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Holidays and Observances

Christmas, Date of

Source: A. H. Newman, "Christmas," The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. 3, p. 47. Copyright 1909 by Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. Used by permission of Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich., present publishers.

Christmas: The supposed anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, occurring on Dec. 25. No sufficient data exist, for the determination of the month or the day of the event. There is no historical evidence that our Lord's birthday was celebrated during the apostolic or early post-apostolic times.

The uncertainty that existed at the beginning of the third century in the minds of Hippolytus and others. Hippolytus earlier favoured Jan. 2, Clement of Alexanderia (Strom., i. 21) "the 25th day of Pachon" (= May 20), while others, according to Clement, fixed upon Apr. 18 or 19 and Mar. 28, proves that no Christmas festival had been established much before the middle of the century. Jan. 6 was earlier fixed upon as the date of the baptism or spiritual birth of Christ, and the feast of Epiphany was celebrated by the Basilidian Gnostics in the second century and by catholic Christians by about the beginning of the fourth century.

The earliest record of the recognition of Dec. 25 as a church festival is in the Philocalian Calendar (copied 354 but representing Roman practise in 336).

Christmas, Date and Origin of

Source: Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1958), pp. 60-62. Copyright 1952 by Francis X. Weiser. Used by permission of the publishers.

[p. 60] The early Christians, who attributed to Christ not only the title (Kyrios) but also many other honours that the pagans paid to their "divine" emperors, naturally felt inclined to honour the birth of the Saviour. In most places the commemoration of Christ's birth was included in the Feast of the Epiphany (Manifestations) on January 6, one of the oldest annual feasts.

Soon after the end of the last great persecution, about the year 330, the Church in Rome definitely assigned December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Christ. For a while, many Eastern Churches continued to keep other dates, but toward the end of the fourth century the Roman custom became universal.

No official reason has been handed down in ecclesiastical documents for the choice of this date. Consequently, various explanations have been given to justify the celebration of the Lord's nativity on this particular day. Some early Fathers and writers claimed that December 25 was the actual date of Christ's birth.

[p. 61] It was expressly stated in Rome that the actual date of the Saviour's birth was unknown and that different traditions prevailed in different parts of the world.

A second explanation was of theological-symbolic character. Since the Bible calls the Messiah the "Sun of Justice" (Malachi 4, 2), it was argued that His birth had to coincide with the beginning of a new solar cycle, that is, He had to be born at the time of the winter solstice. This explanation, though attractive in itself, depends on too many assumptions that cannot be proved and lacks any basis of historical certitude.

There remains then this explanation, which is the most probable one, and held by most scholars in our time: 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) on that day. December 25 was called the "Birthday of the Sun," and great pagan religious celebrations of the Mithras cult were held all through the empire. What was more natural than that the Christians celebrate the birth of Him Who was the "Light of the World" and the true "Sun of Justice" on this very day? The popes seem to have chosen December 25 precisely for the purpose of inspiring the people to turn from the worship of a material sun to the adoration of Christ the Lord. This thought is indicated in various writings of contemporary authors.

It has sometimes been said that the Nativity is only a "Christianised pagan festival." However, the Christians of those early centuries were keenly aware of the difference between the two festivals--one pagan and one Christian on the same day. The coincidence in the date, even if intended, does not make the two [p. 62] celebrations identical. Some newly converted Christians who thoughtlessly retained external symbols of the sun worship on Christmas Day were immediately and sternly reproved.

Christmas: Uncertainty About Date of Christ's Birth

Source: Walter Woodburn Hyde, Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire, pp. 249, 250. Copyright 1946 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. Used by permission.

[p. 249] Uncertainty about Jesus' birthday in the early third century is reflected in a disputed passage of the presbyter Hippolytus, who was banished to Sardinia by Maximin in 235, and in an authentic statement of Clement of Alexandria. While the former favoured January second, the learned Clem- [p. 250] ent of Alexandria enumerates several dates given by the Alexandrian chronographers, notably the twenty-fifth of the Egyptian month Pachon (May twentieth) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus and the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi (April eighteenth or nineteenth) of the year A.D. 1, although he favoured May twentieth. This shows that no Church festival in honour of the day was established before the middle of the third century. Origen at that time in a sermon denounced the idea of keeping Jesus' birthday like that of Pharaoh and said that only sinners such as Herod were so honoured. Arnobius later similarly ridiculed giving birthdays to "gods." A Latin treatise, De pascha computus (of ca. 243), placed Jesus' birth on March twenty-first since that was the supposed day on which God created the Sun (Gen. 1:14-19), thus typifying the "Sun of righteousness" as Malachi (4:2) called the expected Messiah. A century before Polycarp, martyred in Smyrna in 155, gave the same date for the birth and baptism placing it on a Wednesday because of the creation of the Sun on that day.

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