Last weekend my family and I did something astounding – we actually went to see a movie in the theatre. This doesn’t happen much. In fact, for three of our four children that were with us, it has never happened at all. Well, almost never. I think one of them slept through an action-thriller as an infant when my wife and I were determined to have a night out. Either way, this was a family first. We wanted to catch Saving Christmas on opening night.
From Kirk Cameron’s stunning breakdance moves, to the creative historical depiction of Saint Nicholas, this movie was well done and a good source of continuous laughter for all of us. It also had a very serious and intentional message conveyed through both the comedy and serious moments. As I sat through the performance there was a thought that kept coursing through my mind. It was this: Saving Christmas would have never been created ten years ago.
A New Breed of Scrooge
It seems as if the debates over the origin of Christmas and its traditions have swelled over the last decade. Certainly these discussions have been going on for centuries, but never has it been so widespread. In recent years, a new breed of Scrooge has developed along with its adversary – the ardent defenders of family and cultural tradition.
Suddenly Christmas trees, gift giving, lights and Miracle on 34th Street were put on trial. The plaintiffs are usually well meaning and passionate about their faith as they bring their case. They are met with defendants who are equally as passionate regarding their sacred traditions. Bringing charges against competing ideas is one thing, but stepping on the defendant’s childhood memories is altogether different. When you start stepping on three generations of childhood memories, emotions can become pretty tense.
Parents are looking at their grown children as if they have three heads, wondering just where they went wrong in their calling. Some of these grown children are wondering why they were told that Santa ate the milk and cookies and they also want to know why they were never told that no one really knows for sure the day Jesus was born.
Here is the point I want to make. We should not think of all of this as a bad thing. In fact, all of the ideological hustle and bustle around the Christmas season is a very good thing. It means that people are re-evaluating their traditions. They are seeking to become self-conscious in their holiday practices. We live in a time unlike any other in history. Endless amounts of information can be accessed anytime and anywhere. Questions, information and ideas are circulating at an unprecedented rate in our culture.
Our grandparents did not have this luxury. If they wanted to research the origins of a particular holiday they would need to spend countless hours in a university library. In the time it took them to engage the Dewey decimal system in a card catalog to find just one book, we could power up our mobile device and capture enough information to fill a library of our own. When we have questions, we can find answers. This has sparked a rethinking or awakening of sorts in a myriad of areas. For Christians and pagans alike, this includes big questions surrounding our holidays.
Was Jesus Born on December 25th?
Why do we celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December? We don’t see Christians celebrating it in the Bible, so how did the celebration originate? These are some of the good questions that have come up.
By the fourth century we see two dates that were recognized commemorating the birth of Jesus – December 25th in the Western Roman Empire, and January 6th in the East, which eventually become known as Epiphany. The period between the two dates became known as the 12 days of Christmas. So, it was not until 300 years after the birth of Christ that we find Christians celebrating during mid-winter. Prior to that time there was no consensus. Clement of Alexandria even writes of several dates that had been proposed, none of which mention December 25th.[i]
There are two main theories as to how the birth of Christ came to be celebrated on the 25th of December. The first and most popular these days involves a Christian hijacking of the pagan mid-winter holiday of Saturnalia. The Romans celebrated this festival and in addition the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of the Unconquered Sun on December 25th. [ii] This has called into question the integrity of the holiday and steered many towards a syncretistic view of Christmas. They see the festival as the ultimate compromise, fusing pagan worship of false gods with the true worship of the true God incarnate, Jesus Christ.
Interestingly though, it is not until about eight centuries later that this hypothesis takes root.
It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea. They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.[iii]
Whereas Christians did in-fact adapt pagan festivals during the time of Constantine, we don’t have evidence of such adaptations during the era when the dates for Christmas were established. In fact, during that time, “the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays”[iv].
The other theory explaining why the birth of Christ is celebrated on December 25th is not as widely known but is perhaps even more convincing.
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.[v]
Another Christian document from the fourth century reads,
Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.[vi]
Hence, it dates Christ’s birth on the winter solstice. This was not a foreign concept to Augustine either.
For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.[vii]
So what about January 6th? Well, the Eastern Church did not base their calculations off of the Hebrew calendar. They used their local Greek calendar, which placed the death of Jesus on April 6th. Nine months later would be January 6th – Epiphany.
We see both East and West calculating the birth of Christ in reference to his death. In doing so they land on the two dates we associate with the season of Christmas.
Who Owns the Calendar?
Now, let’s stray a bit from the specific origin of Christmas for a moment and look at the more important context. We need to transcend specific dates and address our frame of reference as a whole. When we do, we will see that we are working within the context of a Christian calendar. The entirety of human history is expressed in reference to the Savior of the world. Before Christ (BC) delineates every event prior the historical existence of Jesus Christ. Anno Domini – In the Year of Our Lord – charts the rest of human history in terms of the birth of Christ.
The church – God’s people – provides the basis for our calendar today. God’s ownership of the calendar is significant. The pagan would have it abolished. Think about the French Revolution when they sought to eradicate all religious influence by creating their own calendar. The pagan does not want a beginning and ending in time. They prefer a cyclical calendar with no point of origin and no terminus. A beginning in time points to a creator. An ending points to a final judgment. They recoil at both.
The larger issue in all of the squabbling over the origins of Christmas is the ownership of time by God. He lays claim to the holiday. It is his. He intends for the rhythm of life, year after year, to be dictated by him. He intends for our feasting to be on his terms and in his honor.
He plants within every man the need for merry-making. Even the sourest of Scrooges have to admit a desire for a cadence of festivities.
Man is a creature of festivity, however, and where the Church refuses to set up a festival calendar, men simply use whatever pagan calendar surrounds them. Churches which attack Christmas and Easter as “pagan” holidays (because pagan cultures also celebrate feasts at these times of the year) generally wind up making a big to-do about Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and the Fourth of July, festivals which tend to partake of the genuinely pagan idolatry of nationalism.[viii]
The church has declared ownership over winter solstice. The season is proclaimed as the time in which we will celebrate the coming of the Christ child who would one day die in the place of sinners. When we see the culture throughout the globe celebrating Christmas during this time of year it is a visible testimony to the rule of Christ manifesting itself over the whole earth.
One caution and important note to keep in mind – there is only one feast or festival that Christ’s church has been commanded to keep, and that is the Lord’s Supper. For every ounce of energy we give to discussions surrounding Christmas, we should give even more to ensuring we celebrate this supreme feast in a manner that reflects God’s intent. We may find that the communion meal provides a perspective that we desperately need when discussing these other matters.
A Big Party with No Tree
Well, I began on a personal note and will end on one as well. I have to come clean. Our family doesn’t have a Christmas tree. No doubt this will elicit furrowed brows from some on the right, but those on the left may be equally as disturbed. Why? Because we are quite zealous for going all-out in regards to the Christmas celebration.
Just because we drop some of the more recent traditions associated with the holiday doesn’t mean that we are deficient the merry-making. Music fills the air and wine flows like a red river amidst an epic feast put on by the entire family. We may not exchange as many gifts but that does not mean on that day we are not indulging our desires. If we feast, God would not have us do so with mediocrity. He provides examples of feasting with excellence. One such example is found in Deuteronomy 14.
And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Deuteronomy 14:23-26)
This is certainly not the pattern of the puritans. They once passed a law making it illegal to feast on Christmas. In 1659 they passed a law that imposed a fine on anyone found celebrating Christmas. Now I must say I have some puritan leanings when it comes to working around the holidays instead of using the season as an excuse for laxity. But, if the Christian is to celebrate the birth of Christ, it may as well be along the lines of the saying “go big or go home”.
What’s the point? The debate is not new but it has surged a bit over the last decade or so. The most valuable aspect to the phenomenon is that we are all becoming more aware. All of us are being pushed to becoming more self-conscious with our holiday traditions – whatever they are. This is a good thing and it is true even with pagans. I ran across an article one year imploring non-Christians to take pride in the pagan origins of Christmas. We need to understand that the debate is going on outside of Christian circles from the opposing perspective. These discussions will force everyone on all sides to become more of who they really are. As C.S. Lewis stated,
Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.[ix]
This too is a good thing.
Christmas is Being Saved
So, what we find is that in a very real sense right now, Christmas is in fact being saved. Due to the availability of information, Christians have been able to more fully explore their suspicions about commonly held Christmas traditions, and in doing so, they are becoming more self-conscious and dedicated in their chosen festivities.
The bah-humbugs will come around. In the meantime, I am excited because I see a new generation of Christmas celebrations on the horizon. Some old traditions, some new – but all very purposeful.
Christians own the calendar. Revel in that fact and give God the glory. Go catch Saving Christmas while it is still in theaters and commit to being self-conscious about every celebration in which you partake this year.
[viii]James Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), 192.
[ix] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York, NY: Scribner, 1974), 281.