> Why Christmas? An article by Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples
I remember with some amusement, years ago when I was a young student living in Hamilton, “The Tron,” just before Christmas in 1997 or thereabouts. There was no Facebook, so people had their pointless arguments in the letters section of newspapers and via talkback radio (as some still do). One caller on a night radio show had clearly had enough of all the pre-Christmas festivities, replete with images of the baby Jesus in the manger with angels singing on high, and Churches having the audacity to put up signs advertising Christmas services, “pushing their message down everyone’s throats.” It was simply galling, this fellow told the host, that “Christians are trying to take over Christmas!”
Trying to take over Christmas? Is that really the way some people have come to see Christmas? Rather than being a Church holiday that has slowly become more secular, is it seen as simply a public holiday, created to have time off with family, with the Church trying to use it as an opportunity to push its agenda? Apparently there are those who see it that way. Or perhaps you might be one of those who thinks that Christmas is really an old pagan festival that Christianity has tried to absorb and make its own. This is a view shared by many, Christian and non-Christian (and anti-Christian) alike.
For Christians, Christmas is one of the most special times of the year, topped only by Easter. As anyone who reads this knows, it’s when Christians remember the birth of Jesus, in Bethlehem. In this short article I’d like to walk through Christmas from a historical point of view, look at what we know about the earliest recorded celebration, see why it’s on the 25th of December, where the name came from, and dispel a few myths along the way.
Why the name?
Many of us have probably heard the expression “keep the Christ in Christmas.” It’s a reminder not to be swamped by the commercialism of Christmas and to keep our focus on Jesus, because Christmas is supposed to be about him, and it plays on the fact that “Christ” makes up part of the word “Christmas.” What does Christmas mean? Why is the season called that?
The word comes from two old English words, Cristes Maesse. This translates to “Christ’s Mass.” But what does “Christ’s Mass” mean? Today we think of “Mass” as the celebration of the Eucharist or Communion in Catholic and Anglican Churches. And where did that name come from? The word “mass” is derived from the latin word missa, which means dismissal, because at the end of the service in Latin, the priest would say Ite, missa est, “go, it is the dismissal,” at which point the church is dismissed or sent out into the world.
After a while, the word “Christmas” lost its origin, and now just means the time when we remember the birth of Jesus, but it may originally have been formed as a way of referring to the sending or “dismissal” of Christ into the world.
Why the date?
Why is Christmas celebrated on the 25th of December? Here there are all sorts of rumours swirling the internet. We’re told that Christians swiped that date from the pagan feast day of Sol Invictus. Some say that it was another pagan festival, Saturnalia, that provided the date. Others think Christians were copying the date from Scandanavian or Celtic religions. These sorts of claims are common on discussion boards populated by non-historians who are hostile to Christianity, and surprisingly, they even find their way into some books. An encyclopedia on “traditional festivals,” for example, claims:
There is little doubt that the date of December 25 for the Nativity of Christ was established around 330 largely in order to counter—or at least channel—not only ... Celtic seasonal rites, but the ones current in Rome on this traditional date of the winter solstice. (Christian Roy, Traditional Festivals: A multicultural encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 96.)
Little doubt? It’s disappointing that resources like this, to which some people with no background knowledge of the subject will look for the facts, contains this sort of material. Not only is there no evidence that the Church took the date for Christmas from pagan religion, but there is good evidence that they did not.
Even though the earliest Church had quite an interest in the birth of Jesus, we don’t have any writings from the first couple of centuries of the Church’s existence that directly state what time of the year he was born. But that, of course, doesn’t mean nobody ever said anything about it. It just means that if they said anything directly about it, it wasn’t preserved. Peering back through history can be a bit like looking at a long road that extends all the way to the horizon. We can only see as far as the horizon, but we can’t be sure how far the road extends beyond that. We can’t know all that the early Church did because we weren’t there. But we do have some early clues as to what they believed.
At the end of the second century or early in the third century, Tertullian referred to the crucifixion happening “in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April.” (Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, paragraph 8.) The “eighth day before the calends (or kalends) of April” was a Roman way of referring to the 25th of March. (You can read more about kalends here. At this page, search for the phrase “8th Day before the Kalends”.) On its own this is unimportant, but it becomes important when we see that there was a view in the early Church that Jesus was crucified on the same day of the year on which he was conceived. Hippolytus of Rome wrote in around AD 235, right at the end of his life:
…from Adam until the transmigration into Babylon under Jeconiah, 57 generations, 4,842 years, 9 months. And after the transmigration into Babylon until the generation of Christ, there was 14 generations, 660 years, and from the generation of Christ until the Passion there was 30 years…
(Quoted at https://diatheke.blogspot.com/2013/03/resources-on-redeeming-article-on.html)
The “generation” of Christ refers to the conception of Christ, when Gabriel told the young virgin, Mary, that she would have a child. Hippolytus supposes that there was an exact number of years between the conception of Jesus and his crucifixion. But if that was true, then Jesus was conceived on the 25th of March, which would place his birth nine months after that, on the 25th of December. Of course we might not agree with Hippolytus that the date of Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as that of his conception. All we are doing is asking what the early church believed, so that we can explain why the Church came to remember Christ’s birth when they did. So from the first half of the third century, we have evidence that Christians believed Jesus was born on the 25th of December. The claim is made later as well (for example by Augustine of Hippo), but it was believed at least as early as the early third century (and we don’t know how long Hippolytus had taught this before he wrote this book, or who might have taught him the idea).
What’s more, a heretical group called the Donatists arose right at the start of the fourth century, in around AD 305-312. One of their hallmarks was a vigilant suspicion of anything that resembled an innovation. They were fiercely opposed to the corruption of the pure Church. So they did not, for example, celebrate the Epiphany (the remembrance of the Magi visiting the child Jesus), which Augustine took issue with. But they did celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December, which means that not only was it a practice at that time, but it was so well established in the history of the Church that people alive at that time did not regard it as a recent tradition. (Thomas Comerford Lawler (ed.), Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany (New York: Paulist Press, 1952), 10. The book is a collection of sermons by Augustine of Hippo.) Interestingly, you might be aware that not all Christians celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December. Eastern Christians celebrate it on the 6th of January, but they arrived at that date using the same method. The biblical record places Christ’s death on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. But instead of using the month of Nisan, Easterners used the 14th day of their Greek month, Artemisios, and sharing the view that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year, they counted forward 9 months to the equivalent of the 6th of January, nine months after the 1th of Artemisios.
But did the Church actually celebrate the birth of Jesus in the first few centuries? Maybe they just thought it happened on the 25th of December but didn’t mark the occasion. Some might point to the example of Origen, who said that no saint ever celebrates his birthday or their child’s birthday. He thought that “only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday,” people like Herod or Pharoah. Saints, on the other hand, curse that day rather than celebrate it. After all, Origen reasoned, “every soul which is born in flesh is polluted by the filth of iniquity and sin” (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 1-16 (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley), 157.). But this explanation for why birthdays are not remembered would obviously not apply to Jesus, who, according to Origen and all Christian theologians, was not born a sinner like us. Even if it is inappropriate to celebrate ourselves and have festivals that are all about us, that wouldn’t automatically mean that we shouldn’t have festivals focused on Christ. After all, we worship him, but we don’t worship ourselves. And if this sounds like a bit of a killjoy attitude, remember that Origen was especially austere (according to a contested but plausible account, he cut off his own genitals, a feat preserved for us in medieval art). He is the only early Christian theologian to say anything so negative about birthdays.
Without dwelling too much on the theories of the Church taking the date of Christmas from pagan traditions, every example we look at crumbles on closer inspection. Probably the favourite example is the feast day of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. It’s true that the Roman Emperor Aurelian made Sol Invictus an official cult of the Empire in AD 274. But he certainly never chose the 25th of December as a special day related to that cult. There’s a massive collection of ancient inscriptions from the Roman Empire called Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae (edited by Hermann Dessau). You can access these for free online. Here’s volume three: https://archive.org/details/inscriptioneslat03dessuoft/page/n4. In it you can find inscription 8940, which prescribes an offering to Sol Invictus “die XIIII kal. Decem.” Die XIIII Kalendis Decembribus, which means “fourteen days before the Kalends of December,” which is the 18th of November. The inscription dates from the reign of Emperor Licinius, who reigned from 308 to 324. But by that time, Christians were already using the 25th of December to mark the birth of Christ. As Steven Ernst Hijmans has carefully shown, the first connection of the 25th of December with Sol Invictus cannot be established to have been made by anyone until it appeared in a calendar in AD 354 and was subsequently proclaimed by Julian in 362. If there really was copying going on, the pagans had copied the Christians. (Steven Ernst Hijmans, Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome (diss., University of Groningen, 2009), 588ff.) Another candidate, Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn, is just in winter around a similar time of year, but not specifically on the 25th of December. The cult of Mithras is sometimes mentioned, but there is no respectability to this comparison, Mithras is alleged, on the internet and in the sensational movie Zeitgeist, to have all sorts of things in common with Jesus - born on the 25th of December, he was baptised, he had 12 disciples, he was crucified and was raised three days later. But literally none of those things happened in the stories of Mithras.You might also hear that the “Yule log” of Scandanavian paganism is where the Christmas tree came from. But if you read about the worship of Odin you find that the dates are not the same, the “wild hunt” of spectral figures across the night sky has no connection to the birth of the saviour, and a log being burned in the fire isn’t much like a decorated tree at all (although it makes sense to burn it at Christmas time in the Northern hemisphere’s winter).
So while the idea that Christmas is just a copied and pasted holiday from pagan festivals that happened on the 25th of December is certainly a juicy and attractive one for some, it really has no basis in fact. Doubtless, Christians then, just like Christians now, talk about Christ as the “light of the world,” and in one hymn St Ambrose in the fourth century contrasted Christ with the false Gods, calling him the “true sun,” but it is only natural to say this when other religions are worshiping the sun. Whether the Church was right or wrong about the date of Christ’s birth, they chose the 25th of December because that really is when they believed he was born.
The virgin birth
One of the remarkable things about the story of the birth of Christ is that he was born of a virgin. Although the date of his birth is not mentioned in the New Testament or by the earliest Church fathers, his virgin birth is. Luke 1:34 records Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel when he told her that she would have a son: “How can this be, since I am a virgin.” This is a modern translation, but more literal translations say “how can this be, since I do not know a man?” The more literal wording lays to rest any doubts that might arise if the idea of the virgin birth was conveyed only by one particular word with different possible meanings, like the greek word parthenos, translated “virgin.” Luke refers to this fact again when he begins the genealogy of Jesus, saying, "Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli..." (Luke 3:23). While the general public referred to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55), understandably believing him to be the son of Joseph, the Gospel writers, at least some of whom knew Mary personally, regarded Jesus’ conception to be miraculous.
Ever since New Testament times, there has been an unbroken tradition of belief that Jesus was born of a virgin. The doctrine of the virgin birth is affirmed by many of the Church Fathers - Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, as well as later writers. The doctrine was so central to Christian beliefs about Jesus’ that it found its way into both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. Here, some have said that the Gospel writers themselves borrowed from pagan religions, copying the idea of a god being born of a woman who was and remained a virgin (ie even after she had conceived the god). Of course, the presence of a virgin birth in another religion hardly demonstrates that the Gospel writers copied them. And yes, other religions do feature miraculous births. But so often, the claim is made with great eagerness, but comes up short in the evidence department. Although some later sources (compiled by the 4th century AD) imply that Gautama (Buddha) was born of a virgin, the stories of his life indicate that his mother had been married for twenty years, with no suggestion of abstinence. A number of the alleged virgin births of other deities turn out to not be virgin births at all, but rather stories in which a god literally had sex with a human woman and impregnated her, which by definition makes the birth not a virgin birth. Even the sceptical Bart Ehrman, whose work often involves criticising the New Testament as unreliable, candidly acknowledges that while many pagan religions involve a miraculous birth, they do not involve virgin births.
The reason the Gospel authors wrote that Jesus was born of a virgin is simple - that’s what they really believed had taken place. And why is the virgin birth important? In Luke’s Gospel, when Mary had asked how she could have a child, since she has never been with a man, the angel said: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God.” If the virgin birth had never happened, then Jesus would have been, as most people no doubt believed, the son of Mary and Joseph. He would be one of us in every way and nothing more. But via the Virgin birth, Jesus was God who became one of us while being fully divine. He had, as the theologians say, a human nature that he got from his mother Mary, and there was no need for a human father, because in the person of Jesus, the Son of God who existed beyond time and space, entered our world, joining his divine nature to a human nature. He was true God and true man, able to experience what we do, to relate to us, to know what it’s like to suffer what we suffer, and yet able to, as God, go to his death on the cross in our place decades later, an act in which God, free of all wrongdoing, suffers death to give us life through his resurrection. This is why, when the angels appeared to the shepherds out in the fields, they told them that they brought “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves and into Easter!
Although the name and the date for Christmas were centred on Christ’s birth, over the centuries there have been plenty of traditions built up around Christmas that are only loosely connected with that event.This doesn’t make them “unChristian,” of course. It just means that they don’t have their origin in the Bible.
It wouldn’t make sense, of course, to say that Christians borrowed these traditions from paganism, traditions like drinking, putting up Christmas trees, hanging holly or mistletoe, and so on. Those things are not how the Church celebrates Christmas. They are part of how society celebrates Christmas, and all sorts of traditional ways of celebrating Winter festivals or holidays in general may well have gotten mingled into Christmas festivities. But some of the traditions we associate with Christmas were introduced over the years by Christians who saw them as meaningful.
Many cultures in Europe decorated their homes with greenery after the Winter Solstice, anticipating new growth and life. A story often told is that the German Reformer Martin Luther was out walking one evening in winter, and was so taken by the sight of the stars through the trees that he cut down a small tree and took it home, decorating it with candles, giving the world its first Christmas tree. An event like that is unlikely to have been documented, and there is no historical record of Luther ever doing this. But Christmas trees do make their appearance in the renaissance period.
Many believe the Christmas tree developed from the “paradise tree” used in Medieval Christmas plays in churches. The paradise tree in the play represented the two trees in the Garden of Eden - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. It was an evergreen tree, decorated with apples, and later communion wafers - and sometimes cherries. The mystery plays came to an end, but the tradition of the tree was picked up by laypeople, who called it a Christbaum of “Christ tree,” and decorated it with treats. Its origin in the plays, however - if this is where it came from - was a lesson about sin and redemption.
What about kissing under the Mistletoe? Where did that come from? The short answer is that it depends on who you ask! A search for sources on this one turns up Norse, Greek and Roman possibilities. Mistletoe represents love, winter, peace, friendship, and probably a lot of other things in various ancient cultures. As for the familiar Christmas image of holly berries and their prickly leaves, these were used as a winter decoration in every country where the holly grows, and Christmas was a time when people decorated. It might be tempting to try and locate a pagan culture where similar traditions to these were used, and try to connect the dots to Christmas. But these were never Christian traditions. They are just European traditions, and in any case, using a plant to decorate, whether it’s mistletoe, holly, or something else, is so common that it can’t be called a specifically pagan practice.
Go and see for yourself!
Lastly, it’s easy to talk about Christmas as a subject, to argue with strangers about it on the internet (if you really must), to read interesting facts about names and dates and so son, but there’s really nothing quite like experiencing it in all its fullness, not just as an opportunity to take time of work and relax with family, as good as that is, but to reflect on the events of the first Christmas and why they happened. There will be a church near you that’s holding a Christmas Eve service, listening to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, singing Christmas carols and seeing in the day. If you’ve never been before - or even if you have, many years ago, consider going along. Even if it’s just because you like singing, you never know. You might just hear something that will change your life.