(Apologies to those of you who read this post last year)
What are the origins of the Christmas festival? The Christian church points to the significance of the festival as the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Sceptics and atheists, however, delight in pointing out that the festival has its roots in pagan festivals celebrating the winter solstice, December 25th, in the ancient Roman calendar. They point out that Christians hijacked these festivals in the 4th century and attributed Christian meaning to them. So how did Christmas originate, and what implications does this have for us today?
Firstly, let’s acknowledge that we don’t know the precise year of Christ’s birth. He certainly wasn’t born in the year 1 A.D. The Christian era, supposed to have its starting point in the year of Jesus birth, is based on a miscalculation introduced in 533 A.D. by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, the abbot of a Roman monastery. When attempting to calculate the year of Christ’s birth, Exiguus made a simple mathematical error that was not picked up for centuries! More reliable subsequent historical research indicates that Jesus was probably born between 6 – 4 B.C. This leaves us with the somewhat bizarre fact that Christ was born 4 to 6 years before Christ (B.C.)! If we split the difference and call it 5 B.C., it also means that, technically, if we were to correct our modern Gregorian calendar, this is the year 2024.
Secondly, we have no idea of the actual date of Christ’s birth. What we can be sure of, however, is that it was almost certainly not December 25th. Why? Because of a strong clue provided by Luke’s Gospel. Luke 2:8-11 tells us, “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, saying …. “Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you …”.” Significantly, historically and still today, shepherds in the middle east only camp out in the fields with their sheep during the summer months. During winter, particularly from November to March, sub-zero temperatures at night force the shepherds to keep their sheep in barns and protected areas close to their houses. Luke’s reference to shepherds living in the fields with their sheep at night, is a clear indication that Jesus was born in the warmer months of the year – certainly not December. An early bishop, Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200 A.D, refers to some ancient texts (no longer extant) that variously proclaim the dates of May 20, April 20 and April 21 as Christ’s birth date.
How, then, did Christmas come to be celebrated on December 25th? It might surprise many Christians today that Christmas, as a Christian festival, did not exist prior to the middle of the 4th century. It is not included in various official lists of Christian festivals, published by the early church fathers; Iranaeus, Tertullian and Origen. The first record of a Christmas celebration is in 336 A.D. in Rome. The feast only became widespread in the Roman empire after the death of the emperor Valens in 378 A.D. The sceptics are correct in pointing out that Christmas was an adaptation of the pre-existing pagan festival of Saturnalia – the celebration of the winter equinox. This was a week long pagan festival of debauchery and lawlessness, from 17 – 25th of December. Courts were closed during this time and Roman law dictated that no -one could be punished for damage to property or people during the festival. Drunken street parties abounded, with bands of naked people roaming the streets singing bawdy songs. Rape and sexual assault was rampant, as was theft and murder. The Christian church, seeking to curb the licentiousness of this pagan practice while still providing the populace with a holiday festival, adopted it as a Christian festival celebrating the birth of Christ. The naked carousing through the streets was sanitised and slowly transformed into modern day carolling – the singing of hymns in the streets. Unfortunately, the newly named festival did little to curb the debauched behaviour of many within the community. For several more decades, the celebration of Christmas was marred by drunkenness, violence and sexual immorality within the wider community.
Because of its known pagan origins, Christmas was banned by the Puritans, and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.
As well as the origin of the date, December 25th, there are also some fascinating pagan origins of many of the symbols that we associate with Christmas today, such as Christmas trees, Santa Claus, holly and mistletoe. Look them up yourself – they are quite fascinating! Gift-giving at Christmas time, for example, is a relatively modern adaptation – originating with Queen Victoria’s gifts to her family in 1841.
Are these pagan origins of Christianity cause for concern? Not at all. In fact, I want to suggest that the transformation of a pagan ceremony into a profoundly significant Christian one is indicative of the transformative power of the gospel. When a sinner is impacted by the gospel of God’s grace, his or her life is transformed. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). When enough people are similarly transformed, society itself is impacted. Like salt that halts decay and exerts a preservative influence within food, the gospel has the power to transform morals, social conventions and festivals within a whole society. The transformation of Saturnalia into Christmas is a metaphorical depiction of the redeeming power of the gospel.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, the reverse is occurring. The rising tide of secularism has hijacked Christmas for itself. As Christianity has become increasingly marginalised, the festival has degenerated into a celebration of materialism and self-indulgence once again. The challenge facing the Christian church is to proclaim the true message of Christmas to a world that is increasingly disinterested in that message.
And what is the Christmas message? “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Humanity was so lostthat the only means of rescue was for God to enter our world in human form. Humanity was so sinful that the only means of restitution was for God to die, in the flesh, in our place. Humanity was so loved that God sent us the greatest gift of all – His Son, born as a humble baby, crucified as a suffering servant, risen as the exalted King.
Happy Christmas everyone!