The Origin of Christmas

A. The word “Christmas” comes from “Christ + Mass”
1. from the Catholic “mass”

2. term first used in 1038 AD

B. Date of Christ’s birthday is unknown: best guess is spring of 6BC

1. year: between 4-7BC

a. Dionysius, a Roman monk, invented a calendar in 526AD

b. A year later it was discovered he made a mistake of several years

2. Month: during wars month (late spring-early fall), certainly not December

a. The shepherds were out in their fields at night

b. December too cold. Shepherds didn’t leave flocks in field but corralled them

3. Day: We have absolutely no idea

a. Dec 25 was birthday of Mithra, Iranian “GOD OF LIGHT”

b. Liberius, Bishop of Rome, ordered adoption of Dec 25 in 354 AD

c. Jesus birthday was celebrated as the “LIGHT OF THE WORLD”

d. He felt this would turn the pagan feast into a “Christian” feast

4. In the year AD 274, when the winter solstice fell on December 25, the pagan Roman emperor Aurelian proclaimed December 25 as Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. In AD 354, Philocalus wrote a Christian martyrology that dates the nativity of Jesus Christ on December 25, and cites an earlier work as backup. From this we can deduce that Christmas was celebrated on the present date as early as AD 335 in Rome. It may be that Christmas was set on this day to supplant the pagan feast, or it may simply be a coincidence. Hippolytus and Tertullian, two early church fathers who lived before the Nicene Council set up our present method of determining the date of Easter, used March 25 as the date of Easter. If this is also the origin of considering March 25 to be the date of His conception, then it is possible that December 25 was calculated from March 25 (instead of the other way around) so that Christmas might be older than the Natilis Solis Invicti. However, there is no evidence dating earlier than AD 335 that Christmas was even celebrated, let alone on December 25.

5. Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol VI Pg 945; Vol 7 Pg 202: “The myth of Mithra formed the origin of the cult of Mithraism, which flourished in the Roman Empire and was for a time the chief rival of Christianity…. One of be most well known festivals of ancient Rome was the saturnalia, a winter festival celebrated from December 17-24. Because it was a time of wild merry making and domestic celebra6ons, businesses, schools, and law Courts were closed so that the public could feast, dance, gamble, and generally enjoy itself to the fullest. December 25, the birthday of Mithra, the Iranian god of light and the contract and the day devoted to the invincible sun, as well as the day after the Saturnalia, was adopted by the church as Christmas, the nativity of Christ, to counteract the effects of these festivals.”

6. “the Jews sent out their flocks into the mountainous and desert regions during the summer months, and then took them up in the latter part of October or the first of November, when the cold weather commenced. While away in these deserts and mountainous regions, it was proper that there should be some one to attend them to keep them from straying, and from the ravages of wolves and other wild beasts. It is probable from this that our Savior was born before the 25th Of December, or before what we call Christmas. At that time it is cold, and especially in the high and mountainous regions about Bethlehem. But the exact time of his birth is unknown; there is no way to ascertain it. By different learned men it has been fixed at each month of the year. Nor is it of any consequence to know the time, if it were, God would have preserved the record of it. Matters of moment are clearly revealed; those which he regards as of no importance are concealed.” (Barnes 2:1819)

7. “Hippolytus seems to have been the first to fix upon Dec. 25. He had reached the conviction that Jesus’s life from conception to crucifixion was precisely thirty-three years and that both events occurred on Mar. 25. By calculating nine months from the annunciation or conception he arrived at Dec. 25 as the day Of Christ ‘s birth. The uncertainty of all the data discredits the computation. There is no historical evidence that our Lord’s birthday was celebrated during the apostolic or postapostolic times. The uncertainty that existed at the beginning of the third century in the mind of Hippolytus and others . . proves that no Christmas festival had been established much before the middle of the century. Jan. 6 was earlier fixed upon as the date of the baptism or spiritual birth of Christ; and the feast of Epiphany (q.v.) was celebrated by the Basilidian Gnostics in the second century . . . and by catholic Christians by about the beginning of the fourth century. The earliest record of the recognition of Dec. 25 as a church festival is in the hilocalian Calendar (copied 354 but representing Roman practice in 336. . .). In the East the celebration of Jan. 6 as the physical as well as the spiritual birthday of the Lord prevailed generally as early as the first half of the fourth century. Chrysostom (in 386) states that the celebration of the birth of Christ ‘according to the flesh’ was not inaugurated at Antioch until ten years before that date. He intimates that this festival approved by himself, was opposed by many. An Armenian writer of the eleventh century states that the Christmas festival; invented in Rome by a heretic Artemon was first celebrated in Constantinople in 373. … How much the calculation of Hippolytus had to do with the fixing of the festival on Dec. 25; and how much the date of the festival depended upon the pagan Brumalia (Dec 25), following the Saturnalia (Dec. 17-24) and celebrating the shortest day in the year and the ‘new sun’ or the beginning of the lengthening of days can not be accurately determined. The pagan Saturnalia and Brumalia were too deeply entrenched in popular custom to be set aside by Christian influence. The recognition of Sunday (the day of Phoebus and Mithras as well as the Lord’s Day) by the emperor Constantine as a legal holiday, along with the influence of Manicheism, which identified the Son of God with the physical sun, may have led Christians of the fourth century to feel the appropriateness of making the birthday of the Son of God coincide with that of the physical sun. The pagan festival with its riot and merrymaking was so popular that Christians were glad of an excuse to continue its celebration with little change in spirit or in manner (Schaff-Herzog. 3:47-48).

C. Origin of various “Christmas” customs:

1. Mistletoe: The Druids considered it sacred, stand under … right to kiss

2. Christmas tree: Jer 10:1-6; Scandinavians worshipped trees. When they became Christians, they introduced the practice to Christmas

3. Tree decorations: The Germans originated; candles represent stare

4. Yule log: The Norse burned huge log once year to Thor, god of thunder.

a. When they became Christians they burned it to Christ

b. Yule-time greetings means “Christmas-time”; Note mix of paganism

5. Exchanging gifts: Christ was given gifts because he was “King of Jews”

a. The people of the east never approach a king without a gift in hand

b. Gifts had nothing to do with His birthday, it was weeks after born.

6. Santa Claus: legend of St Nicolas, Bishop of Myra in Lycia; 300AD a. the belief that he enters house through chimney originated with Norse legend who believed the goddess, Hertha appeared in the fireplace and brought good luck to the house.

7. Nativity scene: In 1223AD, St. Frances of Assisi, filled a church chancel (front part behind railing) with hay, added an ox, an ass and a young mother to sit with her baby.

D. The birth of Jesus according to the Bible:

1. Jesus born: Mt 1:25; Lk 2:1-7

2. Visit of shepherd same night: Lk 2:8-20

3. Jesus’ circumcision at 8 days old: Lk 2:21

4. Jesus presented in temple after days of purification (40 days): Lk 2:22-38

5. Visit of wise men: Mt 2:1-12

6. Flight to Egypt: Mt 2:13-15

7. Male children killed: Mt 2:16-18

8. Return to Nazareth: Lk 2:39; Mt 2:19-23

E. Mistakes commonly made in telling the story of birth of Christ:

1. 3 wise men? Bible says three gifts: gold, frankincense & myrrh: 2 or 10 man could give these gifts

2. Wise men came to Jesus in a house not a manger: Mt 2:11

3. Wise men came when Jesus was at least 40 days old, perhaps 2 years:

a. Jesus was circumcised the 8th day: Lk 2:21

b. Mary completed the 40 days of purification: Lk 2:22 + Lev 12:2-6

c. Jesus taken to Egypt when wise men departed: Nt 2:13

d. Herod questioned them when star first appeared then slaughtered all children 2 years and younger in Bethlehem: Xt 2:7,16

e. Wise men started 100-400 mile 3ourney when they saw star-Jesus born

4. The star first appeared when Jesus was born but didn’t shine over house until wise son arrived

a. Mt 2:9 The star went on before them and stood over house

b. The star didn’t shine over inn’s manger as usually pictured 

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About Kola Ajibola

K. S. Ajibola, a Gospel Preacher working with the church of Christ, Ogo Oluwa, Osogbo, Nigeria.

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