From time to time much is made of “keeping Christ in Christmas.” The interesting thing is, for four centuries Christians didn’t celebrate Christ’s birth. In fact, to this day no one is sure what date or even what year Christ was born.
Many people speculate that His birth likely occurred in the spring rather than in winter because the shepherds were staying out in the field. But Judea is in the Mediterranean climate zone. Their temperatures would likely have been akin to Southern California, and therefore mild by the standards of those in a northern region. Certainly the colder nights wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Jesus was born in the winter, but we have no evidence one way or the other.
As to the year, the Romans didn’t start numbering their calendar AD 1 because they heard rumors of a new king born in Judea. The system of numbering years before or after Christ’s birth came much later, devised by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century. Based on his calculations, then, the years following the date he assigned to Jesus’s birth began from 1 forward.
However, historical and Biblical scholarship suggest that Jesus was actually born some two to seven years earlier, depending on which of several questionable dates a person accepts. The process requires taking context clues in the Bible and reconciling them with known historical data. However, the “known historical data” isn’t always precise, and in some instances it’s contradictory.
For example, the Bible clearly states that Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king (Matt. 2:1). History doesn’t agree when precisely Herod died. If he died in BC 4 as many scholars have thought, then clearly Jesus had to be born earlier—perhaps two or three years earlier since the magi may have seen the birth star the night Jesus was born, then began their trip that may have taken as long as two year.
The point is, we don’t have a precise date. Scholars have looked at the calculations of a number of early church leaders who mostly suggest Jesus was born between BC 2 and BC 3. But the point I want to make here is, Christ’s birth was not something the early church thought was so significant that they needed to mark the day and institute a celebration.
Nowhere in the Bible is any mention of celebrating Christ’s birth.
What Jesus Himself instituted was the commemoration of His death with the celebration of communion.
The Bible is pretty big on commemorations, though, which means, God is big on commemorations. He instituted several key feasts and celebrations—holy convocations—the Jews were required to celebrate: Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles. There were daily worship activities and weekly ones. There were commemorative stones, and a celebration that required the people to build booths they lived in for a week. On and on God gave His people objects and events intended to remind them of Him and their relationship to Him.
So no surprise that Jesus, upon establishing the New Covenant, instituted the celebration, the commemoration, of His death.
But what about His birth?
I certainly don’t think God would forbid believers to set aside a day as “Jesus’s birthday,” but He also did not command us to keep such a day. How then did the Church create the tradition of celebrating Christmas?
Apparently in the fourth century in Europe (before Dionysius Exiguus had made his calculation—or miscalculation—about the year of Jesus’s birth), Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the official day to celebrate the Advent. His reasons seem to have involved bringing people into the church and taming some of the raucous pagan celebrations that occurred in December.
The middle of winter was a time of celebration in various places around the world, some because of the winter solstice, some as part of worship of a pagan god. For instance, in Germany the honored Oden and in Rome, Saturn.
The early Church was most likely affected by Saturnalia, a four week period of raucous hedonism in celebration of Saturn. Also around this time the Romans held a festival celebrating children, and another one to celebrate the birthday of Mithra, “the god of the unconquerable sun . . . For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year” (“History of Christmas“).
The establishment of Christmas, then, seems to have been a “Christian version” of the pagan festivities. The practice spread. By the end of the 8th century the celebration of Christmas had found its way as far north as Scandinavia.
Not until the seventeenth century—after the Reformation—did Christmas take on the religious nature Christians generally associate it with today.
No surprise, then, that the culture has worked hard to reclaim what was once theirs.
I’ve thought more about the merging of the religious with the secular of late, in part because of my reading in I and II Kings. Compromise was the watch word of those years. Worship, God, sure, but also worship Baal and Molech and the Ashtoreth and Chemosh. Sacrifice to Yahweh in the temple, but to Baal on the high places.
The path of Israel’s departure from God is a litany of disobedient acts, prompted by a desire to be like the nations around them.
Human nature being what it is, we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that today professing Christians are moving toward our culture in our behavior, more than we are moving toward God in a desire to be holy because He is Holy (see 1 Peter 1).
We see it in Christmas. We shouldn’t expect our culture to celebrate Christmas the way believers do, but we’ve been handed an opportunity to make Christ known.
If we’re obnoxious and demanding and short-tempered, or if we see Christmas as another excuse for a party, how are we different from that which we’re not to conform ourselves to? But if we live according to the Spirit who dwells in us, the world can learn of God’s patience and love and forgiveness.
And our celebration can go down deeper. We can proclaim the name of Jesus, God Incarnate, God with us, God Who left His throne to reveal Himself to us, that we might be born again. There’s a gift worth giving away.