Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Origin of Christmas

If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, why do we celebrate it at that particular time? There are no records of the early church even celebrating Jesus' birth, so a logical question would be why and when did the world begin to do so?

The first mention of December 25 was in the Calendar of Philocalus in 354 A.D. In it Jesus' birthday was assumed to be December 25, 1 A.D. This calendar was compiled sometime after Emperor Constantine's "Edict of Milan" in A.D. 313. This edict in essence ended the persecution of Christians which had previously been the hallmark of the previous governments in Rome, and allowed Christians to practice their faith publicly without fear of persecution. But why choose the date of December 25th to celebrate Christ's birth when there was sufficient evidence to support a September birth?

The answer to that question may be found in an understanding of the times in which the edict of Constantine was made. Up until this time, the world, with the exception of believers of Christianity, could best be described as pagan. As such, it should not be a surprise to find that the pagan world had it's celebrations and holidays as well. When the emperor Constantine published his edict, the church was faced with the problem of a calendar which would include holidays from both Christianity and paganism. It would appear then that their answer in resolving that dilemma was to substitute the Christian holiday for the pagan celebration. If that answer seems strange to you let's take a moment to look at the origins of what we celebrate during this season of the year.

The date of December 25 was officially set by the church in 440 A.D. in an apparent attempt to replace the existing Roman holiday called Saturnalia. Most pagan religions throughout history have worshipped the sun in one form or another as the provider of warmth and light. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere. It was at this time in the month of December that pagan celebrations were created in an attempt to please the sun gods so the days would again become long and the sun would begin to stay in the sky longer.

Genesis 10:8-10 introduces us to Nimrod, founder of Babylon, a city which has become synonymous with rebellion against God. Isaiah 47 clearly tells us that the occultic traditions and practices we know about had their origins in Babylon. Nimrod and his queen Semiramis had a son called Tammuz who was thought to have died during the winter solstice. The tradition arose that his death would be memorialized by burning a log in the fire. The Chaldean word for infant is Yule, and this seems to be the origin of the tradition of burning the "Yule Log". The next day, after the yule log had burned, it was replaced by a decorated tree. Is this story starting to sound familiar?

The Romans also worshipped the god Saturn. His celebration occured on December 17, at which time the people would decorate their homes with evergreen boughs and give presents to one another. The roman emperor Aurelian, 270-275 A.D., combined the solstice celebrations of the pagan gods Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, and Thseus into one celebration called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on December 25 as well.

So is it hard to understand why the church fathers would choose to proclaim December 25 as the official date of Jesus' birth? By doing so, they tried to replace the pagan celebrations with what they considered to be one of the most important reasons the world has to celebrate, the birth of our Savior and Lord.
As such, the obvious question that comes to mind is what can we do as believers to see that Christmas remains a celebration of the birth of Christ, and not the commercial event it has become?

Possibly one way would be to truly study the story of Jesus' birth to find the things that make it unique, and obviously divine in nature. One of my favorites is found in the presents brought to the child Jesus by the wise men. I'm sure most, if not all of you can tell me the names of those three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But my question to you is what is the significance of those particular gifts? You see, at that time the gift of gold would signify His deity; it was a gift given to a king. The frankincense would by symbolic of His purity; in Jesus' case obviously His sinlessness. However, what was the meaning of the gift of myrrh? The truth is, myrrh was a spice used in embalming bodies after death, so what sort of gift is that to give to a child? Well in hindsight, we can argue these gifts were prophetic in that they celebrated not only Jesus' deity and purity, but His coming death as a sacrifice for all men. How so? Look at Isaiah 60:6 where we are told of the gifts brought to Jesus after He comes again the second time. Notice they bring gold and frankincense, but no myrrh? The reason for that is that He only had to die once, and that has already been accomplished for us as the greatest gift we could ever receive.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, I hope we can all remember that we as believers need, especially at this time of year, to remind those around us that we are not wishing Happy Holidays but Merry Christmas, remembering the greatest gift of all.

Remember, as believers we need to keep Christ in Christmas, because if we don't, who will?