One question that I get almost every year at this time is about the origins of Christmas. The question may take different forms; some ask if it has pagan origins, others might ask if Jesus was really born on or around the 25th of December, some just ask if we have lost the meaning in this over commercialized and stuff focused culture that we have found ourselves in. My answer to all these questions and any other that may be along these lines is, “What is the reason why you are asking this question?” If we are asking this question because someone else is questioning our faith or prodding us to draw us into an argument that will not end well, than we are asking this question for the wrong reasons. If we are asking because we truly want to know in order to deepen our faith and make sure we are living the life that Christ wants us to, well that is a whole other reason and I think the right one.
There will always be people that push this question out there to further an agenda of their own. They will say things like; Jesus was not born on the 25th of December and that the holiday was begun by a pagan emperor (Constantine) and that it is a compromise with the pagan elements of the empire to keep some of the population happy with the new state religion. These folks will often claim that the “True Church” in the first thru third centuries was the pure faith and that all the rest was corrupted. That sounds good and on the surface it sound like it is true. But it is based on four false arguments.
1. That Constantine was a pagan emperor. The truth is he like all men needed a savior and he made the claim that Jesus saved him and after 324 A.D. and he had control over the entire empire he banned pagan celebrations and embraced Christ. Whether or not he was a true believer is between him and God, I can only speak for me, no one else.
2. That Constantine made it a state religion. He did not do that. It was Theodosius I that did this. He was the last man to rule both the east and west parts of the Roman Empire.
3. That the “true and pure” church was the first thru third centuries before Constantine allowed it. The idea that the first church was somehow pure and true is false and smacks of a failure to understand even the most basic of readings of the letters in the New Testaments. The truth was that the first century church was drifting from its true center almost from its inception. The apostles were constantly writing about heresies that were creeping in. Any church that is not focused on Jesus and Jesus alone (as revealed to us by His word) then that church has drifted from the truth and is not healthy. As long as man is involved with church here on earth we will always be in danger of drifting because man is sinful.
4. That is was based on a pagan holiday and adopted into the church by the Catholics. While it is true that the Catholics did pick the date and that there was a pagan holiday on that day as well it true. I have found that the same people that push this question also talk about worship on Sunday and other parts of the church as we have it today. If we use that standard though we would not worship on Saturday either, as it was dedicated to the pagan god Saturn and on and on it would go. The month of December is and was special to many religions from the dawn of sin. When man drifted from God due to sin there has been a desire to have special days to celebrate in their own sinful manner what they want to celebrate. Jesus did celebrate Hanukkah according to John 10. It was a winter feast day. I don’t know of any document or writing from the 3rd century or after that specifically says that the Catholic Church was adopting the date of a pagan god.
So now on to the answer (sort of). First of all there is evidence in the writings of the some of the early church fathers from 200 A.D. and on that there was a desire to know the date of the birth of Christ. None of them put the date in December but most believe that Jesus’ baptism by John was in January and so some linked the two dates to celebrate as one. The truth is we do not know when Jesus was born. There are enough scholars that have tried to pin the date down over the years and they all have good reasons for their dates. Personally I think that Jesus was born sometime in the spring when all the other lambs were born. Not because of the account of the shepherds in the fields but because He was the ultimate sacrificial lamb. Now I know that this is not necessary and my not be really theological but it is what I think. Either way the first church was interested in the birthday of Jesus.
As I don’t think that Jesus was born on the 25th of December then why do I celebrate Christmas? That is a good question and I am glad that you asked. Jesus did have a day that He was born into real history. We do not know when that was but we know that He did have a day that He was born. For that reason alone it is good to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the 25th of December is a good enough day as any to do it. When we celebrate the day of the birth of the Messiah what are we really celebrating and what is the purpose of “Advent”? These are the real questions that we should be asking.
We celebrate the entrance of God into real history and into flesh, blood and bone. That is an amazing and mysterious thing. To have the creator of the universe that is larger than the universe itself somehow fit Himself into the body of a tiny child that grew in the womb of a young girl is truly amazing and a mystery that we will never know more about until we see Him face to face. That alone should be celebrated. But why the 25th of December? This is the crux of the issue. We can all agree that Jesus coming the way He did and the why He did is something that could and should be celebrated even if He Himself did not command us to. The best reason I have as to why we celebrate on the day that we do is because of the reason of the advent in the first place. He came to seek and to save the lost. In the entire world you would be hard pressed to find a place that does not at least acknowledge that Jesus’ birth is celebrated on that day. If the majority of the world is celebrating on that day and they are at least acknowledging that Jesus the Messiah was born then we are doing what Jesus wants. We are lifting the name of Jesus up so that all the world will see and that is powerful.
In conclusion, the truth is that the reason for the season is to remember the entrance of God in the flesh into real history. The majority of the world celebrates this day and so at this time we as the specially selected agents of change that are the image bearers of Christ should use this day to do just that. If we don’t than we will miss a great opportunity to share the love of God with a lost, sin filled and dying world. We are to be ready to give a defense for the hope that lies within us at any moment. What better moment then when the whole world is thinking about Jesus and His birth.