The earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. In fact, the first Christian calendar listing December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity was compiled in 336 A.D. Since neither of the two biblical accounts of the Nativity—found in the GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE and the GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW—gives the date of JESUS’birth, how did December 25 come to be the date on which Christians celebrate Christmas? (See also GOSPEL ACCOUNTS OF CHRISTMAS; YEAR OF BIRTH JESUS.)
Birthdays in the Ancient World
In the ancient world various pagan peoples celebrated the birthdays of gods and important individuals. In fact, many pagan myths explained the miraculous births of the gods. This association with paganism caused some early Christian thinkers to oppose the celebration of birthdays on principle. For example, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the Christian teacher and writer Origen argued that Christians should not observe birthdays since scripture depicts only wrongdoers like the pharaohs and HEROD celebrating their birthdays.
Selection of December 25
By the fourth century, however, Christian leaders had overcome their reluctance to honor the birthday of Jesus Christ. Now they had to decide upon a date for the new feast. The first mention of Christmas observances taking place on December 25 occurs in the Philo-calian calendar, a Church document written in 336 A.D. Some scholars believe that Christian authorities scheduled the Feast of the Nativity for December 25 in order to draw people away from the pagan festivals celebrated on or around that date. The madcap revels associated with the Roman holiday of SATURNALIA ended on December 23, just two days earlier. On January first the Romans observed KALENDS, their new year festival. Finally, on December 25 devotees of Mithras and Sol celebrated the BIRTH OF THE INVINCIBLE SUN.
According to the calendar used by the ancient Romans, the WINTER SOLSTICE fell on December 25, making it a perfect day on which to commemorate the rebirth of the sun. The cult of the sun god was especially popular with the Romans between the second and the fourth centuries, a time when Christianity was struggling to establish itself as a legitimate faith. By selecting December 25 as the date for the new Feast of the Nativity, Christian leaders probably hoped to convince sun god worshipers to celebrate the birth of Jesus rather than the birth of the sun.
Some early Christian thinkers offered other, more convoluted explanations for the choice of December 25. They based these explanations not only on their interpretations of scripture, but also on Christian lore and then-popular beliefs concerning the significance of round numbers. According to one scholar, Church leaders tried to figure out the date of Jesus’birth from the date traditionally given for his death, March 25. Since they wanted to come up with a round number for Jesus’ age at death, they assumed he was also conceived on March 25. Therefore, he must have been born nine months later on December 25.
Other Christian thinkers drew parallels between Christ and the sun based on Bible passages that describe the Messiah as “the sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2) and “the light of the world” (John 8:12). According to this line of thought, Jesus’incarnation represented a new creation, as when God created the world. According to the Book of Genesis, God’s first act was to create light, an act that separated light from darkness. Therefore, they reasoned, God must have created the world at the time of the spring equinox, when the world is separated into two equal halves of light and darkness. Since Jesus himself stood for the new creation, Jesus must also have been conceived at the time of the spring equinox (see also ANNUNCIATION). According to the Julian calendar then in use, spring equinox fell on March 25. Allowing for a nine-month gestation period, Jesus would then have been born on December 25.
The solar symbolism attached to Jesus in this explanation concluded with his birth on the winter solstice, the date when the sun “returns” and the days begin to lengthen. By equating Jesus with the sun, Christian leaders adopted and yet subtly undermined the logic of sun god worshipers. For example, one early Christian writer thundered, “They [the pagans] call December twenty-fifth the Birthday of the Unconquered: Who is indeed so unconquered as our Lord? ... or, if they say that it is the birthday of the sun: He is the Sun of Justice.”
Division of Christmas and Epiphany
The introduction of Christmas as a separate feast clashed with the way in which many churches had been celebrating Epiphany. The first Epiphany celebrations occurred in second-century EGYPT. The feast spread to other Christian communities during the next two hundred years, although considerable variation existed between these scattered celebrations. This holiday might commemorate any of the four, recognized occasions on which Jesus’ divinity revealed itself to those around him: his birth, the adoration of the MAGI, his baptism, and the miracle at the wedding in Cana. After creating a separate holiday to honor Jesus’birth, the Roman Church shifted the focus of its Epiphany celebrations to the adoration of the Magi. When the Eastern Churches finally accepted Christmas, they used the holiday to honor both Jesus’birth and the adoration of the Magi. Afterwards, their Epiphany celebrations focused on Jesus’baptism.
Spread of the New Feast
Sometime around the year 350 Pope Julius (d. 352) or Pope Liberius (d. 366) officially adopted December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity. After Church leaders established the holiday in Rome, they attempted to convince the churches in the eastern part of the empire to accept this feast. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-c. 398) introduced the festival in Constantinople in 379. In 386 St. John Chrysostom preached to Christians in Antioch, advising them to accept the festival on this date, in spite of the fact that some still preferred to celebrate the Nativity on January 6. Most of the Eastern Churches accepted the new feast in the years between 380 and 430 A.D. Jerusalem Christians did not accept the new festival until the middle of the sixth century. The Armenians never accepted the new festival. Today, the Armenian Orthodox Church still celebrates the Nativity of Christ on January 6, Epiphany. Those Armenian Orthodox congregations in the Holy Land that still use the Julian calendar celebrate the festival on January 19 (see CHRISTMAS IN ARMENIA; OLD CHRISTMAS DAY).
Origins of the Word “Christmas”
Since Latin was the official language of the Roman Church, its leaders called the new festival commemorating Jesus’ birth Dies Natalis Domini, or the “Birthday of the Lord.” The more formal name for the holiday was Festum Nativitatis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, or the “Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Our English word for the festival, “Christmas,” didn’t evolve until centuries later. The term appears in documents from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, written in Old English as Christes maesse, which means “Christ’s Mass.” English speakers soon formed a contraction out of the two words. The name of the festival passed through many forms in the centuries that followed, including kryst-masse, cristmasse, crystmasse, Chrysmas, and Cristmas. The term “Christmas” came into the English language sometime between the late sixteenth and late seventeenth centuries.
In casual writing, the word Christmas sometimes appears as “Xmas.” Some people dislike the informality of this abbreviation and the fact that it removes the word “Christ” from the word Christmas. Others find it less objectionable. They point out that the “x” may be said to stand for the Greek letter “X” (chi), which is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ.