christmas tree with presents

How, exactly, did Christmas begin?

A quick Internet search revealed 163 million hits about the origin of Christmas.

While I admittedly didn't take the time to look through 163 million links just now, I have yet to run across an article that neatly connects the dots of history from the apostolic age to the appearance of Christmas.

So I decided to try and write that article.

(Hopefully people will be able to find it amidst the 163 million other pages, amen? ;-)  )

Jewish Feasts and the Earliest Christians

The Law of Moses included an annual calendar of feasts that the children of Israel were required to keep. The most important were Passover (Feast of Unleavened Bread), Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) and Feast of Tabernacles (Feast of Booths/Ingathering). (See Ex. 23:14-17.)

These annual feasts were shadows of Jesus—symbolic pointers to the "Real Thing." Paul wrote the following to the Colossian Christians:

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
(Col. 2:16-17 NIV)

After Jesus’ ascension to heaven, three massive transitions occurred during the first century:

  1. GOD phased out acceptance of the old covenant and the Law of Moses.
  2. GOD began accepting Gentiles into His family without having to obey the Law of Moses.
  3. GOD instructed Jewish and Gentile Christians to be unified.

But the first Christians were Jews and, as Acts 21:20 shows us, they continued to faithfully follow the Mosaic customs even after becoming disciples of Jesus. Their zeal for the Law would have included the continued celebration of the annual feasts of their forefathers—yet, no doubt, possessing a deeper appreciation for their purpose, recognizing Jesus as their fulfillment.

clothed cross 500 clrTo these Christians, Passover became also about remembering the events surrounding the crucifixion and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Likewise, Pentecost became also about celebrating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2).

The Christian observance of special days was also a source of controversy, at least among the brethren in Rome (which had a strong Jewish population), for Paul was inspired to speak extensively on the subject (see Rom. 14:1-22). There he writes:

1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. … 5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. … 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
(Rom. 14:1, 5-6, 17-19 NIV)

Feast Celebration Gains Popularity

The "Christian" observance of these Jewish feast days evidently continued to grow in popularity and acceptance in the century following the close of the New Testament writings.

By 170 A.D., a great controversy had arisen around the date of celebrating Easter (then known as Pascha; the term Easter is centuries younger). Some felt the celebration should occur on Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection; others felt the observance should occur on the date of Jesus’ death—the Jewish traditional date of Passover, Abib/Nisan 14.

Melito, bishop of Sardis, writes about 170 A.D.:

When Servilius Paulus was proconsul of Asia, at the time that Sagaris suffered martyrdom, there arose a great controversy at Laodicea concerning the date of Easter [Tim: lit. pascha], which had fallen due at that time.
David W. Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 223

About a decade later, 180 A.D., Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, wrote:

When the blessed Polycarp [Tim: bishop of Smyrna who lived c. 65-156 A.D.; disciple of the apostle John and childhood teacher of Irenaeus] was visiting in Rome in the time of Anicetus [c. 155], … they were at once well inclined towards each other, not willing that any quarrel should arise between them upon this matter [the observance of Easter]. For Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [of his Easter customs] inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of the Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant.
David W. Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 223

calendar(This controversy continued to be heated for another century-and-a-half. In fact, settling the date for celebrating Easter was a key focus of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.)

Church Calendar Expansion

Before the end of the second century, the church began to add additional special dates of remembrance to its calendar.

By 195 A.D., certain Christians had begun celebrating Jesus' birth and baptism in the Feast of Epiphany. At that time, Clement of Alexandria writes:

The followers of Basilides hold the day of [Tim: Jesus’] baptism as a festival, spending the night before it in readings. And they say that [His baptism] was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, on the fifteenth day of the month of Tubi [i.e., January 6]. But some say that it was on the eleventh of the same month.
David W. Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 235

Regarding the Feast of Epiphany, nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff writes:

The feast of the Epiphany … spread from the East towards the West, but here, even in the fourth century, it was resisted by such parties as the Donatists, and condemned as an oriental innovation. It was, in general, the feast of the appearance of Christ in the flesh, and particularly of the manifestation of his Messiahship by his baptism in the Jordan, the festival at once of his birth and his baptism. It was usually kept on the 6th of January.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc2.v.vii.vi.html)

In addition to such feasts, the death date of individual martyrs began to be remembered and celebrated at their graves as a form of heavenly birthday. So the church's calendar of special dates expanded rapidly.

Roman Embrace of Christianity Under Constantine

Until the fourth century, under Constantine the Great, Christians had often faced severe persecution.

Constantine became a believer in 312 A.D. and, in 313, issued the Edict of Milan, granting that Christians and all others should be free to follow their religion as they saw fit.

Constantine became increasingly involved with the affairs of the church (even presiding over the Nicene Council in 325) and, as is well-known, ultimately resulted in the unhealthy union of the (visible) church with the state. (The invisible church—the pure and undefiled church of Jesus—cannot be married to anyone but Christ, praise GOD!)

Regarding this union, Schaff aptly says:

But the elevation of Christianity as the religion of the state presents also an opposite aspect to our contemplation. It involved great risk of degeneracy to the church. The Roman state, with its laws, institutions, and usages, was still deeply rooted in heathenism, and could not be transformed by a magical stroke. The christianizing of the state amounted therefore in great measure to a paganizing and secularizing of the church. The world overcame the church, as much as the church overcame the world, and the temporal gain of Christianity was in many respects cancelled by spiritual loss. The mass of the Roman empire was baptized only with water, not with the Spirit and fire of the gospel, and it smuggled heathen manners and practices into the sanctuary under a new name.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc3.iii.vi.i.html)

Christianity went from being the unpopular thing for which one suffered and died to the popular trendy religion, all within the span of a few decades.

Bishops and presbyters went from being voluntary roles of impoverished church leaders to well-paid positions of prominence and influence sponsored by the Roman Empire.

And the seeds for mass corruption were planted.

When truth and popularity come into conflict, as they often do, one must compromise. Sadly, history shows that church leaders during this time period, especially in Rome, made accommodations to appeal to the masses who were outwardly quickly turning toward the name of Christianity.

giftsBirth of Christmas and Pagan Influences

It is with this backdrop that Christmas appears on the historical scene.

While the exact beginning of Christmas is uncertain, it appears to have begun about 350 A.D.

The earliest known reference we have to Christmas is found in a calendar from 354 A.D. which was prepared for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus. It mentions the celebration of Jesus' birth on December 25.

We first find Christmas practiced in Rome, but soon afterward in other areas:

The feast of Epiphany had spread from the East to the West. The feast of Christmas took the opposite course. We find it first in Rome, in the time of the bishop Liberius, who on the twenty-fifth of December, 360, consecrated Marcella, the sister of St. Ambrose, nun or bride of Christ, and addressed her with the words: “Thou seest what multitudes are come to the birth-festival of thy bridegroom.” This passage implies that the festival was already existing and familiar. Christmas was introduced in Antioch about the year 380; in Alexandria, where the feast of Epiphany was celebrated as the nativity of Christ, not till about 430. Chrysostom, who delivered the Christmas homily in Antioch on the 25th of December, 386, already calls it, notwithstanding its recent introduction (some ten years before), the fundamental feast, or the root, from which all other Christian festivals grow forth.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc3.iii.x.iv.html)

The connection of certain Christmas customs with practices from heathen festivals has been widely discussed elsewhere.

With so many pagans turning to Christianity—at least in name—many church leaders made attempts to "Christianize" pagan practices.

Schaff says regarding this:

The Christmas festival was probably the Christian transformation or regeneration of a series of kindred heathen festivals—the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia, and Brumalia—which were kept in Rome in the month of December, in commemoration of the golden age of universal freedom and equality, and in honor of the unconquered sun, and which were great holidays, especially for slaves and children.† This connection accounts for many customs of the Christmas season, like the giving of presents to children and to the poor, the lighting of wax tapers, perhaps also the erection of Christmas trees, and gives them a Christian import; while it also betrays the origin of the many excesses in which the unbelieving world indulges at this season, in wanton perversion of the true Christmas mirth, but which, of course, no more forbid right use, than the abuses of the Bible or of any other gift of God.

Had the Christmas festival arisen in the period of the persecution, its derivation from these pagan festivals would be refuted by the then reigning abhorrence of everything heathen; but in the Nicene age this rigidness of opposition between the church and the world was in a great measure softened by the general conversion of the heathen. Besides, there lurked in those pagan festivals themselves, in spite of all their sensual abuses, a deep meaning and an adaptation to a real want; they might be called unconscious prophecies of the Christmas feast. Finally, the church fathers themselves confirm the symbolical reference of the feast of the birth of Christ, the Sun of righteousness, the Light of the world, to the birth-festival of the unconquered sun, which on the twenty-fifth of December, after the winter solstice, breaks the growing power of darkness, and begins anew his heroic career.

† The Satumalia were the feast of Saturn or Kronos, in representation of the golden days of his reign, when all labor ceased, prisoners were set free, slaves went about in gentlemen’s clothes and in the hat (the mark of a freeman), and all classes gave themselves up to mirth and rejoicing. The Sigillaria were a festival of images and puppets at the close of the Saturnalia on the 21st and 22d of December, when miniature images of the gods, wax tapers, and all sorts of articles of beauty and luxury were distributed to children and among kinsfolk. The Brumalia, from bruma (brevissima, the shortest day), had reference to the winter solstice, and the return of the Sol invictus.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc3.iii.x.iv.html)

Conclusion

Thus, it is highly likely that Christmas began out of some combination of the following:

  1. A natural evolution of the concept of the church year, which has its roots in Jesus' fulfillment of the Mosaic Jewish feasts. As the birth of Jesus marked the beginning of His earthly mission, so the season of Advent (the 4 [West] or 6 [East] Sundays before Christmas) marked the beginning of the church year.
  2. A sincere desire of Christians to honor Jesus' birth separate from His baptism. (Recall that the Feast of Epiphany had combined them into one celebration.)
  3. The desire to replace popular pagan festivals with something more pure and Jesus-centered, yet while retaining or re-purposing certain "innocent" aspects of old traditions.
  4. Compromising regarding the Christian traditional celebration of the Feast of Epiphany (which occurred just a couple of weeks later) by creating a late December "Christian holiday" in hopes of reducing the weak nominal Christian masses' temptation to continue their past idolatrous festivals in December.
Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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