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The Origin of Christmas - Part 1

           The Origin of Christmas  

                          “…from Heaven or from man?”

                                            Part 1

I prayerfully offer the following articles for your personal study and consideration regarding the holiday called ‘Christmas’.  I have tried to provide accurate information from secular history.  To ensure, that, I will give the source(s) from which I quote.  I realize that many are sensitive to any writings on this subject that are not positive and that do not advocate a continuation of present practice.  That is not the purpose for which I write.  I am not concerned with HOW this holiday is celebrated.  I do not question that Jesus is the Christ, or that the Bible sets forth that He is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, man’s Redeemer, or that He is King of kings and Lord of lords.  It is not the giving of gifts that I question, or the happy associations we may have with our families and friends. Such things can be right at any time of the year (or we could make them wrong at any time of the year). Such things are not going to be the focus of this material.  

It is to separate myth from truth on the origin of Christmas . The historical facts and the evidence from the Bible contained in this material speak for themselves.  If there is any perversion of either the internal or external facts, such perversions will be publicly retracted and correction made, as it is not my intention to set forth error on the matter. 

I only ask that you give consideration to the evidence and base your convictions on Scripture, not on tradition.  If the Bible sanctions the celebration of the birth of Jesus as a religious observance, then it is not an option.  If not, then we ought not to do so, for such will not be by faith, and “whatsoever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:15).  

      What about Christmas?

Much of the world is approaching that season of the year known as Christmas.  Regardless of the attitude one holds toward December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth, he is nevertheless affected by the events centering on this date.  In America, where so much commercialism is observed in this connection, perhaps more time is given to this season than any other country on earth.  Probably no single aspect of American life is affected longer than education whether public or private, since most institutions from first grade through university dismiss regular activities for a period of one to three or even four weeks.  

We see and hear so much ado about the birth of Jesus and its relationship to December 25, that it leads us to ask the question: “Where is the only authentic record of the birth of Christ to be found?”  Universally the answer is returned, “Only in the New Testament.”  (Matthew 1 & 2; Luke 1 & 2).  This being the case, a second logical question is: “Does the New Testament anywhere indicate any particular day of any week of any month of any year as the birthday of Jesus?”  The answer is as readily given as the question is asked: “No, there is no indication whatever in the New Testament as to the day, month or year that Jesus was born.  Are we correct, then, when we assert that December 25 is a date set by man, not by God?  Unquestionably this is true.  The external evidence is overwhelming to the effect that Christmas was not even among the earliest festivals of the apostate Roman Church.  Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. V, p. 642, 1960 ed., declares: “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church, and before the 5th century there was no general consensus of opinion as to when it should come in the calendar, whether on January 6, March 25 or December 25.”  This same authority states that “the exact day and year of Christ’s birth have never been satisfactorily settled” (p. 643).    

The next statement to be considered is from McClintock and Strong's Encyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature.  “The observance of Christmas is not of divine origin. The day of Christ's birth cannot be ascertained from the New Testament or, indeed, from any other source."  This is a very definite statement - and it is definitely a statement of facts. Since this is true, let us not be misled by the various statements to the contrary which come from those who, at the best, are uninformed on the subject. And let us not allow our children to be misled into thinking the Bible teaches something it simply does not teach.  Secondly, if Christmas is due religious observance at all, the Bible would give information concerning the matter.  Where do we find this information in the Bible?  The Bible does not inform us as to the exact birthday of the Christ, nor does the Bible authorize us to observe the birthday of the Christ as an act of worship. Hence, to attempt such is to go beyond the limits of divine authority.    

While there are many myths and misconceptions about Christmas, there are some facts that we KNOW. For instance:  

1) We know that the Bible does not reveal the date of Jesus' birth.  God simply did not choose to supply this information.  

2) Biblical evidence indicates that Jesus was almost certainly NOT born on December 25th.  The fact that shepherds were in the field at night tending their flocks on the night that Jesus was born points to a date that would have been in a warmer month of the year.  By late December the flocks would not have been kept out in the fields at night.  

3) The religious observance of Jesus' birth did not begin until several centuries after the New Testament was written.  There is nothing in the New Testament that indicates a special "Christmas" celebration by first century Christians.  

4) Many historical references confirm that December 25th was designated by the Catholic Church as a day to celebrate the birth of Christ.  This celebration first took place in Rome around 350AD.  There is clear evidence that this date was chosen to divert a longstanding pagan tradition of worshiping the sun at this time of year.  

We KNOW that Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago.  He came to save lost men from their sins (Luke 19:10).  We are grateful beyond measure for the wonderful gift that God gave us in sending His Son to this earth.  But the Scriptures give us no authority for a special religious observance of His birth (Colossians 3:17).  

Is there evidence against the December 25?   Yes, both external and internal.   Outside the New Testament, evidence of uncertainty is found in the various dates already mentioned several centuries after the Lord’s resurrection.   The “first certain mention” of December 25 as the birthday of Christ, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, was not till the year 354.  

Evidence from the text denies the December 25 date, as is set forth in the following observations: “When He was born, the shepherds were keeping watch by night over their flocks in the wilderness of Judea; and, since the flocks were taken out to pasture about Passover-time and kept until the middle of October when winter set in, His birth fell betwixt April and October” (David Smith, The Days of His Flesh, pp. 12, 13).

“The climate was mild, and to keep their flocks from straying, they spent the night with them.  It is also a fact that the Jews sent out their flocks into the mountainous and desert regions during the summer months, and took them up in the latter part of October or the first of November, when the cold weather commenced.  While away in these desert 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 in the year.  Nor is it of 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.”  

(Albert Barnes, a Presbyterian in his ‘Notes on the New Testament’, Luke, pp. 18, 19) wrote: The truth is that the keeping of December 25 as a “holy day” in celebration of Christ’s birth is a combination of Roman paganism and Roman Catholicism.

In this same connection, World Book Encyclopedia (Vol. 3, p. 416, 1960 ed.) declares: “In A.D. 354, Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate on December 25.   He probably chose this date because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the sun…For many years, people observed Christmas as a religious festival only.   But they gradually adopted more and more customs unrelated to the church.  In England, during the Middle Ages, Christmas became the merriest day of the year.  Celebrations eventually became so rowdy that the Puritans in England did away with the observance of Christmas by law in 1643.  Colonists in New England copied the English laws.   The blue laws of the Massachusetts Bay and New Haven colonies even outlawed mince pies.  But immigrants brought with them Christmas customs from many lands.”

  The following from Encyclopedia Britannica (op. cit.) is both enlightening and interesting: “CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS” – Christmas customs are an evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period – a descent from seasonal, pagan, religious and national practices, hedged about with legend and tradition.  Their seasonal connections with the pagan feasts of the winter solstice (when the sun reaches its point furthest south) relate them to the beginning of time and their legacy in the birthday of Christ makes them shareholders in the most significant event in the history of the world – an event that gave it a new date, anno Domini.

“In the beginning many of the earth’s inhabitants were sun worshippers because the course of their lives depended on its yearly round in the heavens, and feasts were held to aid it return from distant wanderings.  In the south of Europe, in Egypt and Persia, the sun gods were worshipped with elaborate ceremonies at the season of the winter solstice, as a fitting time to pay tribute to the benign god of plenty, while in Rome the Saturnalia reigned for a week.  In northern lands mid-December was a critical time, for the days became shorter and shorter and the sun was weak and far away.  Thus these ancient peoples held feasts at the same period that Christmas is now observed; they built great bonfires in order to give the winter sun god strength and to bring him back to life again.  When it became apparent that the days were growing longer, there was great rejoicing because of the promise of lengthening days to follow.  Thus, the central idea of the winter solstice – the return of light – became the hope of the world in the birth of Christ, the light of the world.”

“…For several centuries Christmas was solely a church anniversary observed by religious services.  But as Christianity spread among the people of pagan lands, many of the practices of the winter solstice were blended with those of Christianity because of the liberal ruling of Gregory I, the Great, and the co-operation of the missionaries.”

Efforts to ‘divert’ people from pagan practices by creating a religious alternative presentation do not honor Christ.  We are commanded to honor Him by remembering His atoning death on the first day of each week.  His death atoned for our sins, not His birth.

Continued next week.