Obviously the exact date of Christ’s birth has never been credibly established, although there have been a number of attempts to do so. Church leaders early on began to speculate on the actual date of Jesus’ birth, with a number of dates being proposed. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20, while other church leaders argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) advocated January 2, and others argued for November 17, November 20, and March 25.
A Latin treatise written around 243 set the date as March 21, the supposed date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had already followed the same logic in concluding that Christ’s birth and baptism most likely occurred on a Wednesday because God created the sun on the fourth day of the week. But there wasn’t enough evidence available to conclusively prove any of these dates, and there were serious flaws to the calculations behind all of them.
So why was December 25 chosen as the date of Jesus’ birth? For one thing, December 25 was sacred not only to the Romans, but also to the Persians, whose religion was one of Christianity’s main rivals during the first century. Some scholars claim that the celebration of the Christ mass was instituted to compete with the pagan traditions that were creeping into the church.
From the beginning, celebrating Christmas was controversial. Origen (c.185 to c. 254) preached that the celebration of birthdays was for pagan gods, and that Christ would be dishonored if his birth was celebrated in the same way the pagans honored their rulers. The giving of lavish gifts and excesses of eating and drinking that accompanied pagan celebrations contrasted drastically with the nativity’s simplicity and offended church leaders. Even today, many people condemn these traditions as being contrary to the true spirit of Christmas.
Not all of Origen’s contemporaries agreed that Christ’s birthday should not be celebrated, however. In fact, the nativity has been observed in some form since 98 AD, and in 137 the bishop of Rome established it as a solemn feast day. As Christianity spread, individual churches increasingly adapted traditions from some of the pagan winter festivals practiced throughout the Middle East and Europe, such as hanging evergreens and giving presents, for their celebration of Jesus’ birth.
For the first three centuries of the Common Era, the celebration of Christ’s birth didn’t take place in December. When individual churches observed the nativity, they usually did so on January 6 during Epiphany, one of the church’s earliest feasts. Western Christians first celebrated the Christ mass on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion. That was the date of two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti, the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun,” and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier.
Since pagans already honored deities with some parallels to the true God, church leaders decided to appropriate the date by substituting their own festival. So in 350 AD, Pope Julius I set the observance of the Christ mass on December 25.
Although Eastern churches initially held on to January 6 as the date for Christ’s birth and baptism, most eventually also adopted December 25, while still celebrating his baptism on January 6. The Armenian Church continues to celebrate the nativity on January 6, while the Western church designates Epiphany as the date the Magi located the Christ child. The earliest English reference to December 25 as Christmas first appeared in late Old English in 1038 as Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ.
Many of our traditional Christmas customs appeared during the Middle Ages. The tradition of reenacting the nativity scene was introduced by Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), when on Christmas Eve 1223, he and his companions worshiped in a cave near Greccio, Italy, surrounded by the traditional oxen, sheep, and donkeys. Saint Francis’ friars wrote the first festive songs that became the first Christmas carols. By the fourteenth century, carols were firmly established as a treasured part of the religious observance of Christ’s birthday.
Although the pagan origins of the date of Christmas and of many Christmas traditions have caused opposition to the holiday from the beginning, in general the church has viewed efforts to reshape the surrounding secular culture in a positive light. In 320 one theologian wrote, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”
And to that, I say, Amen!
Tomorrow we’ll talk about our traditional Christmas symbols and their meanings. Be sure to stop by!