What are the Historical Facts on Christmas?

by Richard Rodas

FOR MILLIONS OF PEOPLE all over the world, “Christmas”, supposedly commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, is a very important religious event. To Anglican, Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches, it certainly is the most popularly observed occasion each year. Their chapels and cathedrals, decorated with evergreens and poinsettias (‘Flor de la Noche Buena’ or Flower of the Holy Night’ in Mexico), reverberate at Christmastime with special hymns, “oratorios”, and carols. No wonder that the author Jane M. Harch wrote that “in its social or festive aspect, December 25, is a curious hybrid of the seasonal traditions of numerous people: Persian, Roman, Norse, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon, among others” (The American Book of Days, p. 1141).1

But is it really the date of the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ? Author Walter Woodburn Hyde, in his book, wrote that “all branches of the Church agree that no data exist for determining the day, month or year of the event nor was such a festival celebrated in Apostolic or early post-Apostolic times” (Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire, p. 249).2 There was at first no general consensus about when the anniversary should be observed—or even whether it should be observed. Origen, the African Catholic Church father and philosopher, wrote in A.D. 245 that it was sinful even to contemplate observing Jesus’ birthday “as though He were a King Pharaoh” (The American Book of Days, p. 1142).

 

‘Birthday of the Sun’

Knowing its shrouded beginning, one should not be surprised that Christmas is surrounded by widespread myths, customs, and traditions. Why December 25 then? What is this date really all about?

Francis X. Weiser, in his book, declared that “the choice of December 25 was influenced by the fact that the Romans, from the time of Emperor Aurelian (275), had celebrated the feast of the sun god (Sol Invictus: the Unconquered Sun) and great pagan religious celebrations of the Mithras cult were held all through the empire” (Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, p. 60).3   Even modern scholars agree that December 25 was selected arbitrarily for “practical purpose rather than as a matter of chronological accuracy” (The American Book of Days, p.1142). The date happens to coincide with the pagan festival of Brumalia or winter solstice. The indications are that the Catholic Church in this way “grasped the opportunity to turn the people away from a purely pagan observance of the winter solstice to a day of adoration of Christ the Lord” (Collier’s Encyclopedia, vol. 6, p. 403).4

Even Pope Gregory I “instructed Augustine of Canterbury, whom he sent to England in 596, to observe old customs, infusing them with Christian significance to propagate the faith” (The American Book of Days, p. 1143). On this liberal policy hinged the continuation of numerous pagan customs now connected with Christmastime. Weiser was accurate in concluding that “it has sometime been said that the Nativity is only a “Christianized pagan festival” (Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, p.60).

‘Candles, Christmas tree, laurels’

Some historians and even other religious authorities are saying that Christmas customs are an evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period—a descent from seasonal, pagan, religious and national practices, hedged about with legend and tradition. Is this true? Do they admit it? Reverend Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons of the Papal Worship, states:” The candles, in some parts of England, lighted on Christmas-eve, and used so long as the festive season lasts, were equally lighted by the Pagans on the eve of the festival of the Babylonian god, to do honour to him: for it was one of the distinguishing peculiarities of his worship to have lighted wax-candles on his altars. The Christmas tree, now so common among us, was equally common in Pagan Rome and Pagan Egypt” (p. 97).5

It is not surprising then that some authorities consider the Christmas tree a

survival of pagan tree worship and traced it to ancient Rome and Egypt. The 6 admitting that candles … were commonly employed in pagan worship” (vol. 3, p. 246).6

How about the mistletoe? The laurels? Or, the evergreens that are also extensively used during Christmas? Are they in any way from Christian origin? Collier’s Encyclopedia, states: “The use of evergreens to decorate homes at Christmas time has an unmistakable pre-Christian origin. During the celebration of the Saturnalis, laurel and other greens and flowers were used extensively for processions and house decorations. … Mistletoe was sacred among the British Druids and was believed to have many miraculous powers. Among the Romans it was a symbol of peace and it was said that when enemies met under it, they discarded their arms and declared a truce. From this come our custom of kissing under the mistletoe: (vol. 6, page 404).

Robert J. Myers, the author of the book Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, further said that mistletoe (a plant with whitish

berries) “is the famous Golden Bough, honored in Norse legend and worship by the Druids. … The Druids, for so they call their wizards, esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree of which it grows, provided only that the tree is and oak … for they believe that whatever grows on these trees is sent from heaven, and is a sign that the tree has been chosen by the god himself” (p. 337).Evergreens are not better than Christmas trees and candles—they all have pagan origins.

 

‘Strenae and Sinterklaas’

One of the more popular practices at Christmas is the exchanging of gifts. It is, some said, an integral part of the season. But again, what is its origin? Collier’s Encyclopedia, states: “The practice of exchanging presents at

Christmas stems from the ancient Roman custom called Strenae. During the Saturnalia Roman citizens used to give ‘good luck’ gifts (strenae) of fruits, pastry, or gold to their friends …” (vol. 6, p.404)

The practice of exchanging gifts at Christmas comes from the customs of Pagan Rome wherein gems, lamps, pastry, gold, and silver coins were exchanged.

Another more recent addition to Christmas is the traditional visit of

Sinterklaas (Dutch word anglicized into Santa Claus). Santa Claus is supposedly the popular form of the name of the semi-legendary St. Nicholas, a bishop of Myra in Lycia in faraway Asia Minor who was imprisoned and tortured under Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. He has become a patron saint of Russia, children, sailors, merchants, and even robbers (Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire, p. 245).   But is St. Nicholas really Santa Claus? Who is really behind the name

Santa Claus? Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, declares: “When the Dutch came to America and established the colony of New Amsterdam, their children enjoyed the traditional ‘visit of St. Nicholas’ on December 5, for the Dutch had kept this ancient Catholic custom even after the Reformation. Later, when England took over the colony and it became New York, the kindly figure of Sinterklaas (pronounced like Santa Claus) soon aroused among the English children the desire of having such a heavenly visitor come to their homes, too. The English settlers were glad and willing to comply with the anxious wish of their children. However, the figure of a Catholic saint and bishop was not acceptable in their eyes, especially since many of them were Presbyterians, to whom a bishop was repugnant. In addition, they did not celebrate the feasts of saints according to the ancient Catholic calendar.   “The dilemma was solved by transferring the visit of the mysterious man whom the Dutch called  from December 5 to Christmas, and by introducing a radical change in the figure itself. It was not merely a ‘disguise’ but the ancient saint was completely replaced by an entirely different character Behind the name Santa Claus actually stands the figure of the pagan Germanic god Thor (after whom Thursday is named). Here, then, is the true origin of our ‘Santa Clause.’ It certainly was a stroke of genius that produced such a charming and attractive figure for our children from the withered pages of pagan mythology” (pp. 84-85).

 

How old is Christmas? 

Did the Church of Christ in the first century celebrate Christmas as what Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches have had done? Was it a religious festival during the time of the apostles? A Catholic priest, Rt. Rev. Msgr. John F. Sullivan, in his book The Externals of the Catholic Church, explains: Not in the Early Church. How old is Christmas Day? … One would naturally think that the anniversary of so great an event as the birth of the Son of God would have been a day of religious joy from the earliest years of the Church, but it is clear that this was not the case. There is no mention it in any of the oldest lists of Church festivals. … There was a great diversity of opinion among ancient authorities as to the birthday of our Blessed Saviour. Many writers, especially of the Eastern Church, assigned an entirely different season of the year from that observed as present. St. Clement of Alexandria quotes some who placed it on the twentieth of April or the twentieth of May, and a very common belief in the Orient was that our Lord was born on the sixth of January” (p. 136)8.

It is indeed impossible to determine the exact birth of Jesus Christ, either from biblical evidence, or from any sound tradition. A Catholic nun Catherine Frederic, even boldly asserts that “formerly Christmas was celebrated on January 6, but Pope Julius I, at the beginning of the fourth century, changed the day to December 25, since the actual date is unknown”

(The Handbook of Catholic Practices, p. 176).9

 

Worship in vain

What is the evil consequence if one will mix his service to God with observance of the commandments of men, like that of Christmas? Apostle Paul, in his letter to Titus 1:14, says: “And not give heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who hate the truth” (Lamsa Translation).   One must show the soundness of his faith by ceasing to give attention to folk tales or commandments of men. Listening the them or observing them causes one to reject and turn his back from the truth which are God’s words (John 17:17, Ibid.). Besides, do observances of festivals or even worship service based upon words of men have value before God’s sight? Jesus Christ our Lord vocally answered such query when He said, “they worship me in vain when they teach the doctrines of the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9, Ibid.). Christmas, even coupled with the monstrous pomposity, elaborate rites, and merriment usually attached to it, cannot be acceptable to God. Even if compounded with religious overtones, it is worthless, for it is merely man-made, or to be exact, a pagan doctrine.

 

Christ is our Passover

Is there a festival that the Christians should perform? A celebration for Christ which the Bible teaches? Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians said: “Clean out therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, so that you may be a new lump, just as you are unleavened. For our Passover is Christ, who was sacrificed for our sake. Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, neither with the leaven of purity and sanctity” (I Cor. 5:7-8, Ibid.).

Man should remove the evil cancer—the wicked person—from himself so that he can stay pure. Apostle Paul said that our Passover is Christ, who has been sacrificed for us. So, he said, let us celebrate the festival by growing strong in the Christian life, leaving entirely behind us the cancerous old life with all its hatred and bitterness. Let us feast instead upon the pure bread of honor and sincerity and truth.

In what way did our Lord Jesus Christ command us to remember Him? The same learned apostle answered: “For I myself received from our Lord that which I also delivered to you, That our Lord Jesus on that very night in which he was betrayed took bread; And when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, Take, eat; this is my body, which is broken for you; this do in remembrance of me. Likewise after supper, he gave also the cup and said, This cup is the new testament in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (I Cor. 11:23-25, Ibid.). Likewise after supper, he gave also the cup and said, This cup is the new testament in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (I Cor.

11:23-25, Ibid.).

Apostle Paul was passing on what was given to him by the Lord—that of the way to remember Him. Whenever one partakes of the bread and drinks from the cup, in short, the Holy Supper, he is affectionately remembering the Lord Jesus Christ. Christmas is nowhere in the lexicon of Jesus nor of any of His apostles.

Is it only through the Holy Supper that we commemorate Jesus? How else can we remember Him? How can we give value to Jesus Christ in our life? The Bible’s answer is: “… let us lay aside every weight and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. And let us look to Jesus, who was the author and the perfecter of our faith and who, instead of the joy which he could have had, endured the cross, suffered shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God. See, therefore, how much he has suffered from the hands of sinners, from those who were a contradiction to themselves, lest you become weary and faint in your soul” (Heb. 12:1-3, Ibid.).

We should strip ourselves of and throw aside every encumbrance— unnecessary weight—and that sin which so deftly and cleverly clings to us. Let us run with patience the particular race—duties and responsibilities—that God has set for us. Keep our eyes on Jesus, our leader and instructor, by remembering His willingness to die a shameful death on the cross that man might have a chance for salvation.

True Christians should clothe themselves with purity and holiness by putting on a behavior marked by tenderhearted pity and mercy, kind feeling, gentle ways and patience—which is long suffering and has the power to endure whatever comes, with good temper.

Most of all, let love guide our life which binds together everything in ideal harmony. Only in this way can the birth of Jesus Christ and His subsequent death bring joy to the world and peace on earth. ☺


 

                                                       References

1 Hatch, Jane M. The American Book of Days, New York: H.W. Wilson, 1978

2 Hyde, Walter Woodburn Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946.

3 Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York,

New York: Paulist Press, 1963.

4 Halsey, William D., Ed. Dir. Collier’s Encyclopedia, vol. 6. U.S.A.: The

Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, 1964.

5  Hislop, Alexander The Two Babylons or the Papal Worship of Nimrod and

His Wife, 2nd American Edition. Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers,

Inc., 1959.

6 Herbermann, Charles G., Ed. The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3. New York:

The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913.

7 Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Boo of American Holidays.

Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972.

8 Sullivan, John F., D.D. The Externals of the Catholic Church: Her

Government, Ceremonies, Festivals, Sacramentals, and Devotions. New

York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1917.

9 Frederic, Catherine, O.S.F. The Handbook of Catholic Practices. New York:

Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1964.

 

 

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