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Yes, it is that time of year again—Christmas. Once more we think of or otherwise experience the giving of gifts, the viewing of Christmas lights and decorations, family gatherings and meals, and all the other things we have come to expect with this holiday, including the over-the-top commercialization, the watching of sports events on television, and so on. Among a lot of believers there is also the usual quibbling about Christmas. “Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th.” “Santa Claus isn’t real.” “It’s a pagan holiday.” “The Christmas tree is a symbol of evil.” “Only the pagans celebrated birthdays.” “The Catholic Church invented Christmas.” And on and on it goes, year after year after year.


Yes, it happens every year. Okay, so the Lord most likely was not born on December 25th and we should not literally believe in Santa. But as for the rest of it, why can’t we just enjoy the holiday and celebrate the entry of our Lord and Savior into the world? In this article we will learn some things about the history of Christmas and dispel some false information. We will then be reminded that Jesus truly is the reason for the season.


To begin with, the actual date of Christ’s birth has been lost to us, but it is virtually definite that December 25th is not the day. Some have said that shepherds would not have had their animals in the fields (Luke 2:8) that time of year because of the cold, damp weather, but the winter weather in the region of Israel where Christ was born is not usually severely cold, nor is the rain nonstop, so they could have been in the fields in December. The weather cannot be used to discount our Christmas date, but weather was a factor in traveling.


A census had been decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-3), and although the weather in Judea is not normally all that harsh in winter, the traveling conditions for the citizens to be registered still would have been tougher than in the drier, warmer weather which prevails from late April to early October, and in the ancient world, travel was often challenging even under the best conditions. Despite the heavy hand with which the Roman Empire ruled its subjects, those in authority would have considered weather and its effects on travel, so it is extremely unlikely that this decree would have been scheduled during the wet and cold season. There are some who think the Lord was born in March or the first part of April, but the more common belief has been that He was actually born in September or at the latest in early October, and there is a solid reason to believe this.


Continuing on with Luke’s detailed account (Luke 1:5-45), we find that the child who would be John the Baptist was conceived six months before Jesus was. John’s father Zacharias was a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, “of the course of Abijah.” In the days of King David, the king set up 24 divisions (orders) of priests (1 Chronicles, chapter 24). These divisions rotated through the year with each one taking turns at serving for one week. Each division had two weeks of service per year based on the Jewish calendar. (Stay tuned for the soon coming teaching about the Jewish Calendar). Additionally, all the divisions would report to work during Israel’s major festivals. The first week of the course of Abijah’s service would have been in late May or early June. If Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, conceived shortly thereafter, and Jesus six months later, then the Lord’s birth would have been sometime in September, or early October at the very latest. If it was Zachariah’s second week of duty in the course of Abijah, in late November or early December, then the timing of the Savior’s birth would have fallen sometime in March or, at the latest, early April. Since spring is the birthing time for sheep, the shepherds would certainly have been in the fields with their animals then, so the possibility that Jesus could have been born in the spring has some support, but not as much. You see, if Mary and Joseph were traveling to comply with the census in March, it would still be in a time of less favorable travel weather. Remember that considerations were made for this factor by the Roman authority. This makes it much more likely that the Lord was conceived sometime in December and that Joseph and Mary made their journey to comply with the census while the weather was still good, sometime in September.


Another reason why the date of the Lord’s birth is not known to us is that in the early days of the Church, little regard was given to birthdays. Ancient Rome was a thoroughly pagan culture, heavily influenced by Greek mythology and marked with festivals from one end of the year to the other which were dedicated to various false gods and goddesses. One other trait of this culture was the celebration of rulers’ birthdays. These were big events in themselves. The early Christians thus disdained the celebration of birthdays, and the earlier church fathers actually scorned the idea of birthday celebrations. If anything was celebrated, it was the believer’s death from this world and homegoing to heaven. Though the sorrow at their parting was very real, so, too, was it real to their loved ones and fellowsaints that those passing away were going on to be with the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven. So, in the first couple of centuries of Christianity, believers would have been much more apt to celebrate why Jesus came into the world than when.


How, then, did Christmas come to be an observed holiday? By the third century, some things had changed in that the subject of Christ’s birth and the events surrounding it had become of great interest to the Church. In those days a festival called Saturnalia, dedicated to the god Saturn, was observed from December 17 to December 24 in the Roman Empire. Accounts vary on what was done during this weeklong festival. The consensus, however, was that a lot of debauchery took place. The Romans observed the winter solstice on December 25th, and there was also a festival for it, the festival of Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun). Meanwhile, the traditional date of December 25th was arrived at (more accurately, speculated at), sometime in the 200’s, but the first recorded celebration of Christmas on that date was in 336, in Rome.


Constantine, the emperor who encouraged tolerance to Christianity and had a lot of influence on the young Church, was raised in the cult of the Unconquered Sun God. As a convert to Christianity, Constantine made efforts to turn the Empire away from paganism, although in his lifetime Roman culture was still quite pagan, crude, and cruel. It was late in his reign that this first recorded observance of what we know as Christmas took place. By having such a holiday, the Christians had an alternative to all those pagan festivals this time of year, one in which they could celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as well as why He came. Somehow, Christmas played a role in the Arian controversy of the 300’s, Arianism being one of many heretical views of Christ and the Godhead. As a result, Christmas diminished in importance until the coronation of the emperor Charlemagne on Christmas Day in the year 800. From that point the holiday regained its popularity.


Christmas is a shortened form of “Christ’s mass.” This new form appeared as Cristesmaesse in 1038 and Cristes-masse in 1131. The form Christenmas was also used historically, derived from the Middle English (~1150-1500) term Cristenmasse, “Christian mass.” Xmas, an abbreviation of Christmas, is based on the Greek letter chi (pronounced kai) in the word Kristos, meaning “Christ”, the capital letter chi being shaped like an X. The Anglo-Saxons called the feast of this time “midwinter”, and less often, Natiuiteth (Nativity). That term, in turn, derives from the Latin nativitas, meaning “birth.”  Another former common term for Christmas is Yule, also Yuletide. In Old English (before the 1100s) the time of the year called Geola (Yule) corresponded to the December-January period. By the late 1300’s the term Noel (also Nowel) appeared, deriving from the Old French (before the 1300’s) noel or nael, which itself comes from the Latin term natalis (dies), meaning “birth (day).” Incidentally, those Nativity scenes where you see the three wise men visiting the baby Jesus may be cute, but they are not correct. By the time these men arrived to see Him (Matthew 2:1-11), Christ was closer to two years old. Please also take note of the fact that in the Matthew passage Jesus is referred to as a Child, not as a Baby.


The Christmas tree is not derived from an idol such as is described in Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 10:1-16). That passage refers to an idol made from wood cut from a tree and decorated with silver and gold, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian holiday! In fact, this account was written approximately six centuries before Christ was even born. Instead, the first Christmas trees were decorated in Germany by 16th-century Protestants. Among the ornaments were candles, which symbolized Christ, were hung on the tree, and wafers, then later, cookies of various shapes (symbolizing the eucharistic host) were hung on it also. Over time we came to have the types of lighted and decorated Christmas trees we set up today.  And the lights we hang on our Christmas trees and decorate our houses with are based upon the Menorah in the Old Testament Temple burning for eight (8) days with only enough oil supply for one (1) day.  This can be found in the apocryphal books of 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Maccabees.


Santa Claus is based on a real person, Saint Nicholas, a monk who was born around 280 AD in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. He was known for his very godly lifestyle and exceptional generosity. Santa Claus comes from a shortened form of his Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, derived from Sint Nikolaas. He did not own a sleigh or any reindeer. All the stuff we associate with Santa Claus today sprang from numerous traditions and stories which developed over many centuries. While Santa is based on a real person, he himself is a myth. If you have children and you choose as Christians to let your little ones believe in Santa Claus, provide them with the truth behind the legend.


The custom of gift-giving in general is an ancient tradition. It came to be associated with the Christian feast of Christmas. The generosity of Saint Nicholas as well as the account of gifts being given to the Christ Child by the three wise men helped fuel this custom – (see Matthew 2:11). At first it gained traction in various nations and regions, then it fell off for a while, once again returning in popularity in the 1000’s and becoming widespread in Europe around the time of the Protestant Reformation.


Since there were a number of people who misused Christmas as an occasion to practice drunkenness and debauchery, some religious groups, such as the Puritans, disliked it. The Puritans even had the holiday banned in England for a time. The holiday was restored in 1660 but for a while it still held a bad connotation for many people. In the nineteenth century, Christmas gift-giving spread to the United States, and as time went on, Christmas Eve (December 24th) became the most common date for the giving of Christmas gifts in Western culture. We have also inherited various other traditions over the centuries, such as the hanging of wreaths and mistletoe. Despite their origins, using them does not make us guilty of observing a pagan holiday, and although the Roman Catholic Church did sanction Christmas, the idea for it was already being tossed around and the rudiments of it were being observed before the rise of the Roman Catholic Church.


So why do we celebrate Christmas? We celebrate it to mark the arrival of the long-promised Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world on earth in the form of a Man, fully man yet fully divine, the new testament incarnate and the ultimate sacrifice for all sin. The holiday as we observe it includes not only the giving of gifts but also charitable giving to those who are not as well off as we are, and, among us Christians, expressing love to God, all of which certainly embody some valuable Christian traits (Matthew 7:12, 22:37-40).


Love of family, free-willed giving, love of others, and love of God—are they not values which we as Christians are to uphold and practice? And again there is the fact that Jesus Christ came as a human being, a Man, to save the world from sin. To the secular world Christmas is another holiday. They have their own reasons for celebrating it. Those of us who are born again, when we exalt the name of Jesus Christ this time of year, we shed the light of the Gospel into a dark and spiritually dead world. Of course, for us the reason for Christmas should be kept in mind every day of the year, not with constantly putting up trees and ornaments or with constantly boxing and wrapping gifts, but by the way we live out our faith. Every day of the year we should thank God for saving us and providing everyone a Savior so they can be delivered from death unto life if they so choose, and during Christmas we put Jesus Christ on display for the Savior that He is. Thank God for Jesus! Jesus saves! Hallelujah and Merry Christmas!


Matthew 1:20-23:  But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”


John 3:16-17, 10:16:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”… “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”



NOTE:  Much of the material about Christmas in this article is derived from the Wikipedia articles “Christmas” and “Saint Nicholas.” Retrieved 12/20-22/2021. Reviewed 11/26/2022.

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