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The Actual Date of Christmas
I Hate to Burst Your Bubble
Christmas is close and with it comes many of the misconceptions and heated debates. One of which is almost always whether or not it is the day of Jesus’ birth. Let’s resolve that now. It is not the actual birthday of the Christian Savior.
Now, that a few people are getting geared up for debate! Let’s look at the history of “Christmas”.
Why This Date?
In the beginning of the Christian faith, there was no actual celebration of Jesus’ birth. Why? To many in the early church it was not the focal point of Christianity. The Resurrection, Easter, was the primary celebration in the church. That event is what made Christianity stand out and was the foundation of the creeds. But as the centuries began to go by, many began to ponder on the exact date of His birth and wanted to commemorate the event. The Apostles had all passed away and even from their writings, the concern of documenting the exact date was not important. In the Gospels it was written that the birth occurred during the census. This was a great clue for historians, but would never serve to give an exact day and date. Only a season could be pulled from this since it would be many months from the issue of a decree to the final tally.
Several theories were eventually proposed. Many were based on logical, scholarly deductions like the one mentioned above by using the census as a dating guide and other clues in the Scriptures. Others seemed to be a little more off the wall. In the end the general consensus at the time was that it was sometime in the spring. But since no exact date could be fixed, the recognition of His birth was usually held around January 6th which was the time acknowledged that the Magi appeared and honored the small King. On a timeline this was obvious not an accurate date and was not expected to me. It was just a date set aside for honoring the virgin birth.
At this point, I would like to point out that one of the early church fathers, Origen, believed that His birth should not be celebrated at all. There were only two birthdays mentioned in the Scriptures and they were both for pagan rulers. Origen felt that it was insulting to the Lord to have the same celebration as these other kings had. Others have argued that there is nothing wrong in celebrating the birth which was a miracle and was obviously celebrated by the angels, shepherds, and Magi. This debate continues today and can be a major issue within the church. But as we will see, maybe Origen had something to say after all.
The early church was getting concerned as many of its followers were beginning to partake of local pagan festivals and celebrations. The Roman Empire was large and encompassed a multitude of cultures and religions. In the beginning Christianity was not the primary religion though it had a large following and was influential in many areas. The revelry of these pagan festivals was leading many participants to sin and pulling them from the church. This greatly disturbed the religious leaders. What could they do? The debate of Jesus’ birth returned.
December 25th was a time of celebration in most cultures. It was the time of the winter solstice and also the celebration of the Iranian sun god. Many of those under the church participated in these events. Why not make this date the birthday celebration of the Christian God so that the people’s attention is redirected to the church instead of their own selfish desires? The people get to keep their holiday spirit but have it directed to the church instead.
This date became official after Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the religion of the Roman Empire. But only half of the Christian world went in that direction. The Western church under Rome accepted the December date. The Eastern church kept the January date as their celebration time. Throughout the world overall, December 25th is considered the official celebration birthday of the Christian Savior. It is on this date as well as Easter that churches will report their largest numbers. Those that do not even hold to the Christian faith will sometimes find themselves at a Christmas service just out of tradition and the spirit of the season.
The Debate Continues
Many have argued that the birth of Jesus should not be celebrated at this time, for several reasons. One, many view birthday celebrations inappropriate for a deity. Two, the actual date is incorrect. Three, the original celebration was pagan. Four, the traditions used today are not Christian based though they can take on Christian meanings. Five, it is too commercial. I think I could go on for a few thousand more reasons, but these are the main ones you will hear in debates.
In the end, celebrating Christmas on December 25th or even celebrating at all is a personal decision. It is a time in which many do use it to honor Jesus. To some in the early church a date had to be chosen and the correct one was nigh impossible to choose. Why not pick a date that everyone is happy with? But in reality most celebrating the event today do not claim to be Christians. The holiday spirit spreads into other cultures and religions with the gift giving, partying, and memory-making. It also coincides still today with many other cultural festivals. Because of that the most common expression during that time is not Merry Christmas but Happy Holidays so that all celebrations are included in one.
So, in the end the original debate is back! Should this be the date of honoring the birth? Should we even be celebrating it? I’ll let you decide.