A Christian History of Christmas   4 comments

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The Bible never mentions Christmas. The early Christian churches did not celebrate Christ’s birth. They celebrated Christ’s resurrection (which is a topic for Easter), but Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. The apostles and the churches they founded did not celebrate it or commemorate it. In fact, it was about 300 years after Christ’s death before we see the first recorded observance of Christ’s birth. It seems strange to folks nowadays, but the early Christians praised that Jesus Christ was God come in the flesh, but the day of His birth had no relevance to them because Jesus was no longer physically on earth. It was the risen and exalted Christ to whom they looked, not a baby in a manger. So how did we come to celebrate Christmas. Well, there are a lot of contradictory explanations for the celebration.

Some say Christmas was first practiced in Rome in 354 AD under Bishop Liberius, others say it was in the Church at Jerusalem about 440 AD, while still others believe Constantine created it whole-cloth to legitimize the Saturnalia festival around 380 AD. Which tells me that nobody really knows and that it is likely that the celebration of Christ’s birth was slowly growing in the churches before Liberius set it among the Saturnalia festival in 354 AD.

Contrary to popular belief, Emperor Constantine did not rescue Christianity from extinction and he had very little to do with most of our traditions and doctrines. Christianity flourished despite the best efforts of his predecessors to destroy it. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, he declared Christianity a legal religion. This ended one of the bloodiest and fiercest persecutions of Christians by the Roman government, called the Diocletian persecution. This edict didn’t make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. That was actually done by the later Emperor Theodosius in 380 AD. Christianity had continued to evangelize despite persecution and it is estimated that 40% the population of the Roman Mediterrean region espoused Christian beliefs by the time Constantine recognized the religion as allowed among other religions. Constantine was just getting on board with what he recognized as inevitable.

As Christianity began to be practiced more by Gentiles than Jews, the Jewish religious ceremonies and holidays were less a part of Christian practice. This is perfectly understandable. The Jerusalem Council in AD 49 allowed Gentles to remain culturally Gentiles while practicing Christianity. They were not required to be circumcised or to observe Jewish rites. But people love ceremonies and festivals, so it is highly likely that Christians were already observing Christ’s birthday around the Roman empire by the time the holiday was fixed to December 25. It may have been celebrated at different times depending on a community’s own cultural calendar. It’s likely that the church in Rome was already celebrating Christ’s birth around the same time as the Saturnalia festival because a persecuted people do not want to seem out of step with their neighbors and what better way to hide your beliefs than to gather when others are celebrating and celebrate something of your own?

Jesus was not born on December 25. Biblical scholars think He was probably born in September. Just because the apostles did not celebrate Christ’s birth does not mean we cannot. There are many things that occur in our world today that were not sanctioned by the apostles. We celebrate the 4th of July as American Independence Day, for example. I do know some people who object strenuously, but there’s no Biblical evidence that the apostles or Jesus would have objected to the celebration of a cultural event. Let’s remember, Jesus and the apostles continued to celebrate their own cultural events throughout their lifetimes while at the same time Jesus’ brother James and the other apostles came to recognize that Gentiles were not Jews and were allowed to put their own cultural stamp on the Christianity they observed.

Jesus was God come to earth, stepped out of glory into human flesh and destined to die for our sin. After His death and resurrection, His birth is easily the greatest event in human history. It makes sense that some early Christians gradually adopted a religious observance of that birth. It may be unfortunate that the church at Rome elected to officially observe the celebration on December 25 and then force the rest of the Christian churches to fall in line. I get why they did that, but they probably should have avoided the connection with Saturnalia.

But in 2015, I am 1600 years after that decision. I did take a pause several times during my younger years to ask God if it offended Him that Christians acknowledge Jesus’ birthday on December 25. He hasn’t gotten back to me, even though He regularly corrects my behavior in other areas.

Christmas is one of those times when we gather with family and friends and it allows us to share our faith in a non-threatening way. If for some reason, the world around me suddenly declared Christmas to be ended, I would still celebrate it. If they changed the date for the celebration, I might well change my observance to that date.

My point is, Christians should – if they want to – observe Jesus’ birth. We should constantly be lifting up praises to God for EVERYTHING He has done for us. In some ways every day of the year is Christmas for Christians. We just happen to call December 25 by that name. If you don’t want to celebrate it then, you don’t have to. But we do and I absolutely do not feel any guidance from God not to

4 responses to “A Christian History of Christmas

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  1. Very nicely done!


  2. A very interesting blog, and a beautiful photo.


  3. Pingback: Christmas Wars | aurorawatcherak

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