Christmas - for many, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, the promised messiah.
For the first three centuries after the birth of Christ, the church did not celebrate his birth... no Christmas day on December 25 or any other day, no boxing day, no Christmas season. However, there are links between Christmas as we know it today and ancient pagan festivals.
Consider these links with Christmas. Prior to the birth of Christ pagans celebrated the birth of the sun god on December 25. Festivities included the making of cakes in the shape of fertility symbols such as the sun and moon.
The celebration of the sun's birth occurred around the same time as the Saturnalia festival: pagan worship of Saturn. This festival began on December 17 and continued for about a week (emperors' attempts to shorten this time failed). Festivities were marked by lawlessness, drunkenness and sexual sin (more on this further down). Festivals related to the worship of Saturn and the sun overlapped around December 25. Is this where Christmas came from? Please read on....
Does this mean then that because Christians choose to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, that Christmas is a pagan festival or that they are somehow worshipping pagan gods? Does it mean that Christians cannot celebrate Christ's birth on the date of December 25 whether or not it is the actual birth date of Christ?
Before diving into this controversial subject, consider the following situations...
If you discovered that fruit cake was first made to be given as an offering to a pagan god, does that mean that you are engaging in an act of pagan worship every time you eat fruit cake (whatever the occasion)? Or would that only apply if the cake was in the shape of a sun. Maybe it would only apply if you actually bowed down to it in worship, believing that the large glowing ball of gas 93million miles away was actually an intelligent life force responsible for the creation of everything we know.
Or what about this situation: If you discovered that your birth date was the same day and month of the year as an infamous mass murderer (such as Hitler) would it be wrong to celebrate your birthday on that date?
While you're thinking that through, we'll look closer at the date Christmas is celebrated on: December 25.
Was December 25, actually the birth date of the Christ child? Let's think this through...
According to the Bible, no exact calendar date is given for the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the reason for this is that God, speaking through the Holy Scriptures, wants his people to focus most not on when Jesus was born but the fact that he was born - God in human form. The fact that Christ was born and the reason he was born - to die as a sacrifice for sin - is something that Christians can celebrate every moment of every day of the year. When it comes to "when" Jesus Christ (Christ means messiah) was born, the Bible tells us that Jesus was born "in the fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4). In other words, when he came it was the right time, the perfect time, the time in human history that fitted with God's perfect plan to fulfill the prophecy to send a promised messiah.
The idea that Christians set aside a specific day to remember the birth of Christ is neither commanded nor prohibited in Scripture. Christians are commanded to remember the death of Christ through what some call, Communion, The Lord’s Supper or Eucharist but no binding date or day is given for when this sacrament should be celebrated. This sacrament was instituted by Jesus himself the night before he was betrayed (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
When it comes to setting aside “holy” days, Christians are given freedom concerning what they do here as long as they meet two conditions: first, they are not to make their choices binding on others and secondly, when they follow our own choices they are to do it in faith as an act of worship to God (Colossians 2:16, Romans 14:5).
Going back to December 25… Whether early Church fathers chose this date to compete with pagan festivals or not, there are reasons why December 25 is unlikely to have been the date Jesus was born. (1) For example, this date does not sit well with the way eastern shepherds looked after their flocks. The Bible tells us that on the very day when the angel announced to the shepherds the good news that Jesus was born, the shepherds were outside watching their flocks at night. This would be a strange thing for shepherds in the east to do at that time of year (December 25). The reason is that this was cold wintery time of year when temperatures could drop to zero and animals were often sheltered in caves. Many believe that a date prior to October makes more sense.
(2) Another reason why December 25 is an unlikely time is that Mary and Joseph had been required along with all other citizens of Rome to travel to their home town to register for a census. No sensible Roman ruler, if he wanted a true record of his kingdom, would ask people to travel through Judea at a time when it was generally impassable – not to mention the fact that Mary was pregnant.
Scripture then gives no date for the birth of Christ, nor does it give a command to celebrate the birth of Christ.
So where does the date of December 25th come from? And why did Christians wait more than 300years before settling on this date to celebrate the birth of Christ? Christians in the first century did not celebrate Jesus' birth with any special observance. Celebrating birthdays was originally a pagan custom and the Church were reluctant even to celebrate the birth of a martyr.
The earliest mention of December 25 as the possible birth of Christ. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that “December 25 was first identified as the date of Jesus’ birth by Sextus Julius Africanus in 221.” It is believed by many that in 325AD the Emperor Constantine himself declared December 25 to be the day of Jesus birth... and that he was most likely influenced by early church fathers in this decision (read on to see the possible reasons for this influence). December 25th is also mentioned in relation to Jesus birth in the Calendar of Philocalus (AD 354).
But it wasn’t until well after these dates, in AD 440, that early church fathers themselves officially set December 25 as the date of Jesus birth. This poses an awkward question: If Church fathers were the ones to influence Constantine in declaring December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth, then why did they wait over 100 years to declare this date officially in the Church? Some have suggested that this may be because in the first 2-3 centuries, the church was subject to official government persecution and was afraid of further persecution. But this had changed after Constantine's Edict of Toleration in AD 313. This edict declared an end to government persecution of Christians. Constantine himself had “converted” to Christianity, or at least professed to. So with this edict dramatically reducing the fear of persecution it is highly unlikely that the fear would have been a factor in Christ’s birth not being celebrated for the first three centuries.
Furthermore, as Christians in the first few centuries after Christ's death were unwilling to stop celebrating the Lord’s Supper in memory of the death of Christ for sinners (despite the accusation of cannibalism) it seems strange that fear would stop them from celebrating the birth of Christ! [The Lord's Supper, Communion = the eating of bread and wine to remember the body and blood of Christ shed for sinners.]Now this is where things get interesting....
December 17-23 was a time of year when Rome had traditionally celebrated the Italic god, Saturn (the agricultural god). At the end of this festival, from about 200 years before Christ, December 25 was the day of the winter solstice, the rebirth of the sun god. Pre-Christian Romans and other pagans, saw that daylight increased after December 22nd (they had assumed that the sun god had died on December 22 as that date was the "shortest" day). As daylight increased after that date, they concluded from this that the sun god rose from the dead three days later as the new-born sun. These Roman traditions themselves are believed to have been inherited from much earlier Babylonian practices that go back more than a thousand years before the time of Christ. From a biblical world view, these can be seen as a Satanic counterfeit to Jesus resurrection after three days. As a liar by nature (John 8:44) Satan works to spoil the truth by taking something that is true and twisting it to give it a different meaning (eg. Genesis 3:2-5).
The festival in honour of Saturn was called, Saturnalia. The Saturnalia festival was cause for much wild excitement. Gift giving (originally gifts were given to the emperor) and merriment filled the temples of ancient Rome. This was a time of drunkenness and open sexual sin (such as naked singing in the streets), lawlessness (where Roman laws were officially laid aside) and even human sacrifice. Slaves and Masters exchanged roles though masters were still in control and slaves were exempt from punishment. Everyone got to wear the pileus, or red freedman's hat. Priests of Saturn would carry wreaths of evergreen tree bows in street processions and people would decorate trees and bushes with small pieces of tin. The traditional greeting at a Saturnalia celebration was, "Io, Saturnalia!". The "Io" is pronounced, "Yo." And means, “Ho, Praise to Saturn”.
The festival in honour of the sun was called, 'Dies Natali Invictus,' 'the birthday of the unconquered,'. Meaning the birth day of the unconquered SUN. Some believe the Church chose this date to Christianise the pagan festival. In other words, they chose December 25 to celebrate the birth date of the SON (Jesus, the Son of God) – who is the unconquered, Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2; see also Hebrews 1:8). Others say that this date was chosen because it was believed to be the actual birth date of Christ (but this does not fit well with what the Bible tells us about when Jesus was born – as mentioned further above concerning how eastern shepherds looked after their flocks).
It is still the subject of debate as to whether church fathers chose December 25 because they were influenced by the desire to compete with the pagan saturnalia festival and the worship of the sun god - or, because they believed this to be the correct date of Jesus birth. Discerning people's real motives that far back in history (or even present day) is not easy to do so we need to be careful about making too much about why this date was chosen.
Should Christians then use December 25 as a special day to celebrate the birth of Christ?
WHAT and WHO and HOW and WHY you celebrate, will always be more important than WHEN the event you celebrated took place.
There are some people who do not know the actual date of their birth but this is no reason for not picking a date to celebrate the miracle of their life once a year. Also, any true celebration of a life changing event will not be something that you can restrict to just one day of the year; it will flow out into every other day of your life. So it should be with a celebration of the birth of Christ. Psalm 71:15 reads, "I will declare your righteousness and your salvation every day" [emphasis added].
As a final comment, it is interesting that while many pagan religions celebrate the BIRTH of their gods, none celebrate the DEATH of their gods. This is perhaps what the Bible has in mind when it says, that the preaching of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). Perhaps this is behind Jesus command to remember his death (and therefore the reason for his birth) and why he said nothing about celebrating his birth. This is not to say that Christians should not celebrate Christ’s birth (for both angels and shepherds did this), but rather that the main the focus of Christian celebration should be on the reason Jesus was born: to die for sinners so that by humble repentance and faith, a condemned sinner may be born again and receive forgiveness and eternal life.