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How We Got Christmas

If Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, why do we call that his birthday?

Garry D. Nation

The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is one thing, and the celebration of that is another.  How and when did the Christian church actually begin to celebrate Christmas.  Even if you think you know, you may still find some surprises.  I did.

Probably the most detailed and accurate account of how we got Christmas is in an essay by Prof. Oscar Cullmann in his book The Early Church: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology (Wesminster, 1956).  Much of the information in this article comes from that chapter, and has been compared and supplemented by more recent studies and discoveries.

What you will learn in this essay is:

  1. The celebration of Christmas grew out of Christianity itself, and was not merely attached to a pagan celebration.

  2. The theological battles against Gnosticism and Arianism had more to do with Christmas than paganism.

  3. Christians first celebrated the Nativity (Christ’s birth) together with Epiphany (Christ’s baptism).

  4. The Nativity worship services of the churches in the early 300’s looked very much like those of today - many decades before Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25.

  5. December 25, though favored by Constantine, was not decreed by him or by the Council of Nicea.

  6. It took a long time for December 25 to become accepted universally, but a sermon by the great preacher John Chrysostom of Antioch was instrumental in bringing that to pass.

* * *

Just in case you didn’t know—and I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you—December 25 is not the historical birthday of Jesus.  He was not born “on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.”  Shepherds were not out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks in a blizzard.  In fact, that one detail from Luke’s gospel about the shepherds is the only firm time stamp we have for the date of Jesus’ birth--and it tells us not when he was born, but when he was not.  Palestinian shepherds take their sheep out to open pasture from spring through fall.  Winter is the only season Jesus could not have been born.

Why then do we celebrate his birth on December 25?

Indeed, why do we celebrate his birth at all?  The early church did not.  For three centuries it did not.  The birth of Christ was not of great significance to the Christians of that era.  They did not consider it to be an event for special celebration—not that they didn’t like a good feast from time to time.  And it certainly was not because they thought the Savior’s coming into the world was unimportant.

On the contrary, from the earliest days they regarded every Sunday as the Lord’s Day, and with shared fellowship meals they celebrated his resurrection from the dead. 

Succeeding generations of Christians celebrated Easter with enough fervency that, by the mid-2nd century, there was a controversy between the Eastern and Western churches regarding the day and manner of celebration. It was a serious enough issue that the aged Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, made a 3000 mile round-trip to Rome ca. A.D. 155 to make sure the differences between the churches on this issue did not disrupt the unity and communion between them.

After Polycarp’s martyrdom and with the rise of persecution, the churches inaugurated feasts that honored the apostles and commemorated the martyrs.  But those feasts were invariably associated with deaths, not births.  The day of birth was generally considered to be the least important thing about a person.  Origen of Alexandria, the most influential theologian of the third century, thought that the whole idea of celebrating a birthday was a pagan thing that Christians should have nothing to do with, and that only godless men like Pharaoh and Herod celebrated their birthdays.

It started with a Gnostic who had an “Epiphany.”

The churches began to change their thinking on this, not because of cultural pressure but because of a theological argument related to a titanic struggle for the identity of Christianity.  Throughout the second and third centuries the church was in jeopardy of being co-opted by an alien worldview known as Gnosticism.

These were the Gnostic heretics that some historians, biblical scholars, and novelists in our own day are (incomprehensibly) enamored of.  Like the New Age movement of our own day, Gnosticism owned almost as many variations as there were teachers (and there were thousands), but at the core of it there was one central theme: matter is evil, and God has absolutely nothing to do with the material world. Significantly, the Gnostics did not care whether the gospel story was historical fact. They were not interested in facts, only constructing a new Christ myth.

Against this idea the early church fathers (the most influential pastors, thinkers, and leaders of the early churches) held fast to an uncompromising doctrine that Jesus Christ, the Son of God from heaven, was born in this world as a man; that he was a real flesh-and-blood human being who lived, died, and rose again in human history. 

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each carry stories about the birth of Jesus, and a major theme of the Gospel of John is that Jesus is “the light that has come into the world” from heaven. As John also says, “The Word (Christ) became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The theological term for this doctrine is the Incarnation.

As the doctrine of the Incarnation began to increase in importance, especially in the eastern church, the question began to be debated, exactly when was it that God entered the world in Jesus Christ: was it functionally at his baptism (as the Gnostics taught), or in actuality at his birth?

Apparently the first person to lead a celebration of God’s entrance into the world in Christ (according to Clement of Alexandria) was a 2nd century Gnostic heretic in Alexandria named Basilides.  He preached that Christ (the Word, the divine nature) came upon the human Jesus at his baptism, and thus “appeared” on earth at this time. Basilides and his followers therefore celebrated Epiphany (from the Greek word epiphaneia, “appearing”) on January 6, the date of Jesus’ baptism.

Wait - Where does it say that Jesus was baptized on January 6?

You may wonder how they came up with January 6 as the date Jesus was baptized when  the Gospels say nothing about the date.   It so happened no less than three pagan festivals in Alexandria on that date, celebrating Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Alexandrian gods.  Supposedly on the eve of January 6 the Nile had the power to work miracles because a god came into the world through its waters.

Basilides decided this myth offered a great opportunity to promote his doctrine that Jesus received the Spirit of the divine Christ at his baptism in the Jordan. In other words, as we could say that he used the pagan festivals as a marketing gimmick.

The church of Alexandria could have responded by repudiating the feast and everything connected with it, but that would not answer the false doctrines.  Instead, since everybody loves a feast, its leaders instituted a counter-celebration of Epiphany with a corrected theology.

The heretics had separated the man Jesus from the divine Christ, and said that the latter came into the world at Jesus’ baptism.  The orthodox churches, however, did not separate the person of Jesus from that of Christ.  Though Epiphany was at first mainly about the baptism of Jesus, over time other elements of the gospel story were included, including the nativity.

Before Christmas there was Epiphany.

Other churches throughout the east more or less copied the Alexandrian model.  The Alexandrian church eventually brought in virtually every story in which it could be said that the divine Christ “appeared” in addition to his baptism.  For them Epiphany also commemorated the wedding of Cana where the water was turned to wine, the feeding of the multitudes, and others. One episode, however, seemed especially to reverberate among the churches and continued to be associated with Epiphany over the generations: the appearing of the star and the visit of the Magi.

Whether all or any of these events actually occurred historically on January 5 or 6 was never the point.    The point was to celebrate Christ’s “appearing.”

By the early 4th century the theological arguments had shifted, and the most significant discussion was the nature of Christ’s divinity.  Not surprisingly the birth of Jesus was now just as important in the feast of Epiphany as the baptism.  The night of January 5 (Epiphany Eve) had become the festival of Jesus’ birth, and January 6 (Epiphany proper) commemorated his baptism by John.

We may fairly say, then, that Christmas was originally observed on January 6—or more precisely, Christmas Eve was originally on the night of January 5-6.  Churches had liturgies in which there were scripture readings of the nativity stories from Matthew and Luke, interspersed with hymns and choir anthems with Alleluias.  It would all be very familiar to us.

Epiphany seemed to hold a special significance for the Palestinian churches, and they observed it with much splendor and fervency.  Particular emphasis was placed on the theme: Christ, the light that has come into the world. On the night of January 5-6 multitudes of Christians would gather in Bethlehem at the cave where (they supposed) Jesus was born, have an all-night worship service with much singing, march in a pre-dawn processional (with much singing) to Jerusalem to the Church of the Resurrection, brightly lit by thousands of candles, with more singing and prayers. 

Well, perhaps it is too much to call all this a Christmas observance, because it was so much more than a celebration of the nativity.  But all the liturgical elements that are still a part of Christmas worship were in place by the early 4th century.

For example, Prof. Cullmann describes a liturgy contained in an Egyptian papyrus from the early 4th century that celebrates the birth of Christ on January 5th-6th.  Bible readings included narratives from Matthew and Luke concerning the nativity, the shepherds, the Magi, the flight to Egypt, and the return to Nazareth.  Greek hymns would be sung including stanzas such as,

  1. Shepherds in the field tending their flocks were amazed

  2. They fell on their knees and sang

  3. Glory to the Father, Alleluia!

  4. Glory to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit

  5. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

and,

  1. We have seen a sign from heaven,

  2. The shining star.

Cullmann refers to Father Ephraem, a preacher in the Syrian Church in the 4th century, who called the festival of January 6 “the most sublime of Christian festivals,” a day of “tremendous joy” in which “the very walls of the church building … seem to exult on this day, and the children utter nothing but words of happiness.”  Father Ephraem describes homes decked with garlands, and beautiful nocturnal observances on the night of January 5 when the congregation joined in the shepherds’ adoration.  January 6 was the actual day of celebration, combining a commemoration of the worship of the Magi and Jesus’ baptism by John.  Ephraem himself wrote a hymn in which he sought to combine all these elements of Epiphany:

  1. The whole creation proclaims,

  2. The Magi proclaim,

  3. The star proclaims:

  4. Behold the king’s son is here!

  5. The heavens are opened,

  6. The waters of Jordan sparkle,

  7. The dove appears:

  8. This is my beloved son!

There is also an account by a noblewoman named Aetheria, whose pilgrimage led her to spend three years in Palestine.  She was completely captivated by the splendor of the Epiphany celebrations there: multitudes gathering by the light of thousands of candles, singing psalms and hymns to Christ, the Light of the world.  In this account, as in every account of these ancient observances of Epiphany, light is one of the most prominent elements.

The main point is that by the 4th century the elements of what we call “Christmas” were already in place.  The question of whether Christ was born on January 6—or whenever he was born—was entirely secondary if it was even thought of at all.

How then did we back up from January 6 to December 25?  And how did we go from celebrating his coming into the world in a general sense, to celebrating specifically his birthday?

Constantine helped it happen.

Some time between 325 and 355, probably beginning in Rome, the birth of Christ began to be seen as a distinct event to be celebrated in its own right.  There were several reasons for this development.

The most significant factor was theology. The Arian controversy that raged in the early 4th century led to new developments of the doctrine of the Person of Christ.  The Council of Nicea, convened in 325 primarily to deal with the issues raised by Arianism, specifically condemned the teaching which denied that God became incarnate in Jesus at his birth.  Julius, the bishop of Rome, played a particularly active role in these deliberations, and is said to be instrumental in separating the Nativity from Epiphany.

This time the challenge was not from the Gnostics who believed that Jesus became divine at his baptism. Now it was from the Arians who taught that the Son of God was less than God but more than a man.  Up to this time all the celebration of Jesus birth in Epiphany was joined with—and even eclipsed by—by commemoration mainly of his baptism.  Soon after Nicea it became desirable for doctrinal reasons for the churches to see the birth of Christ as a separate event from his baptism.

A second major factor was politics.  Having begun his reign by throwing his allegiance to Christianity, Constantine was keenly interested in leading the Roman Empire away from pagan forms of worship and toward the Christian church.

Constantine was neither a theologian nor an evangelist, but he was determined to make imperial policy the servant of both (or vice versa).  He was, as Cullmann points out, “not so much a Christian as a conscious syncretist: he strove after a synthesis of Christianity and the valuable elements in paganism.”

This is where the Nativity got coupled with the worship of the sun, inaugurating the everlasting debate of which festival co-opted which.

The Romans had worshiped the sun for hundreds of years, but it was especially the hallmark of the Mithraic cult.  Mithraism was especially popular in the Roman army, and in the 3rd century was a serious competitor to Christianity.  One of the major festivals of the pagan world was held in honor of the sun on December 25, the winter solstice in the Julian calendar. The feast of the sun on December 25 was deeply imbedded in Roman culture, and celebrants marked it with great bonfires to hasten the sun’s return.

There was no way Christians in the Roman empire could either ignore or eradicate the pagan festival of light; so their preachers sought to use it to proclaim its own message, perhaps in the hope of some day supplanting it.  They would make reference to the prophecy of the “sun of righteousness” in Malachi 4:2, or to Simeon’s song which acclaimed Christ as the light for the Gentiles (Luke 2:32).  Ambrose of Milan preached a sermon contrasting the pagan and Christian celebrations, calling Christ “our new sun.”  His more illustrious protégé Augustine admonished his flock to worship on not the sun December 25, but him who created the sun.  In the 5th century, Pope Leo the Great upbraided Christians who celebrated December 25 as the birth of the sun rather than the birth of Christ.  Clearly these church leaders did not invent these associations between Christ and the sun, but were trying to keep control of them.  Besides, the theme of the Light of the world was already embedded in the Christian message.

This brings us back to Constantine.  In 321, well before he summoned the bishops to Nicea, Constantine officially authorized a weekly day of rest on the Lord’s Day of the Christians.  It was not a socially controversial decision, because the day was Sunday, the day already dedicated among pagans to the sun god.  Cullmann takes this as a crucial move by Constantine as an indication of his “intention to combine the worship of the sun with the worship of Christ.”  He believes that, while it was not accomplished through an imperial decree as was the dedication of Sunday, it seems “probable that it was as early as Constantine, and through his influence, that the festival of Christ’s birth was changed over to December 25th, the great festival of the sun.”

That was in the western churches, under the influence of Rome.  The eastern churches, however, were not so eager to separate the Nativity from Epiphany.  Those churches had a tendency to resist any suggestions coming from Rome, especially if it meant overturning well-established traditions.  Gregory of Nazianzus, defender of the doctrine of Christ’s deity, brought December 25 Christmas to Constantinople in 379.  Other leading churches in the east were slow to follow suit.

But it was the great preacher John Chrysostom who seems to have turned the tide. From his influential pulpit in Syrian Antioch, on December 20, 386 he preached a sermon in which he urged his flock to celebrate the birth of Christ, “the mother of all festivals … which inspires in all the greatest reverence and awe,” on December 25 - and he makes the case that Christ actually was born that day.  The “proofs” he uses are worthless, but this marks the first known occasion anyone sought to make a point that the actual date of Christ’s birth was significant at all.  His plea was effective in Antioch, which was one of the most influential churches in that region.

Egypt didn’t come around until 431, but Jerusalem dug in its heels and even Jerome could not persuade that church to budge.  It was not until the middle of the 6th century that the Church in Palestine made the transition to December 25.  Afterwards, Cullmann notes, “only one Church, that of the Armenians, whose attitude earned them the reproach of being ‘men with hardened heads and stiff necks,’ has continued down to the present day to commemorate Christ’s birth not on December 25th, but on January 6th.”

So...what?

What are we to make of all this?  Prof. Cullmann draws three conclusions.

  1. 1.The Church has never celebrated Christmas on a historically accurate date.  It hasn’t mattered, and nobody really cared until there was a need to come up with a universal Christmas.  (If there is a problem it has to do with confusions raised in the popular mind when it tries to reconcile the Gospel narratives with the tradition of a winter Nativity—hence the completely mangled story told in “The First Noel” where the poor freezing Shepherds follow the star and the wise men show up while they’re hanging around.)

  2. 2.The dates were chosen to preach a message. Both of the dates on which Christmas has been observed—namely January 6 and December 25—were adopted precisely because they were already being used for pagan festivals.  They were not just any pagan festivals, however, but those that called attention to specific aspects of the Christian message, and were already in competition with Christianity for the attention of the people.  While the emperor’s goal may have been syncretistic, the Christian leaders had a very different end in view: to offer a better use for the date, a better and more meaningful celebration than the pagans could provide.

  3. 3.Christianity, not paganism, created Christmas. “The impulse to celebrate Christ’s birth did not come from outside, but was a consequence of theological reflection on the fact of our redemption, the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ, and condescended to our estate.”

Cullmann correctly observes that, “in the New Testament the central events in the story of Christ are his death and resurrection.  His incarnation must be viewed in light of these events and not vice versa…. The Christian year should not begin at Advent, but with the round of celebrations at Easter.”

That being said, it is fitting to mark the birth of our Lord with a special season of celebration, for the incarnation of the Son of God—the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us—is an event that cannot be passed by unnoticed.  Prof. Cullmann believes it is fitting even that the date we celebrate it is fixed not to a historically accurate point (which is debatable but still unknown), but to a cosmic natural phenomenon.

  1. Since mankind and the rest of creation…form a solidarity, the redemption of man involves the redemption of the whole creation…. Christmas, then, centers our attention on the christocentric character of the New Testament revelation, in which everything, the whole creation, is made to refer to Christ, because it looks for its redemption in him (Romans 8:19,20).

As for me, I can say amen to that.