Christmas…. Facts and History

By Ferrell Jenkins

“Christmas time” is almost here. Lights are already up in town and signs indicating that December 25 is not far off are to be found almost everywhere. No doubt you have already bought a new doll for Sue and a bike for Johnny. It’s the time of the year when people are singing, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Many denominations are making announcements of their “Christmas program.” Since Christmas is practiced as a “religious” holiday it is necessary that we make an investigation concerning this festive occasion.

In particular, two questions are in order: (1) Where did Christmas originate? and (2) Who authorized it? Since the term “Christmas” clearly indicates that there is some connection with Christ we ought to be able to turn to the historical books writ-ten by inspiration that tell the life of Christ and learn of this holiday. When we study Matthew and Luke, the only two gospels that record the birth of Jesus, we learn that no date (year, month or day) has been given for his birth. In order to determine the origin of Christmas we must turn to the appropriate place in the available encyclopedias and histories.

1. Birth Year. The Bible does not give the year of Christ’s birth, and most people think that he was born at “zero” B.C., since B.C. means “before Christ.” Actually Christ was born somewhere between 7 and 4 B.C.


Henry Halley gives a good explanation of this in the following paragraph:

When Christ was born time was reckoned in the Roman Empire from the founding of the city of Rome. When Christianity be-came the universal religion over what had been the Roman world, a monk named Dionysius Exigus, at the request of the Emperor Justinian, made a calender, 526 A.D., reckoning time from the Birth of Christ, to supersede the Roman calendar. Long after the Christian calender had replaced the Roman calendar it was found that Dionysius had made a mistake in placing the birth of Christ in year 753 A.U.C. (From the founding of Rome). It should have been 749 or a year or two earlier. So the reason we say that Christ was born 4 B.C. is merely because the maker of the Christian Cal- ender made a mistake of 4 or 5 years in coordinating it with the Roman Calender which it re-placed (Pocket Bible Handbook 436).

2. Birth Month and Day. Albert Barnes, noted Presbyterian commentator, says with reference to the shepherds keeping their sheep in the field:

The climate was mild, and, to keep their flocks from straying, they spent the night with them. It is also a fact that the Jews sent out their flocks into the mountainous and desert regions during the summer months, and took them up in the latter part of October or the first part of November, when the cold weather commenced. While away in these deserts and mountainous regions, it was proper that there should be some one to attend them to keep them from straying, and from the ravages of wolves and other wild beasts. It is probable from this that our Saviour was born before the 25th of December or before what we call Christmas. At that time it is cold, and especially in the high and mountainous regions about Bethlehem. But the exact time of his birth is unknown; there is no way to ascertain it (emphasis mine, F.J.). By different learned men it has been fixed at each month in the year. Nor is it of consequence to know the time; if it were, God would have preserved the record of it. Matters of moment are clearly revealed; those which He regards as of no importance are concealed.

Collier’s Encyclopedia concurs with Mr. Barnes when it says, “It is impossible to determine the exact date of the birth of Christ, either from the evidence of the gospels, or from any sound tradition.” The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church.” Three commonly accepted dates for the birth of Jesus are January 6, March 25, and December 25. The majority of people celebrate Christmas on December 25. One might ask the question, “Why was December 25 chosen as the birthday of Christ?” Why December 25? Liberius, Bishop of Rome (it should be remembered that the Catholics consider him as one of their early popes), in 354 A.D. ordered that December 25 be adopted. The choice of this date was probably influenced by the fact that this was the day on which the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sungod. The Romans Saturnalia also came a this time. “`The indications are that the Church in this way grasped the opportunity to turn the people away from the purely pagan observance of the winter solstice to a day of adoration of Christ the Lord. Both St. Cyprian and St. John Chrysostom allude to this thought in their writings” (Colliers Encyclopedia). The Lincoln Library of Essential Information states that, “December 25 was already a festive day for the sun god Mithraand and appealed to the Christians as an appropriate date to commemorate the birth of Jesus, the ‘Light of the World.’ From these statements from reliable sources it is easy to see that Christmas had its origin in a pre-Christian age among the pagans. It was adopted into the so-called Christian holidays by the Roman Catholic Church. Christmas did not originate by the authority of God. None of the apostles ever celebrated the birthday of Christ. Even the name “Christmas” is of Catholic origin. Encyclopedia Americana tells us, “The name is derived from the medieval Christes Masse, the Mass of Christ.” The Catholics had a special “mass” (their corruption of the Lord’s Supper) for Christ and so they called “Christ-Mass.” In time this was shortened to “Christmas.”

The Americana further states: “The celebration was not observed in the first centuries of the Christian church, since the Christian usage in general was to celebrate the death of remarkable persons rather than the birth.” The Bible teaches us that the death of Christ is the important thing and not the birth. we are taught to observe the three following memorials: (1) Baptism, a form of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:1-2), (2) The first day of the week, a memorial of Christ’s resurrection, and (3) The Lord’s Supper each first day of the week (Acts 20:7). This is a memorial of the death of Christ. Men have no right to set up other memorials for people to observe. It is a violation of the Law of God to do so. Sober thinking people who are striving to follow the teachings of Christ will not bow down to these Roman Catholic traditions.

3. What Does the Bible Say? Many are simply ignorant of the teaching of the Bible concerning the birth of Christ. It is a shame for parents to read fictitious stories to their children and call them “Bible Stories.” Parents, be sure the story is true to the Bible before you call it a “Bible Story.” Matthew and Luke tell of different events connected with Christ’s birth. The following chronology should prove helpful:

Birth of Jesus Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:1-7

Visit of Shepherds (same night) Luke 2:8-20

Jesus’ circumcision (eight days old) Luke 2:21

Jesus Presentation (at least 40 days after birth)

Read Lev. 12:2-6; Lk.2:22-38

Visit of Wise Men Matt. 2:1-12

Journey to Egypt Matt 2:13-15

Male Children Killed Matt. 2:16-18

Return to Nazreth Luke 2:39; Matt 2:19-23

Read the Bible account in that order. Remember that the wise men and the shepherds were not the same. The shepherds visited the child Jesus the night of his birth but the wise men traveled from the East (they did not travel by plane, but by plain) and did not arrive until, at least, after the presentation in the temple which was at least 40 days after the birth. The wise men found Jesus in a “house” (Matt. 2:11). The Bible does not say how many wise men there were. Three gifts do not indicate only three visitors. To conclude so, is just as silly as saying there were only three guests at a party where a person received money, perfume, and cologne. There could have been two men or many.

4. Customs Connected with Christmas. “Most of the customs now associated with Christmas were not originally Christmas customs but rather were pre-christian customs taken up by the Christian church” (Americana). The Roman Saturnalia, already mentioned, provided many of the merry-making customs of Christmas. “From the pagan ac-cent on light it is not difficult to trace the rise of lights and open fires  from the bonfires of sun worship and their variant the yule log to the many customs centering around the candle and its legends to light the Christ child” (Britannica).

Christmas Tree. It is generally believed that the Christmas tree is of German origin. Boniface, an English missionary to Germany, is said to have “replaced the sacrifices to Odin’s sacred oak by a fir tree adorned in tribute to the Christ child” (Britannica), in the 8th century.

Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a contraction of Saint Nicholas. “St. Nicholas was a real bishop, who lived in the fourth century and became the patron saint of children. The children have adopted him as the `gift-bringer”‘ (Book of Knowledge) in some countries. There is some more Catholicism! Children in America sing songs in which they use both “Santa Claus” and “Saint Nicholas.” Could a Christian teach his child to sing to a Catholic “saint”? Certainly not! (It is understood by this writer that some of these seasonal songs are good.) Space does not allow us to give a detailed discussion of these things, nor the origin of decorations, the use of mistletoe, holly, etc.

Shall We “Keep Christ in Christmas”?

It is impossible to keep Christ in Christ-Mass for He was never in it. The Catholic Church dreamed that up all by themselves without the help of Christ, and I might add, without his approval.

What about “X-mas”? At the time of this writing a sign in our town reads “X means nothing. Christ in Christmas means everything.” Many people seem to think it is irrelevant to let X stand for Christ. I suppose it might be considered that way if one doesn’t know that the “X” is not an English “X.” The name of Christ in Greek could be transliterated Christos. The English “CH” is equivalent to the Greek “Chi” (X). Actually, when a knowing person writes “X” to stand for Christ he is simply abbreviating. It is no more irreverent to abbreviate “Christ” than it is unpatriotic to abbreviate “United States of America” with the usual U.S.A.

It is not wrong for families to get together and exchange gifts. The winter season is a time when people enjoy being with their loved ones. We are not opposed to this. We are not opposed to national holidays, such as July 4 and Thanks-giving. We are not opposed to families having a good dinner and many other things which might be called “folk customs” on December 25 (or any other day), but when a person tries to make such a day a “religious holiday” by claiming that Christ was born on that day, he errs. To observe December 25 as a Civil Holiday is as innocent as observing July 4. But let’s make sure we keep it that way, without adding “religion” to it. Christ never authorized such. There will be no special services at the church of Christ in observance of this pagan and Catholic holiday. (Used by permission. Originally published in The Preceptor 8:2 [November 1958], 216, 225).

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Author: jfm

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