The History of Christmas

How did the modern holiday and traditions come in to practice?

Introduction

Photocredit: FreeImages.com/aki_fukaki
Most people I speak with identify the first Christmas as the night Jesus was born; this is where we get songs like "The First Noel." Yet, early Christians didn't celebrate Christmas. The first mentioning of an attempt to pinpoint the date of Jesus' birth occurs in 200ad and each estimate is in the Spring. Somehow, by 300ad, Christians were celebrating Jesus' birth either on December 25th (in Rome) or January 6th (in Egypt). Over time, January 6th became the Feast of Ephiphany, a holiday to celebrate the visit of the magi. The phrase "12 days of Christmas" actually refers to the time between December 25th and January 6th, not the days leading up to Christmas.[1]
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History

The question is how did Christians go from condemning birthday celebrations as pagan to celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25, in what is quite possibly the biggest universal holiday in the world? Both believers and non-believers alike celebrate the holiday, which is probably a clue that something is not quite right...
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Birthdays in the Bible

Nowhere in the gospels, where the birth of Christ is recorded, or in the rest of the New Testament does God suggest we should keep Jesus' birthday as a holiday. God gives no instructions nor a date for when and how this holiday should be kept, despite giving exact dates and instructions for all holidays in the Old Testament. As Jesus grows up and begins His ministry, no where during His ministry does He stop to celebrate His birthday. In fact, the word birthday is found only 3 times in the Bible, once in reference to Pharaoh (pagan—Genesis 40:20) and twice in reference to King Herod (also pagan—Mark 6:21 and Matthew 14:6), but never in reference to one of God's people.

A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.Ecclesiastes 7:1 KJV
Per Ecclesiastes 7:1, your death date is more important that your birthday; which makes sense when you think of Jesus specifically. Birthdays are not something God considered important; notice we are never given exact dates or even estimates for the birth of His people, though in some cases (like with Miriam in Numbers 20:1) we are given approximate dates of their death. If God wanted us to celebrate Jesus' birthday, don't you think he would have at least recorded the month of Jesus' birth?

Origen, who lived from 185 to 254ad and was a noted theologian of his time, wrote the following:[2][3]
"...not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday."
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Modeled After Pagans?

One theory for why the birth of Christ is celebrated on December 25th is that the holiday is modeled after pagan holidays that centered around the winter solstice. Such holidays include Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and the Yule. There are also rumors that the pagan god Tammuz, mentioned in Ezekiel 8, was born on December 25 (I have not been able to validate this as his associated birthday however).
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Saturnalia

Named for the Roman god Saturn, Saturnalia was a Roman holiday that consisted of a week long party coinciding with the winter solstice. Google's dictionary describes it as "the predecessor to Christmas."[11] There were large public celebrations, but there were private parties and festivities honoring Saturn as well—much like the public plays/productions and private parties for Christmas. Another similarity, is a red hat, known as the freedman's hat, which was worn during the Saturnalia during the switching of roles. During the role switch, slaves were granted many freedman privileges and were served (to an extent) by their masters. Government offices were closed during Saturnalia and small gifts were exchanged at feasts and banquets. The phrase "deck the halls" likely stems from the tradition of adorning the halls of ones home with green boughs during this holiday. Caroling—nude caroling to be specific—was also part of the festivities.[10][12]
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Sol Invictus

Another ancient holiday that takes place during the Christmas season is Sol Invictus. Sol Invictus actually takes place on December 25th just like Christmas. There is debate as to whether Sol Invictus was created to suppress Christianity, or if Christianity was created to suppress Sol Invictus.[13] Sol Invictus was a pagan holiday for sun worship. One writer tries to defend Christmas against accusations of paganism and copycat tendencies, by citing the uncertainty of whether Sol Invictus or the celebration of Jesus' birth came first and listing quotes from the early church where leaders wished to distance themselves from paganism.[14] Interestingly, the author doesn't mention the traditions of Saturnalia and Yule that the church (specifically the Roman Catholic Church) adopted. Actions speak much louder than words, even today we have so-called Christian who spew hate and venom that is not of God. If the early Christians were so set on distancing themselves, why did they adopt the traditions of Saturnalia and Yule? Why is it that in Old English, the holiday was still called Yule and not reflective of Jesus (the first version of the word Christmas didn't occur until the latter days of old English approximately 900 years later)?[15][16] Similarly, today, many preachers will condemn actions such as premarital sex and drinking, but members of the church commonly partake in these practices anyway.
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Yule

Yule took place in accordance with the winter solstice (around December 21st)[4] and is the namesake for the word "Yuletide."[5][6] Yule was the popular name for the holiday before Christmas came into fashion.[9] As a celebration to honor the sun, the primary traditions of the holiday included light (such as candles). The pagan Yule also included the decorating of a tree, wassailing (caroling), and the Yule log. After converting to Christianity, many didn't want to give up their pagan holidays so they incorporated the pagan traditions with their new faith. It is thought that the original Yule festivities celebrated the battle between the Oak and Holly Kings. The Oak King was said to be symbolic of the new year and light, with the Holly King representing darkness.[4] In addition to the poinsettia, holly is also closely associated with the Christmas holiday today. This version of Yule is still celebrated by Wiccans today.
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Not Modeled After Pagans?

Some argue that the date of Christmas is not due to pagan influence, though I think the above section proves that many Christmas traditions are in fact pagan. One argument is the lack of discussion on co-opting the pagan holidays for Christianity in documents from the early church. I find this to be a flimsy argument. Not only could this matter easily be discussed verbally, the hijacking of a popular pagan holiday by a persecuted faith seems like a stealth mission. I imagine the reaction of the Romans upon learning Christians were going to be over Saturnalia would be akin to fans of Fifty Shades of Grey learning Disney was going to make the movie adaptation.

The alternate hypothesis lies is the dating of Jesus' death. As the Passover Lamb, we know that Jesus died on Nisan 14 (possibly Nisan 15—but that's a discussion for another post) and according to Tertullian of Carthage, the Roman equivalent of Nisan 14 in the year Jesus died would have been March 25. This is interesting since scholars still can't agree on the exact year Jesus died. The same author who dismisses one theory because no one recorded an intent, suggests that even though these same people never recorded a year of death, they were able to calculate and convert the day of the Passover sacrifice during the year of Jesus' birth. He goes on to hypothesize that per the belief Jesus died and was conceived on the same day, March 25th must be His conception date and exactly 9 months later would be December 25. Quotes from 4th century Christians prove that at least some of them believed Jesus was conceived on the day He died, His death date was March 25th, and that identified His birthday on December 25th. The date of January 6th was determined in the same fashion, however in the East Christians converted the 14th of Nisan to April 6th.[1]

Why did the early Christians believe Jesus died on the day of His conception? Every explanation of this idea quotes the same source and suggests "it just feels right." To me that is synonymous with "I don't want to give up this pagan holiday, this sounds good enough so I'm going to roll with it." I don't remember anything in the Bible suggesting this connection. If I find anything during this read through, I'll come back and update this section.
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Etymology of the Holiday's Name

There are many recognizable words for the season: Christmas, Yuletide, Navidad, and Noël. In the section on pagan origins in Christmas above, I discussed the origin of Yuletide, but what about the others? Noël has French origins was born of the Latin natalis (dies), which means birthday.[18] Navidad is the Spanish equivalent of Christmas, stemming from the Latin nativitas, which means nativity or birth.[19] Christmas, the English name for the holiday, has stranger roots. It stems from two words: "Christ" and "mass." Obviously, Christ refers to Jesus Christ. Mass, on the other hand, comes from the old English word mæsse, which literally means dismissal.[20][21] This word is also the namesake of the Catholic church service. Merry Christ dismisses? Merry dismissal of Christ? The second interpretation sounds accurate to how the holiday is celebrated today, but is definitely not something we want to say. Christ didn't really dismiss anything at His birth, if anything He called people to attention (like the magi). I guess a case could be made that Christ dismissed death, but He didn't do that until the resurrection, why would that be associated with His birth?

A Rebuttal to Catholic Apologetics states that mass actually means "death sacrifice" and quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia in a statement that defines this sacrifice as the "complete destruction of the victim." Who is the victim? The book suggests Christ as the victim, after all he is the one who sacrificed Himself for us. In addition, Christmas is essentially the same as Mass of Christ, which would by this definition mean death sacrifice of Christ or the complete destruction of Christ. That would mean when you say Merry Christmas, you are actually said "happy complete destruction of Christ."[22] Of course Jesus isn't a victim, He's the Son of God and God in the flesh. All sites that quote this passage refer to the 1975 edition Catholic Encyclopedia, which I can't seem to find online. The version online does talk about sacrifices: "If then we combine the four constituent ideas in a definition, we may say: "Sacrifice is the external oblation to God by an authorized minister of a sense-perceptible object, either through its destruction or at least through its real transformation, in acknowledgement of God's supreme dominion and of the appeasing of His wrath." We shall demonstrate the applicability of this definition to the Mass in the section devoted to the nature of the sacrifice, after settling the question of its existence."[23] To confirm this and understand the context of the quote used, I will have to locate a copy of this book (probably at the library) and do some reading. I will get back to you on this matter.

36But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. 37For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.Matthew 12:36-37 KJV
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Christmas in the U.S.

Christmas is without a doubt the most popular holiday in the United States. Not only is it a federal holiday, but almost everything in the country is closed for the holiday—even Walmart, the definition of a 24 hour store, is closed on Christmas day. In the first days of colonization, however, Christmas didn't exist in America. It was actually banned, as in against the law, in Boston from 1659-1681. When America separated from England, it also distanced itself from England's traditions (like Christmas). Christmas wasn't made a federal holiday until 1870 (that's 7 years after slavery was abolished). During the 1800's the upper class worked to reinvent the rowdy Saturnalia like festivities of England to the more peaceful, family-oriented, holiday of today. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol helped to promote that image.[17]
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A Biblical Estimate of Jesus' Birthday

Many suggestions have been made for the birthday of Christ, but during my research, I only came across one that seemed to have Biblical origins. Luke 1 begins with the foretelling of John the Baptist's birth, to his father Zacharias. Zacharias was married to Elisabeth, whom they believed to be barren. We are told that in the sixth month of Elisabeth's pregnancy, the angel appeared to Mary to announce her miraculous pregnancy. Thus, we know that John the Baptist was approximately six months older than Jesus. If we could pinpoint the date of John the Baptist's birth, we could also approximate Jesus' birth. Many cites work backwards, stating that since Jesus was born on December 25th, John the Baptist was born around June 25th.

However one researcher suggests using 1 Chronicles 24 to determine when the angel announced the coming of John the Baptist.[24] 1 Chronicles 24 tells us about the division of priests by familial line as it relates to their service of the sanctuary. Each male Levite descendant was given a time, based on this division that they were responsible for the sanctuary. Since Zacharias was a priest preforming his duty at the sanctuary, we know that the angel appeared to him during his assigned time. Luke 1:15 tells us that Zacharias was of the lineage of Abia. In 1 Chronicles 24:10, Abia (or Abijah) is given the 8th lot.

A commentary on the Jewish Torah called the Mishnah is cited to suggest each lot served one week at the temple, in order, starting with the first Sabbath of Nisan. Since Nisan was the first month of the year, this makes sense. The author of this theory also provides commentary on how the feast days of the Passover, Feast of Weeks, and Feast of Tabernacles, in which everyone was required to journey to the temple, would require all of the priestly lineage for help. This also discusses the fact that in a 51 week year (per Hebrew tradition) the each of the 24 divisions could serve twice, totaling 48 weeks and leaving 3 "extra" weeks, the weeks of the previously mentioned feasts. Leap year would have 55 weeks, adding 4 more "extra" weeks. The author suggests that for each of the extra four weeks, one sixth of the divisions were responsible for the tabernacle; this would give each division equal time to serve.[24][25]

Based on this school of though and the assumption of Jesus' birth in 6bc(which is debatable), the author calculates that Zacharias would have been at the temple to receive the angel's message between June 4th and June 11th. Elisabeth would have conceived sometime in June after he returned home, thus the sixth month of her pregnancy would have been in December, and John the Baptist would have been born sometime in March. This would place Jesus' birthday in September. The author guesses at dates to show that perhaps Jesus was born around the Feast of Tabernacles in 6bc.[24]

I think this is an interesting theory, though not without it's flaws. One problem is that we don't know that Jesus was born in 6bc. Most estimate that He could have been born anywhere from 7bc to 4bc. Since the first Sabbath would not fall on the same day each year, the dates shift slightly within the Jewish calendar over the range of plausible years. Further, when we try to convert these dates to our current Georgian calendar, we have to account for even more (particular the leap years). Then of course, there is the fact that we cannot be sure how soon after Zacharias returned Elisabeth became pregnant—that night, that week, a month later? In addition, Mary might not have carried Jesus for exactly 9 months, He may have come a day early. Considering these limitations, I think this theory would place Jesus' birthday during the early fall or late summer.
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References

  1. [1] McGowan, Andrew. "How December 25 Became Christmas". BIBLE REVIEW-WASHINGTON-. 18.6: pg. 46-48. 2002
    [2] Origen. The Fathers of the Church: Homilies on Leviticus 1-16". Translated by Gary Wayne Barkley. pg. 157. 1990
    [3] Moore, Edward. "Origen of Alexandria". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2015
    [4] Wigington, Patti. "History of Yule". About.com. 2015
    [5] Harper, Douglas. "Yuletide". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
    [6] Harper, Douglas. "Yule". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
    [7] Wigington, Patti. "How to Make a Yule Log". About.com. 2015
    [8] Wigington, Patti. "Go a-Wassailing". About.com. 2015
    [9] Hillerbrand, Hans J. "Christmas". Encycolpædia Britannica. 2015
    [10] "In Reference to Saturnalia". Encycolpædia Britannica. 2015
    [11] . "Saturnalia". Google. 2015
    [12] Wigington, Patti. "Saturnalia". About.com. 2015
    [13] Veith, Gene. "Chirstmas is NOT based on the feast of Sol Invictus". Patheos. December 2012
    [14] Sorensen, Jon. "Why December 25?". Catholic Anwsers. December 2013
    [15] Harper, Douglas. "Christmas". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
    [16] "Old English". Dictionary.com. 2015
    [17] A&E Television Networks. "History of Christmas". History.com. 2015
    [18] Harper, Douglass. "Noel". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
    [19] "Navidad". myEtymology.com. 2008
    [20] Harper, Douglass. "Christmas". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
    [21] Harper, Douglass. "Mass". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
    [22] Howard-Munro, Linda. "A Rebuttal to Catholic Apologetics. 2013
    [23] "Sacrifice of the Mass". Catholic Online. 2015
    [24] Turner, Gary. "When was John the Baptist born?". Christmas in September?. 2015
    [25] Turner, Gary. "Notes". Christmas in September?. 2015

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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