Christmas: Its Meaning and Origin

 

SUMMARY

“Christmas” (Christ Mass) originally referred to the Catholic Mass celebrated at midnight on December 24 in honor of Christ’s birth.

God’s willingness to become a human being reveals that God wants to be close to us, that our human body is God’s good creation, to be one day restored to its original perfection, that the man Jesus was the closest revelation of God’s perfection that He can reveal to this sinful world, and, lastly, that it was consistent with God’s character to be willing to lay aside his divine glory and to be humbled for our salvation.

Christ was born in September or October.  This is indicated by His death at Passover in March or April, by the fact that it still was warm enough for the flocks to be in the field at night, by the custom of the Romans to arrange censuses at a time that would be convenient for the people, and, lastly, because the Feast of Tabernacles, that falls late in September or early in October, was a time of joy and the presence of God, and therefore an appropriate time for the birth of Christ.

Christians did not have “Christmas” during the first two centuries.  This custom entered the church in the third or fourth centuries.  At that time December 25th was the pagan feast of the birthday of the Invincible Sun, when after the winter solstice, the days began to lengthen and the ‘invincible’ sun triumphed again over darkness, and which they celebrated with “the most splendid games”, the kindling of fires, a profusion of light and torches and the decoration of branches and small trees.  This feast had captivated the followers of the cult to such a degree that even after they had been converted to Christianity they continued to celebrate the feast.  To facilitate the acceptance of the faith by the pagan masses, the church found it convenient to institute the 25th of December as the feast of the birth of Christ, to divert them from the pagan feast.

The term “Christmas” is a compound of two words that derive from the Old English CristesMaesses, the Mass of Christ, that is, the Catholic Mass celebrated at midnight on December 24 in honor of Christ’s birth.

THE MEANING OF CHRIST’S BIRTH

God’s willingness to take on human flesh reveals much:

First, God wants to be close to us.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

The word for “dwelt – skene” in Greek, means “to set up a tent.” In Scripture this word does not imply temporary residence. For example, in Revelation 21:3 the new heavens and new earth are described, saying: “Behold the dwelling (tent) of God is with men. He will dwell (pitch his tent) with them, and they shall be his people.”

The notion of God pitching a tent among us implies that He wants to be close to us.

Second, our human body is God’s good creation.

Gnostic “Christians” viewed the material human body as evil and to be discarded at death. They therefore taught that Christ had a human appearance, but no material human body.  John condemns these people as “false prophets”, confirming that everyone “that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2-3).

The fact that Christ was born as a human baby and lived as a human being, tells us that God views our human body as His good creation. He became a man, not to change the nature of our bodies from physical to spiritual because He found a flaw in His original creation, but to redeem and one day restore our bodies to their original perfection.

Third, God Revealed Himself through Jesus.

God always wants to make Himself known to His people, but when Moses asked to see God, God replied, “You cannot see me and live”.

Before sin Adam and Eve enjoyed a perfect relationship with God and lived in the presence of God. But sinful human beings cannot endure the full presence of God.  So God told Moses to hide in a rock when He passed by. Moses caught a brief glance of God’s back, and he returned to his people with his face glowing so bright that he had to put on a veil on his face to protect the people from the glory of God.

But still God desires to reveal himself more fully to the human family. Hebrews 1:1-2 explains that God spoke through the prophets in many ways, but in these last days has spoken to us in His Son. The man Jesus was the closest revelation of God’s perfect holiness that He can reveal to this sinful world:

No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1:18).

He that hath seen me hath seen the Father (John 14:9).

If the Father became man instead of the Son, He would have acted exactly like Jesus acted.

Fourth, God is humble.

Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God … emptied Himself … being made in the likeness of men. … He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

Only eternity will reveal the depth of meaning in the words, “He humbled Himself.” It was consistent with God’s character to be willing to lay aside his divine glory and to be humbled for our salvation.  In Jesus it was revealed that this is how He always is.

We worship a God who dwells infinitely far beyond what we can understand, but also wants to be with us on this earth.

CHRIST WAS BORN IN SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER

It can be shown in a number of ways that Christ was born in September or October.

Firstly, if, as it is generally agreed, Christ was 30 years of age when He was baptized and that His ministry lasted three and one-half years until His death at Passover (March/April), then by backtracking we arrive at the months of September/October for His birth.

Secondly, in the winter the shepherd brought the sheep into a protective corral, while shepherds were watching their flocks in the field at night when Jesus was born (Luke 2:8).

Thirdly, Jesus was born during a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4), and the “Romans were known … to have the people report to their provinces at a time that would be convenient for them. There is no apparent logic to calling the census in the middle of winter. The more logical time … would be after the harvest, in the fall”.  (Barney Kasdan, God’s Appointed Times (Baltimore, MD, 1993), p. 97)

Fourthly, the important events of the plan of salvation are consistently fulfilled on the Holy Days that prefigured them.  (For example the death of Christ at Passover (John 19:14), and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1))  It is therefore very probable that the same principle applies to the amazing birth of Christ.  The Feast of Tabernacles, that falls late in September or early in October, was a time of joy and the presence of God, and therefore an appropriate time for the birth of Christ.  To elaborate:

The Feasts of Trumpets and Atonement were a time of introspection and repentance, but the Feast of Tabernacles was called “the season of our joy.” “You shall keep the feast of booths seven days, when you make your ingathering from your threshing floor and your wine press. You shall rejoice in your feast, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands. ” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).  The themes of rejoicing relate perfectly to the terminology used by the angel to announce Christ’s birth: “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people” (Luke 2:10).

The presence of God is associated with the Feast of Tabernacles because it also commemorated the way God sheltered the Israelites with the tabernacle of His presence during their sojourning in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt.  Also, John saw a new heaven and a new earth, and he heard, ” the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them”.  (Revelation 21:1-3)  This will be the ultimate Feast of Tabernacles, when God dwells among us.

As a time of joy and the presence of the Lord, the Feast of Tabernacles, in September or October, was an appropriate time for Christ to become a human being and pitch His tent among us as our Savior.

THE PAGAN ORIGIN OF DATE OF 25 DECEMBER

There is no mention in the New Testament of an annual celebration of the birth of Christ.  Neither is there a clear indication of such a celebration during the first two centuries.  The Early Christians rather annually commemorated Christ’s death and resurrection at Passover.  A major controversy erupted in the latter part of the second century over the Passover date, but the date of Christ’s birth did not become an issue until sometimes in the fourth century.  The first explicit indication is found in a Roman calendar of the year 354, which says that on December 25th Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea (T. Mommsen, Chronography of Philocalus of the Year 354, 1850, p. 631).

At the time of the early church December 25th was the pagan feast of the birthday of the Invincible Sun (dies natalis Solis Invicti):

The Philocalian calendar (AD 354) designates December the 25th “The birthday of the invincible one”. (CIL I, part 2, p. 236);

Julian the Apostate, a nephew of Constantine and a devotee of Mithra says: “at the end of the month which is called after Saturn [December], we celebrate in honor of Helios [the Sun] the most splendid games, and we dedicate the festival to the Invincible Sun.” (Julian, TheOrations of Julian, Hymn to King Helios 155, LCL p. 429);

Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among Greeks and Romans, 1960, p. 89: “A very general observance required that on the 25th of December the birth of the ‘new Sun’ should be celebrated, when after the winter solstice, the days began to lengthen and the ‘invincible’ star triumphed again over darkness”;

Both Augustine and Leo the Great strongly reprimanded those Christians who at Christmas worshipped the Sun rather than the birth of Christ:

      • Augustine, Sermo in Nativitate Domini 7, PL 38, 1007 and 1032, enjoins Christians to worship at Christmas not the sun but its Creator;
      • Leo the Great rebukes those Christians who at Christmas celebrated the birth of the sun rather than that of Christ (Sermon 27, In Nativitate Domini, PL 54, 218).)

The date of Christmas was borrowed from this pagan festivity:

An unknown Syrian writer wrote in the margin of the Expositio in Evangelia of Barsalibaeus as follows:  It was a solemn rite among the pagans to celebrate the festival of the rising of the sun on this very day, December 25th. … they were accustomed to kindle fires, to which rites they were accustomed to invite and admit even Christian people. When therefore the Teachers observed that Christians were inclined to this custom, they contrived a council and established on this day the festival of the true Rising.  ( J. S. Assemanus, Bibliotheca orientalis 2, 164, trans. by P. Cotton)

Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion, 1931, pp. 58-65, argues persuasively that many of the customs of the ancient Roman Saturnalia (Dec. 17-23) were transferred to the Christmas season.

Mario Righetti, a renowned Catholic liturgist who is the author of the standard four volumes set on Storia Liturgica—A History of Liturgy, writes:  After the peace the Church of Rome, to facilitate the acceptance of the faith by the pagan masses, found it convenient to institute the 25th of December as the feast of the temporal birth of Christ, to divert them from the pagan feast, celebrated on the same day in honor of the “Invincible Sun” Mithras, the conqueror of darkness. (Mario Righetti, Manuale di Storia Liturgica, 1955, II, p. 67)

In his dissertation The Cult of Sol Invictus, Gaston H. Halsberghe similarly concludes:  The authors whom we consulted on this point are unanimous in admitting the influence of the pagan celebration held in honor of Deus SolInvictus on the 25th of December, the Natalis Invicti, on the Christian celebration of Christmas. … The celebration of the birth of the Sun god, which was accompanied by a profusion of light and torches and the decoration of branches and small trees, had captivated the followers of the cult to such a degree that even after they had been converted to Christianity they continued to celebrate the feast of the birth of the Sun god. (Gaston H. Halsberghe, The Cult of Sol Invictus, 1972, p. 174.)

The adoption of the 25th of December for the celebration of Christmas is therefore a most explicit example of Sun-worship’s influence on the Christian liturgical calendar.

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