nuns who enslaved and tortured thousands of women who got pregnant out of wedlock?
  • The thousands of nuns, priests, monks and schoolteachers who ripped indigenous children from their homes and abused them to death in Catholic boarding schools?

If such practices were declared from the pulpit as part of their religion, common sense would tell us they are not the true religion. The fact that those practices directly contradict the book they claim their religion represents, the Bible, proves that the religion should be avoided.

Following all these shortcuts might cut that 4,300 number down to 3,000, 2,000, or even 1,000. But that is still too many for a person to reasonably investigate in a lifetime.

What is the solution?

Well, if there is one true God, wouldn't He have the ability to reach out to you? What could happen if you prayed to Him, in sincerity, asking for His direction?

Don't trust 'a feeling'. Don't expect to hear a voice in your head. Lily Tomlin famously cracked: "When we talk to God, that's called prayer. When God talks to us, that's called schizophrenia."

But if someone knocks on your door wanting to share a scriptural message, what does it hurt to listen? Ask for proof. If the message is bogus, you'll quickly see through it. You might get a letter or a phone call from a religious person. Don't immediately reject it. Read, listen and investigate.  Is the letter or phone call asking you to donate? Reject it. Is someone trying to scare you with claims of hellfire and eternal damnation? God has no need to work that way. Is it an invitation to some church claiming they have a great, charismatic pastor and that you can come as you are? Toss it.

But if the message is positive, if the person who wrote or called suggests you do your own research to learn more, what do you have to lose by learning more? What does it hurt to hear them out? You don’t need to attack them or cut them off. Converse with them. If they are wrong, you’ll be able discern that. Listening to them won’t hurt you, as long as you do your own research.

It might just be God trying to reach out to you. 

Feel free to leave a comment. All the links above are to other columns I've written on various religions.

Bill K. Underwood is a columnist and author of several books, all available at You can help support this site by purchasing a book.