THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS

Christmas time is almost here and so are the endless questions that often times get brought up. Should we say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays?” Was Jesus born on December 25th? Do I even want to celebrate Christmas at all? Is Christmas an authorized Christian holiday? Is Christmas a pagan holiday? Why do I have to buy so many gifts? Where did Christmas even come from? Yes, the questions can be quite endless.

Historically speaking, many believe the origins of Christmas can ultimately be traced back to Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. This idea reasons that, like many holidays, Christians took the pagan idea (in this case Saturnalia) and made it their own. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.

On the other hand, Professor William J. Tighe argues that Christmas did not originate from pagan influences, but rather originated from Christian influences. In his article he states the following: 

“…we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.

It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.

Regardless, it really doesn’t matter where the holiday originated from. The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336 c.e., during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. A few years later, around 350 c.e., Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25th.

Fast forward to the 17th century when certain Puritans banned Christmas because they thought that celebrating Christmas was too pagan and unbiblical. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was actually fined a penalty. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in America until June 26, 1870. While a lot more could be said in regards to the historicity of Christmas, the above historical information should suffice for the purpose of this article.

With that being said, how should Christians celebrate Christmas? The answer to this question actually depends upon you. In addressing the church in Rome, Paul wrote:

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.” (Rom. 14:5-6a).

We do not know the actual day when Jesus was born, but we know He was born—and that is what matters. Last month, we celebrated a day called Thanksgiving. While we should be thankful every day of our lives (1 Thess. 5:18), there is nothing wrong with taking one day out of the year to dedicate and meditate upon thankfulness even more so.

Christians typically celebrate Father’s Day and Mother’s Day (At some churches, mothers may even get a rose). While we should honor our fathers and mothers every day of the year (Eph. 6:1-2), there is certainly nothing wrong with taking one day out of the year to give special thought and appreciation to fathers and mothers. Furthermore, most Christians I know celebrate days such as Valentine’s Day as a “special day” to celebrate the love you have in your life.

If there is nothing wrong with taking one day out of the year to give special attention to thankfulness, mothers/fathers, spouses and love, then there is nothing wrong to take one day out of the year to give special attention to the birth of Jesus. To argue that it is wrong to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus simply because we are not given the date is to argue that it is wrong to celebrate any holiday. Obviously, this is nonsensical and ridiculous because the Bible never condemns celebrating events on certain days as long as we don’t bind those celebrations on others (assuming the event or celebration is moral and doesn’t conflict with Christian principles).

So, is Christmas a Christian holiday or a secular celebration? Well, it depends upon how you celebrate it. Personally, I enjoy the morally pure secular celebration of Christmas with its Santa-traditions as well as thinking about and celebrating the birth of Christ. I don’t know when Jesus was born. No one living today does know. However, I am thankful that we live in a country where, at least one day out of the year, many people turn their attention to Jesus when they might otherwise not. This presents us with great opportunities.

As stated before, there is no such thing as Father’s Day or Mother’s Day in the Bible—but I am told to honor my father and my mother. Therefore, I am personally thankful that I live a country that celebrates such honoring. The same is true with Thanksgiving and Christmas.  While we should respect each other’s decisions and consciences, we must also be careful not to “judge each other in these matters” (Rom. 14:4). So whether you “Bah Humbug,” “Happy Holidays,” or “Merry Christmas,” make sure that you do it unto the Lord and to His glory (Rom. 14:6; 1 Cor. 10:31).

– Kevin Pendergrass

For any questions or to be added to the newsletter list, please send an e-mail to kevin@kevinpendergrass.com.