Christmas: Christian or cultural?
Last updated 12/1/2020 at Noon
Christmas is the sacred day on which Christians celebrate the birthday of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christmas is also a cultural celebration of love, family, giving, good cheer, eating and all things winter. The mixed ownership of this holiday can create some confusion and disagreement in the Christian church and in the wider culture.
So where and when did this holiday have its origins? Was there a time when Christmas was purely a holy day?
For the first three centuries after Jesus’ life, His birth was not celebrated. It seems this was no simple oversight, but an intentional decision by early church leaders. Origen of Alexandria (c. 165-264 AD) argued that the only mention of the celebration of birthdays in the Bible were those of Pharaoh and King Herod. Since Pharaoh celebrated by hanging his chief baker and Herod’s birthday celebration culminated in the beheading of John the Baptist, the precedent for a righteous birthday celebration did not exist in Scripture.
Clement of Alexandria, one of Origen’s contemporaries, at least speculated as to the date of Christ’s birth, but none of the dates that he considered was in December.
Still, by the 4th century, there is evidence that the birth of Christ was not only recognized, but actually celebrated on December 25. A Roman record compiled in 354 AD listed death dates of Christian bishops and martyrs. The list began by noting Christ’s birth date as December 25.
The most popular explanation today for the selection of December 25 to recognize the birth of Christ is that the early church borrowed from pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The Saturnalia festival honored the Roman god Saturn with banquets and parties from December 17-23. In 274 AD the Emperor Aurelian established a celebration on December 25 for the birth of Sol Invictus, the official sun god of the later Roman Empire. Northern Europeans also observed celebrations at the time of the winter solstice.
Did the early Christians just borrow a date to have their own holiday to celebrate and not be left out of the party?
The explanation for the date of Christmas may not be that simple. There is evidence that the early Christian church believed that Jesus Christ was conceived on the same day of the year on which He was eventually crucified. The Bible is clear that He was crucified on the Jewish Passover, a festival that the Old Testament — the Jewish Scriptures — defined as beginning on the 14th day of the month of Nisan. Translated into the Roman calendar, the Jewish Passover occurred in late March.
Although there is no clear teaching in Scripture that Jesus was crucified on the date that He was conceived, if the early church believed this to be true, it is natural that they would recognize His birth to be nine months later, in late December.
Saint Augustine, one of the most influential church fathers in Western Christianity, suggested as much when he wrote in “On the Trinity” (c. 400 AD): “For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered... But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” Saint Augustine did not seem to think that the date for the celebration of Christ’s birth was chosen to borrow from pagan celebrations.
Augustine is also credited by some as having written, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.” It seems from its earliest days, the annual celebration of Christ’s birth provided some tension between the celebrations of the church and those of the culture around it.
As the centuries passed, Christianity spread and so did the celebration of Christmas.
The holiday was definitely influenced by pagan traditions as time went on.
When we sing Christmas carols to our neighbors that tell Scriptural truth about the birth of the Christ, we may have been inspired by wassailers, who sang their way through Anglo-Saxon villages to chase away evil spirits and ensure a bountiful harvest.
Mistletoe was considered sacred to the Druids.
Both Romans and European pagans used boughs of evergreens to remind them of the promise of new growth in the spring, much as Christians see our fir and pine Christmas trees as symbols of eternal life.
Culture and Christianity continued to wrestle over the celebrations of Christmas.
By the Middle Ages, when Christianity was widespread throughout Europe, many people began their Christmas observation in church, only to descend into drunken revelry and decidedly unchristian mischief later in the day. The Puritans began a movement to reform the church in England in the 17th century. In attempting to rid the church of immoral behavior and unbiblical practices, the Puritans banished Christmas celebrations and their accompanying intemperance. When the Pilgrims brought their Puritan beliefs across the Atlantic, the celebration of Christmas was left behind in Europe. In fact, it was not until 1870 that Christmas was recognized as a national holiday in the United States.
Meanwhile, back in England, the Puritan influence had waned and Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. Dickens intertwined the biblical themes of care for the poor and the redemption of a sinner into a socially-conscious and charitable tale without overtly telling the story of the Christ child. His heart-warming story captivated the people of England, and later America, reimagining Christmas as a family celebration of goodwill toward others. Here again, cultural and Christian influences shaped Dickens’ work, which in turn shaped the celebrations of millions.
Even Santa Claus, possibly the most popular symbol of a cultural American Christmas, has roots in the Christian faith. The original Saint Nicholas was born in the third century in what is now Turkey. He was a devoted Christian, who is said to have used his entire inheritance from wealthy parents to meet the needs of the poor and sick, especially in caring for children. He died on December 6, 343, a date observed as a holiday in his honor throughout the centuries.
Clement C. Moore, a seminary professor from New York City, first published “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” — in 1823. Of course, the historic St. Nicholas and his acts of faith inspired the lead character, but Moore managed to change a real historical person into a fantastical figure that became a cultural icon. Toss in some influence from Thomas Nast, illustrator, and Haddon Sundblom, a long-time illustrator for Coca-Cola, and we have the image of Santa Claus we are all familiar with today.
So does Christmas represent an attempt by Christians to redeem the secular into something sacred? Or is it a Christian holy day remade into a cultural celebration? It would seem that it is a little of both.
And as a Christian celebrating Christmas in 21st century America, I am happy to celebrate the love of family and giving as a part of honoring the birth of Jesus Christ.