Posted on

Christmas and the Early Church

Dear Kerugma Supporter,

The angels announced to the shepherds on the fields of Bethlehem: “… for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luk 2:11). Which day did the angel refer to? I don’t mean Monday or Sunday, but which day of the year was it? In other words, on which date was Jesus born?

We are used to celebrating His birthday on 25 December. Municipalities put up special Christmas lights, businesses grab the opportunity by commercialising the day and families make arrangements to spend the day together. Big meals are planned as well as special church services. (But sadly, people without families are just as lonely as ever.)

We know 25 December as a special, but also very controversial day, with the controversy especially being about the origin of the date. While many declare it as the celebration of some or other pagan feast. But what is the truth about 25 December? Every year, for as long as I can remember I have heard varying explanations of the origins and customs of the celebration of Christmas as being on 25 December. Over all these years, I must confess that I never heard the same explanation twice. Now what is the truth about this day and date? Can a child of God wish others blessings on Christmas day?

The question is: how does a child of God celebrate the birthday of the Lord Jesus? Is the 25th of December the correct day or is it the truth that it is a pagan day that should be avoided?

Please grant me the opportunity to explain what caused the celebration of the birthday of Jesus to fall on 25 December. Much of this information I acquired from an article by Andrew McGowan titled, How December 25 Became Christmas (Biblical Archaeology Society, 12 December 2018).

As explained by Dr. Randall Smith in 7 Days That Changed The World, the Jews in the time of Jesus did not celebrate a person’s birthday, but his life was remembered on the day of his death. Therefore Jesus’ birthday was not remembered, neither celebrated – initially. We will later see why they did not make much of birthdays in those days. Thus we find that for the first two centuries after the birth of Christ, church fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen regarded the celebration of birthdays as a pagan custom. The Western tradition of celebrating birthdays was not known to them. Therefore, as far as we know, there is no proof found that the birthday of Jesus was ever celebrated during the first two centuries.

On the contrary it is clear that the day of his death, later known as Good Friday, was indeed remembered during this time every year on 15 Nisan, as recorded by the different gospels. Nisan is the Hebrew month that is more or less the same time as March to April on our calendar with 15 Nisan and 25 March on the same day. We will come back to the importance of this day.

When the Gospel was proclaimed to the nations and more and more gentiles came to faith in Jesus, a change came about regarding the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. From 200 AD we find indications of dates on which the children of the Lord started to celebrate the birth of Jesus. By 300 AD there were two dates children of the Lord used to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The one was 25 December and used in the Western Roman Empire and the other was 6 January that was used in the East, especially in Egypt and Asia Minor. Today these two dates are still used in these parts of the world. What we therefore do know is that about 300 years after the birth of Jesus, His birthday was celebrated on these two dates in the middle of winter. But how did these Christians, who were severely persecuted, decide on these dates?

Today there are 2 theories about that and the best known is that Christians took over the date of a pagan feast. The Bible Commentator, Dionysius bar-Salibi wrote in the 12th century that Christmas was moved from 6 January to 25 December especially to fall on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday including the Saturnalia feast. The Romans celebrated these feasts with the “revival” of the sun on the shortest day of the year always on 20, 21, 22 or 23 December. Shorter days with less hours of sunlight led the superstitious Romans to believe that their god became weaker and sicker. Longer days and more sunlight for them meant that their god recovered again. They then celebrated the revival of the god on the shortest day of the year with big celebrations. The Roman emperor Aurelian in 274 AD moved the date of the feast for the birth of the Unconquered Sun with a few days and fixed it on 25 December. Biblical scholars in the 18th en 19th century, on these grounds and following Dionysius bar-Salibi, then said that because the early Christians did not know on which day Jesus was born, they would take over the pagan celebration of Saturnalia on 25 December.

It was also suggested that the early Christians chose that day as Jesus’ birthday to spread Christianity right through the Roman Empire. The reason being that if Christmas was celebrated as a pagan holiday, more Romans would then be inclined towards accepting the God whose birth was celebrated.

Other people like the great historian, Will Durant, not being a believer himself, blamed it on the Roman Catholic Church. It can indeed be that some pagan customs over time became part of the way Christmas was celebrated. Some of these customs may have their origin in the Roman Catholic Church. But it was only by 600 AD under Pope Gregory the Great that many of the elements of heathen feasts were added to Christian Feasts. Thus many of the pagan elements in our Christian Feasts originated in the Roman Catholic Church. But is it the Roman Catholic Church that started to celebrate Christmas on 25 December? Research reveals that by the time Constantine declared Christianity as part of the official religion of the Roman Empire, celebrating the birth of Jesus on 25 December was a well-established custom. Without the knowledge of this fact one could get the impression that the Roman Catholic Church initiated the custom – even though it is clear that they contributed much symbolism to the day.

Up and until the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church the Christians were viciously and brutally persecuted especially by Constantine’s predecessor, emperor Diocletian (303-312 C.E.). They were even thrown to animals in arenas to entertain the crowds. It was no time for Christians to try and impress the Romans by a compromise with the celebration of their sun god.

Like McGowan says: “… the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.” He continues: “… we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.”

An interesting development was why the persecuted church decided to celebrate Christmas on 25 December? This will be better understood with some insight into the Jewish way of reasoning, which is still ongoing. I still remember very well how Marina and I as students had the privilege to listen to Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, a Messianic Jew from Romania. After 14 years of continuous physical and psychological torture he could never again stand to preach. Therefore he had to sit down while preaching. We were at a camping site where we listened intently to his testimony over a number of days. He would sit and start to tell a story. It would be a Biblical story but coloured by Jewish traditions. Many times he surprised us by bringing together aspects of faith that we with our Western logic would never be able to do. Still there was always a clear message or conclusion that left a deep impression on us.

He would start with something and at the conclusion of his message he would surprise the audience by ending with the same original concept. It was as though he would carry a concept through a full cycle – having it finish back where it had started. Someone referred to this way of teaching as a “ring composition”. This is something that one often comes across when reading the Bible in the original Greek or Hebrew.

A good example of this is Peter’s discourse of the concept of the “new birth” in a ring composition in 1 Peter 1 where he explains the concept in a cycle from verse 3 to verse 23.

We, with our logical Greek and Western mind set, reason linearly. We tend to think in straight lines and in terms of cause and effect. When we have ten children and one is first and the other last, we see them in a line with one on the one end and the other on the other end. When we read that Jesus is the first and the last (Rev. 2:8), we do not realise what it actually means because we do not think in Middle-Eastern terms. But when you have the ten children in a circle, who would then be the first and the last? You see, when they sit in a circle, the dynamics of the meaning of “first” and “last” changes completely.

Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega (the A to Z in our alphabet), the beginning and the end …” (Rev 1:8). For Westerners, this may be a difficult concept to understand. But Jesus finishes his sentence by explaining: “… who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” When you bring together the beginning and the end by not looking at it linearly, but like a circle where the first and the last overlap, the meaning changes completely. Then we understand how it is possible for Him Who “is” now “was” earlier and also “is to come”.

So for example the Biblical people saw a person’s life as a circle that had to be completed. For a Westerner life starts with a person’s birth and ends with his death. On the other hand, for the Jew, it starts with the conception of the embryo in a mother’s womb and ends when he dies. Therefore the day of birth as such is not of much importance to them. The person already exists for 9 months and just continues living. They also see life as a completed circle. As a cycle that starts at conception and reaches completion at death. The day on which life starts is the same as the day when it ends. In the same way, strange as it may seem to us, the first Christians dated Jesus’ birth according to the date of his conception and death. A reminder that His conception held the promise of salvation by his death.

And when was that? We saw earlier that it was on 15 Nisan or then 25 March! Now you can do the calculation: If Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb on 25 March, on which day was the Son of God born nine months later?

The only problem with that is that His birth in Bethlehem then would be in the middle of the cold winter months where sheep were kept in the back part of the house at night. (See Dr Randall Smith’s DVDs Psalm 23 – The Shepherd And His Sheep en How Jesus Grew Up – A Visit To Nazareth). The angels announced his birth to the shepherds in the open fields of Bethlehem (Luke 2:8). That must have been during the long summer months when the shepherds kept their sheep in the desert between Bethlehem and Jericho. Where they slowly and for weeks on end, moved their herds from pasture to pasture.

This information is relevant for us so that we may know that he was not actually born on 25 December, but at a different time of year. However, it was no problem for the early Christians who believed that He as the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, was conceived and ended His life on 15 Nisan. Although we know on which date he died, we do not know on which date He was born. It is however very important that He was born and that on 15 Nisan He paid the highest price on the cross by shedding his blood for our sins to reconcile us to the Father.

The children of the Lord therefore did not capture a pagan feast. But why would a pagan like Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD move the celebration of the “revival” of the Roman sun god? The shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere does not fall on the same day every year, but alternates between 20, 21, 22 and 23 December. Why then did he choose 25 December? Was it possibly part of his persecution of the followers of Jesus? We do not know, but one day when we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, when we will understand everything, this will also become clear.

What we do know is that our early brothers and sisters in the Lord did not choose 25 December as a compromise, but they wanted to celebrate his birthday to thank Him for becoming like one of us to die in our place and take the punishment for our sin.

Are we sure about these facts? Well, what we definitely know is that by 200 AD there were Christians in the persecuted church who had already started to think about when his birth could have been. It seems that while more and more gentiles (who were accustomed to celebrating birthdays) put their faith in Jesus, the more they wanted to celebrate His birthday. They looked for an opportunity to thank Him for coming to earth and dying for us. We also know that since 250 AD they started to celebrate His birthday on 25 December.

At least it was definitely celebrated on 25 December before the Roman Catholic Church was founded. We therefore know that it was not something started by the Roman Catholic Church. What we do know as that all kinds of pagan rituals were added by the Roman Catholic Church to the feasts and customs of the Church and also to the ways of celebrating Christmas. When we become aware of either pagan or Roman Catholic customs attached to a celebration, we should pray for wisdom as to how to handle the situation.

And while we may not be confronted with anything Roman Catholic or pagan, unbelievers and the secular world tend to make the festivities their own and an excuse for spending, drinking and making merry.

We are not to alienate people from the invitation of God in Jesus Christ (John 3:16) by adopting a confrontational attitude. Jesus is the Way, Truth and Life. He is Love (a Person) and Truth. So our calling and commission is to present Jesus in the fullness of His Gospel (nothing more, nothing less) and to teach it as we practice our belief in obedience and testimony of the “fruits” of faith. Our Lord Jesus left His heavenly glory to bring salvation for a lost world. And He alone is the One Who saves!

I believe that someone who receives the gift of eternal life by grace, is compelled to use every possible opportunity to introduce all those who cross their paths to Jesus Who says, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except by Me” (John 14:6).  Therefore we are encouraged to ask of the Lord, wisdom and “to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us” “of all things pertaining to life and godliness”.

Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin through the working of the Holy Spirit? If not, then call out to Jesus and come to Him with bended knee in confession and repentance before Him. Thank Him in faith, for His sacrifice and washing in His blood and for His forgiveness and setting free.

If you do believe in Jesus, know for sure that just like the persecuted Christians in the Third Century you can celebrate Jesus’ birth with a clear conscience on 25 December and you can thank Him for leaving the glory of his Father’s home to take you with Him and show you His glory (John. 17:24).

Thank you for your prayers and support this past year.
May you enjoy a blessed Christmas time as you celebrate Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Lord.

Naas and Marina le Roux