Originally published in 2009 on The Virtual Hermitay.
For easier reading, download this essay as a PDF.
Most Western Christians take for granted that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. It’s all about manger scenes, shepherds in the field, and wise men. What most don’t realize is that celebrating Christ’s birth wasn’t even on the agenda of the early church. There are no indications in the writings of the New Testament or the earliest historical writings of the church that there was any interest in celebrating the birth of Christ. The emphasis was on his death and resurrection. Birthdays, in general, were just not that important. In addition, there were no corresponding feasts in the Old Testament (as there are for Easter and Pentecost). In fact, the very idea of observing a birthday was heretical to some believers. Birthday celebrations for long dead gods was an activity relegated to pagan cults. Christians, serving a living God, did not desire to emulate the popular culture of the day.
As late as the third century, Christian theologians such as Origen wrote that birthday celebrations of any sort were unseemly for believers. Arnobius, another early Christian scholar, made fun of the pagan birthday celebrations for their gods. In addition, Christmas (or the Mass of Christ) does not make the list of feast days for the early church as recorded by Irenaeus or Tertullian (Catholic Encyclopedia).
So how did the church get from an open hostility to birthday celebrations to the biggest birthday celebration of the year? Generally, we can surmise that two things led to the church gradually incorporated the observance into its calendar: 1) Christian scholars started trying to pinpoint a date for Jesus’ birth and 2) Emperor Constantine made the Christian religion the official religion of the Roman Empire. A condensed timeline looks like this:
- circa 200 – Clement of Alexandria notes that some Egyptian Christians have assigned a date for the birth of Jesus, placing it on what our modern calendars is May 20. Clement also records that others celebrate the Epiphany on or about what is now January 6.
- circa 273/4 – The date that corresponds to our December 25 was likely fixed as the birth date of Christ. Although this had less to do with an actual date (which no one knows) and more to do with the Christian church supplanting other traditions celebrating the sun/son god(s) of the Roman culture.
- Circa 336 – After Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, we begin to see records of Christmas observances (often combined with the Epiphany, leading to what we now know as the 12 days of Christmas).
- 386 – Chrysostom delivers a Christmas homily in Antioch and uses language that indicates that the feast had been observed for a number of years.
- Fifth century – Pope Leo the Great writes, “For the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body. Although every individual that is called has his own order, and all the sons of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time, yet as the entire body of the faithful being born in the font of baptism is crucified with Christ in His passion, raised again in His resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in His ascension, so with Him are they born in this nativity.”
Christmas, even after its institution as a major feast day for the church, was not without its detractors. English Puritans in the 1600s banned Christmas. They considered it an unholy concoction of the Catholic Church. These Puritan sentiments carried over to the American colonies; Christmas was banned in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681. After the ban ended, colonists celebrated Christmas until after the American Revolution. Residents of the newly established nation sought to separate themselves from England on the religious front as well as the political front. American Christians rejected Christmas as a rite too-closely associated with the Church of England.
It was not until the 1800s that Christmas in the U.S. began to be widely celebrated in a form that we would recognize today. Washington Irving wrote a series of short stories in 1820 that depicted happy Christmas celebrations. Clement Clarke Moore wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas in 1822. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843; it is from this story that we get the phrase “Merry Christmas.” The Christmas tree gained prominence in England in the 1800s and made its way to the U.S. as Americans sought to emulate the Victorian styles of the era. Some of our most popular Christmas carols were first popularized during this time period, including The First Noel, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, O Come all Ye Faithful, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Christmas was made a Federal holiday in 1870, and the first Christmas cards were introduced in 1875.
The more recent history is familiar to us all. From Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas to It’s a Wonderful Life, Christmas traditions and stories have become embedded in our culture. It’s easy to confuse this modern, commercialized celebration for what the ancient Christmas observance was—a holy feast day honoring the birth of the Christ. Current vocal objections to the “war on Christmas” are deaf to the realities of history. Christmas began modestly as a pious celebration of the faith. It has had its proponents and detractors for 2000 years. Amidst the decorations, shopping frenzies, and yuletide parties, the basics of the season have been lost. The “reason for the season” has nothing to do with who says or does not say Merry Christmas. In the words of the good folks over at Advent Conspiracy: “The story of Christ’s birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.” And to quote Leo once more: “For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity.”
Want to skip next year’s Christmas rat race and restore reverence, joy, and love to the season? Try these resources:
I had never experienced a white Christmas until this year. An unusual, record-breaking snow storm hit Oklahoma on Christmas Eve and dropped 14 inches of snow in about 12 hours time. It was beautiful for about the first 3 hours on Christmas Day; now it’s just a cold, wet mess. On the second day of Christmas there has been no sighting of turtle doves, only lots of snow and icy slush.
I hope that when I’m 90 years old I can say, “I remember the ONE white Christmas I witnessed in Oklahoma.”
The light of the Christmas star to you
The warmth of home and hearth to you
The cheer and good will of friends to you
The hope of a childlike heart to you
The joy of a thousand angels to you
The love of the Son and God’s peace to you.
Once again I note Christian media outlets, rightest political outlets, and a few Christian friends lamenting that some stores, groups, companies, etc., say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. They think this profanes the Christian celebration and shows a decline in moral values in the United States. Personally, I don’t think it demonstrates anything other than a generally jolly secular approach to a season filled with a number of different cultural and religious celebrations. Some of the better known traditions, in addition to Christmas, include Hanukkah, al-Hiijah, and Kwanzaa. Some lesser known observances include the Zen Buddhist celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment (Rohatsu) and several different Baha’i feasts and observances. I won’t even get into all the ancient pagan observances that occur at this time of year.
As an Anglican Christian, I follow the liturgical calendar of the Western Christian church. That means that today was the first Sunday of Advent. There are three more Sundays in Advent and then I will celebrate Christmas. There will be 12 days of Christmas and then I will observe Epiphany on January 6. And the church year will continue on to Lent and Easter and Pentecost and right back around to Advent and Christmas. (Read more about the church year at CRI/Voice)
Christmas is a distinctive Christian celebration. You would not know this in the U.S. in the year 2009–not because people greet each other with Happy Holidays while they’re out shopping, but because Christians themselves have replaced shopping for a time of reflection and penance in anticipation of celebrating their Savior’s birth.
I do not care if some retail store says Merry Christmas or Happy Kwanzaa or Happy Holidays or Happy Hanukkah. They are, by their very nature, institutions who serve all customers, regardless of religious affiliation. Why would I expect them to cater only to the Christian and ignore all the others? They are incorporated to do business by a government that guarantees the religious liberty of all who live here, not just Christians. So, it puzzles me that Christians care what a secular institution says or does not say in reference to a religious celebration.
Perhaps Christians would better represent their faith by distancing themselves from the commercialization of the season. Christians, en masse, living out the joy and the hope of the season would say more than a million Merry Christmases from some retailer.