By Mary Fairchild
When was the Savior’s real birthday? Was Jesus born on December 25? Since the Bible doesn’t tell us to commemorate Christ’s birth, why do we celebrate Christmas at all?
The date of Christ’s actual birth is unknown. It is not recorded in the Bible. However, Christians of all denominations and faith groups, aside from the Church of Armenia, celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.
Key Takeaways: Christmas on December 25
- Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
- The earliest celebration of Christmas, or the Feast of the Nativity, on December 25 was held in the year AD 336 in Rome.
- The term “Christmas” comes from the Old English Cristes Maesse, which means Christ’s mass.
- In Eastern churches the birth of Jesus was originally celebrated on January 6 in connection with Epiphany Day, honoring the manifestation of Christ to the world at his baptism.
The History of Christmas Day
Historians tell us that the first celebrations of Christ’s birth were originally grouped together with Epiphany, one of the earliest feasts of the Christian church observed on January 6. This holiday recognized the manifestation of Christ to the world by remembering the visit of the Magi (wise men) to Bethlehem and, in some traditions, the baptism of Jesus and his miracle of turning water into wine. Today the feast of Epiphany is observed predominately in liturgical denominations such as Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Catholic.
Even as far back as the second and third centuries, we know church leaders disagreed about the appropriateness of any birthday celebrations within the Christian church. Some men like Origen felt birthdays were pagan rituals for pagan gods. And since the date of Christ’s actual birth had not been recorded, these early leaders speculated and argued about the date.
Some sources report that Theophilus of Antioch (circa 171-183) was the first to identify December 25 as the birth date of Christ. Others say that Hippolytus (circa 170-236) was the first to claim that Jesus was born on December 25.
A strong theory suggests that this date was eventually chosen by the church because it aligned closely with a major pagan festival, dies natalis solis invicti (birth of the invincible sun god), thus allowing the church to claim a new celebration for Christianity.
Ultimately, December 25 was chosen, perhaps as early as A.D. 273. By 336 A.D., the Roman church calendar definitively records a nativity celebration by Western Christians on this date. Eastern churches retained the January 6 commemoration together with Epiphany until sometime in the fifth or sixth centuries when the 25th day of December became the widely accepted holiday. Only the Armenian church held to the original celebration of Christ’s birth together with Epiphany on January 6.
Mass of Christ
The term Christmas appeared in Old English as early as 1038 A.D. as Cristes Maesse, and later as Cristes-messe in A.D. 1131. It means “the Mass of Christ.” This name was established by the Christian church to disconnect the holiday and its customs from its pagan origins. As one fourth century theologian penned, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.”
Why Do We Celebrate Christmas?
It’s a valid question. The Bible does not command us to commemorate Christ’s birth, but rather, his death. Although it is true that many traditional Christmas customs find their origins in pagan practices, these ancient and forgotten associations are far removed from the hearts of Christian worshipers today at Christmastime.
If the focus of Christmas is Jesus Christ and his gift of eternal life, then what harm can come from such a celebration? Moreover, Christian churches see Christmas as an occasion to spread the good news of the gospel at a time when many unbelievers pause to consider Christ.
Here are a few more questions to consider: Why do we celebrate a child’s birthday? Why do we celebrate a loved one’s birthday? Is it not to remember and cherish the significance of the event?
What other event throughout all time is more significant than the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ? It marks the arrival of Immanuel, God With Us, the Word Become Flesh, the Savior of the World—his is the most significant birth ever. It is the central event in all of history. Time chronicles backward and forward from this moment. How can we fail to remember this day with great joy and reverence? How can we not celebrate Christmas?
George Whitefield (1714-1770), Anglican minister and one of the founders of Methodism, offered this convincing reason for believers to celebrate Christmas:
… it was free love that brought the Lord Jesus Christ into our world about 1700 years ago. What, shall we not remember the birth of our Jesus? Shall we yearly celebrate the birth of our temporal king, and shall that of the King of kings be quite forgotten? Shall that only, which ought to be had chiefly in remembrance, be quite forgotten? God forbid! No, my dear brethren, let us celebrate and keep this festival of our church, with joy in our hearts: let the birth of a Redeemer, which redeemed us from sin, from wrath, from death, from hell, be always remembered; may this Savior’s love never be forgotten!
Source: Whitefield, G. (1999). Selected Sermons of George Whitefield. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.