History Records that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Palestine in a manger. The manger was most likely a stone trough located in a cave where the animals were sheltered. He was born somewhere between 6 and 4 B.C and most likely not on December 25th.

So if Jesus was not born in December, how did we get to this modern tradition of celebrating His birth at this time every year? Following is some history you may enjoy reading.

For the church’s first three centuries, Christmas wasn’t in December-or on the calendar. If observed at all, the celebration of Christ’s birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church’s earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Origen (c. 185 A. D. -c.254 A. D.), for example, preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods!

Not all of Origen’s contemporaries, however, agreed that Christ’s birthday should not be celebrated, and some began to speculate on the date (actual records were apparently long lost). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 A. D. -c.215 A. D.) favored May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c. 170 A. D. -c.236 A. D.) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 A. D. pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c. 69 A. D. -c. 155 A. D.) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ’s birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day.

The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273 A. D., reflects a convergence of Origen’s concern about pagan gods and the church’s identification of God’s son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals “natalis solis invicti” (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true Deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival. Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336 A. D., after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ’s birth and his baptism. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25, celebrating Christ’s birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian Church celebrates his birth on January 6. Incidentally, the Western church does celebrate Epiphany on January 6, but as the arrival date of the Magi rather than as the date of Christ’s baptism.

Another wrinkle was added in the sixteenth century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most-but not all-of the Christian world has now adopted the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date.

The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fuelled arguments against the holiday. “It’s just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow,” naysayers argue. But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture-including holidays-positively. As a theologian asserted in 320 A. D., “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.”

“Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life.” – Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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