history of christmas
—From Gospel Trumpet in 1911, by F. W. Heinly
reprinted in the Faith and Victory, December 1980

December 25 has not always, since the time of Christ, been celebrated as the birthday of our Savior. According to history, there was in earlier times, no strict uniformity in the day for celebrating the Nativity, the different churches disagreeing as to the exact date. Some favored January 2, some January 6, some celebrated May 20, while others fixed the date on April 18 or 19, and still others on March 28. The uncertainty existing in the minds of the historians at the beginning of the third century proves that there was no formal observance before the middle of the century. We have no historical record that our Lord’s birthday was celebrated during apostolic times.

The first man to fix December 25 as the correct date, seems to have been Hippolytus of the second century. He believed that Jesus’ life from conception to crucifixion was exactly thirty-three years. Since the crucifixion occurred on March 25, Hippolytus calculated that the Annunciation to Mary, or the Conception, took place in the same month, thirty-three years earlier. He decided therefore, that Jesus must have been born in the month of December, on the twenty-fifth day. But the uncertainty of all dates discredits every attempt at fixing the correct date. Indeed, some think it is almost certain that December 25 was not the date of Jesus’ birth; for it is then the height of the rainy season in Judea, and shepherds would not likely have been watching their flocks by night on the plains.

The earliest record of the recognition of December 25 as Christ’s birthday is in the Philocalian Calendar, which shows that the celebration of that date was a Roman practice as early as 336. An Armenian writer of the eleventh century states that the celebration of Christmas was invented in Rome by a heretic and first observed in Constantinople in 373. The present date has never been adopted by the Armenians; they still celebrate January 6. The church at Jerusalem also celebrated January 6, about the middle of the fourth century. At about this time, the Jerusalem bishop asked the bishop at Rome to as come the difficulties of nonconformity between the Eastern and Western churches. It is represented that a calculation based on the supposition that Zacharias’ vision took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, thus favoring December 25 as the date for Christmas, was submitted to the church at Jerusalem, who, nevertheless, persisted in celebrating January 6, until the year 549 or later. In Egypt, the Western birthday was opposed during the early part of the fifth century, but was observed in Alexandria as early as 432.

Owing to the widespread belief in the earlier centuries of Christianity, that Jesus was born spiritually, that is, adopted as the Son of God and exalted to divine rank and power at the time He was baptized by John, the date of His baptism was considered much more important than the date of His physical birth. During these centuries, little attention was given to the date of His birth in the flesh. But by the middle of the fourth century, the former prevalent belief had given place to the doctrine based upon the first chapter of John’s gospel and the Epistles of Paul, maintaining that Jesus existed with the Father from eternity, and that He was absolutely divine from the time of His conception. With the spread of the latter belief, the date of the physical birth of Christ became of greater importance to Christianity.

The date we now celebrate was not fixed by mere accident. The discussions and conclusions of the church fathers doubtless had a great deal to do with fixing December 25; but it is believed that the ancient heathen festivals which were held at the same time of the year, also had a powerful influence over Christianity in deciding the date. Almost all the heathen nations of the early centuries A. D., regarded the winter solstice—the time when the sun reaches its most southern point—as a very important event of the year. It was the beginning of the renewed life of nature and of the gods, and the beginning of the lengthening of days. Especially the more northern countries hailed this point of the winter with great delight; and from the oldest times they celebrated this season with sumptuous festivities. At the winter solstice, the Germans held their great Yule feast in commemoration of the return of the fiery sun-wheel. It is stated that many of the beliefs and usages of the old Germans and also of the Romans were carried over from heathenism into Christianity, some of which survive at the present day. Christianity itself added dramatic representations of the birth of Christ and of the first events of His life. This occasioned the composition of the manger songs and numerous Christmas carols. The Christmas trees adorned with lights and gifts were also introduced with the custom of exchanging presents and preparing special Christmas dishes. Thus, Christmas has become a universal social feast day.

December 25 is observed religiously by Roman Catholics and by almost all Protestant bodies. However, the Scotch Presbyterians and the English Nonconformists generally reject religious Christmas observances, holding that such celebration savors too much of Catholicism. It is said that the Puritan founders of New England established Thanksgiving Day as a substitute, in some degree, for Christmas. We as the saints of God observe the day in memory of the birth of our Savior into this world for the salvation of souls, without any regard to the exactness of date. One thing we do know, that He was born “to save his people from their sins,” and that we have by His mercy obtained this salvation. For this greatest of blessings and many kindred benefits, we offer to Him heartfelt devotions on the day generally commemorated as His birthday.

© Church of God Evening Light