Why we celebrate Christmas on December 25 was one of my many childhood questions, but the answers afforded me were less than satisfactory. My Sunday school teachers' most common response was emphatic "Yes," but that left me wondering why the bible never said so.
As I grew older, the answers provided became more nuanced, and the emphasis has placed the importance of celebrating God's presence in our world and not the exact birth date of baby Jesus. Of course, then the child within me always wondered, "If the church leadership could set the date, then why didn't they set the date during the summer months when we have better weather?" This line of questioning was never well-received, much less given a thoughtful response. So, why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? When did the tradition begin?
The early church emphasized the resurrection, as there were many more witnesses to his crucifixion than his birth, which by all accounts was not dramatic. It is believed that the origin of the Christmas celebration in December does not become set until sometime in the 2nd century. Three possible origins of the December date exist.
First are the writings of 2nd century Roman Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, who was born in Jerusalem, lived in neighboring Emmaus, and was known as the Libyan Philosopher. In his five-volume work on the world's history, Chronographia, he calculated the period between creation and Jesus as 5500 years. He then placed the incarnation on the first day of AM 5501 (our modern March 25, 1 BC) and implied that the birth of Jesus would have been nine months later, on December 25.
The second possible origin was in the 3rd century, Christians usurping the Roman holiday of Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus), which was celebrated on December 25. This holiday not only marked the return of longer days after the winter solstice but also followed the popular ancient Roman festival in honor of the God Saturn called Saturnalia which were held from December 17 to 23rd. This holiday was celebrated with feasts and exchanging gifts; the gifts exchanged were usually gag gifts or small figurines made of wax or pottery known as sigilaris. December 25 was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, a god of light and loyalty, whose cult was at the time growing popular among Roman soldiers who were placed in the eastern edges of the empire and returned home with new influences.
The third possibility is in 336 AD. During the reign of Constantine, the church in Rome formally began celebrating Christmas on December 25, as he made Christianity the effective religion of the empire. Speculation is that by choosing this date, he had political motives of weakening the established pagan celebrations and strengthening his new empire.
However, celebrating Christmas on December 25 was not generally unaccepted until the 9th century because the Eastern Orthodoxy had preferred commemorating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River at Epiphany, which celebrates his manifestation to the world as the Son of God.
As we enter the season of Advent, a season of waiting for the coming of Jesus, we focus on celebrating the presence of God among us. As we focus on the meaning of Christmas, the issue becomes how we live out the truth about Jesus in our midst. Christmas is more than the date, the gift exchanges, or even feasts, but it is about Christ and Christians embodying Christ in our midst. So this Christmas, let us remember Christ and the grace of God he represents in our midst.