The History of Christmas

Truth is, we don’t know exactly when Jesus was born.  Most think the year was between 1 and  4 BC.  (A glitch in the way time was counted leaves us with the anomaly of Jesus being born several years B.C., i.e. Before Christ!)


The early church emphasized Easter as the central Christian holiday.   The birth of Christ was often lumped together with Epiphany (Jan 6)—perhaps reflecting the emphasis of the Gospels.


The significance of his birth

Be that as it may, the New Testament does focus on the birth of Jesus.  Matthew, Luke, John and Paul, give it the most attention. While these writings did not give the same print space to Christ’s birth as they did to the events surrounding his death and resurrection, they hardly underestimate its importance.  According to Mark, the Son of God’s appearance is good news!  To Matthew, it meant “God with us.”  To Luke, the Savior’s birth was a moment of “glory to God in the highest.”  For John, Christmas mattered because that is the climactic moment when God entered time in human flesh (incarnation).  To Paul, it marks “the fullness of time,” when God appeared in human form.  The second Adam appeared.  The end times began.  Promises of the Hebrew Scriptures found their fulfillment.  The Messiah had arrived to accomplish our salvation


Since his appearance, our reckoning of years all around the world is counted with references to his birth.   2008 marks the time that has passed since his birth.  History was split into BC (Before Christ) and AD (year of our Lord). 


December 25th?

Origin (c.185-254), one of the early church fathers, opposed the idea of a birth celebration for Jesus.  He said it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same fashion that Pharaoh and Herod were honored.  Birthdays, he thought, were for pagan gods. 


Others did not oppose a birth celebration, but gave different dates for the birth of Christ.   Some said that it is unlikely he would have been born in mid winter, because, shepherds would not typically be out in the fields watching over their flocks at that time of year.   However, Jewish sources, (the Mishnah), suggest that sheep around Bethlehem (a climate much more mild than ours) might actually be outside even in winter.  Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) thought Jesus’ birth was around May 20, but noted that others around him were arguing for April 18,19, and May 28. Yet, another church father, Hippolytus, (c. 170-236) thought Jesus was born around January 2. 


December 25th may have been suggested as a date as early as AD 273.  The Roman emperor Constantine made that day the official celebration of Christ’s birth.  You’ll recall that under Constantine, Christianity finally became legal.  He inherited a world that was officially pagan.  In that world December 25th was a special day marked by two other festivals.  It was part of the Roman holiday Saturnalia—the birthday of the unconquered sun.  That holiday celebrated when the days start getting longer.  It was also the birthday of Mithras, a Persian deity of light and wisdom popular with Roman soldiers.


When Constantine declared Christianity the favored religion in AD 336 he also declared Christ’s birthday as an official Roman holiday.  He chose to celebrate it on December 25th.  Constantine did not want a public outcry that would have come if he suddenly banned Saturnalia. But he also claimed to be a Christian, and said that the Roman festivities should be given a new meaning because of the coming of God’s Son into the world. 


Is our celebration of Christmas pagan?

Through the centuries, some have said that his choice of this date was a syncretistic compromise.  Chrysostom, for instance, (AD 345-407) rebuked Christians for adopting a pagan holiday. Others have pointed out the pagan origins of some of our customs.  Their cry has been, “It is just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow.” 


These concerns are worth noting because, if we are not careful, that’s exactly how our Christmas will be.  While we don’t have to worry about the old Roman deities, the gods of materialism and secularism are alive and well in our culture.  C.S. Lewis wrote about “the horrid commercial racket we have made of Christmas.”   As these modern gods loom larger in the American Christmas, and we move further away from the holy ground of Bethlehem, a good question to ask is—do we keep Christ front and center in our Christmas celebrations?


In my mind, the question is not—SHOULD we celebrate Christmas. Of course we should! The question is HOW should we celebrate Christmas?  If it is truly Christ’s birthday, then we should celebrate, not for our own self gratification, but for glorifying Christ and blessing others in his name.


Today, most Christians worldwide celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th.  As Christianity spread, so did Christmas. While the Eastern churches were slow to accept December 25th as the birth date (they initially preferred January 6), most eventually adopted Constantine’s date.  In AD 320, one early Christian theologian seemed to sum up the reason for celebrating Christmas when he wrote, “we hold this day holy, not like the pagans, because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.” 


That’s why I put lights on my tree.  As you put lights on yours, let’s make the most of the season’s opportunities to tell the story of Christmas in fresh ways to our culture.



The light of the world is Jesus!

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