THERE ARE MANY attitudes about Christmas even among “church people.” Some groups bemoan the commercialization and secularity of the season and urge that we “put Christ back in Christmas.” Others contend that He never really was asked if He wanted to be involved in the December celebration in the first place, and that if He had been He probably would have declined. There are those who preach against the observance of Christmas in any form — a few denouncing even the word itself. Others carefully explain how the secular aspects may be observed without ignoring Paul’s warning about the observance of religious days (Galatians 4:10, 11).
Each of these is able to represent his particular position, and for now I will leave that task with them. But the history of a celebration in honor of Christ’s birth — an event important to all, those named above — is an interesting story in its own right. And it is a story with perhaps a few surprises.
For almost 300 years the church showed little concern for the date of Christ’s birth. So little, in fact, that no one bothered to find out exactly when He was born! The apostles and other inspired men left no record of the date. They did teach the early church to be concerned about Christ’s death and resurrection. And they observed the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day (the first day of the week) in honor of these events (I Corinthians 11:23ff; Acts 20:7; Revelation 1:10). Baptism also spoke of these things (Romans 6:3-5).
As time passed, many Christians began to wonder how God could have come in human flesh. We must admit that it is a great mystery. Then about 200 years after Christ, a group of heretical Christians began to explain it this way. According to the gnostics (as they were called), Jesus of Nazareth was just an ordinary man, though a very good one. At His baptism a voice from heaven had announced, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” At that time the Spirit had descended in the form of a dove and had rested on Him (Matthew 3:16,17).
The gnostics (who, of course, were false teachers) said that at this moment, the “Christ” came into Jesus. This “Christ” left Him, as they told it, just before His death — perhaps when He cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Their purpose in telling it this way was to protect their idea of God. To them it was not proper for deity to really live in human flesh. As they saw it, the body (and all creation) was inherently evil. It was just not fitting for God to live in a human body, they thought, and certainly not for God to die. So they explained the mystery of God among men as I have just described.
Because these people said that God was “manifested” among men at the baptism of Jesus, they began to observe a day in honor of that occasion. They called this day Epiphany, from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “manifestation” or “appearing.” An influential Alexandrian gnostic named Valentinus urged that January 6 (or 10, the records are not clear here) be kept as the Feast of Epiphany, in honor of God’s appearance among men which he said occurred at the baptism of Jesus.
Other Christians, who knew that Jesus actually was God in human flesh, objected to this. “Yes,” they said, “God did appear in this world, but at the birth of Jesus, not His baptism.” Some of these Christians also observed Epiphany, but in honor of Christ’s birth. They did not claim that Jesus was born then. They merely honored the fact of His birth. In time this practice spread through the so-called Christian world. Even in Rome, people began to celebrate Epiphany -in honor of Christ’s birth. But after a few years more trouble came.
Throughout the fourth century, the church (which by this time was far removed from the apostolic teaching on many points) was busy with councils, papers, arguments and decisions. One of the major issues concerned the nature of Christ. Was Jesus divine in substance, or was He simply like God? Some have commented that the church split here over one letter of the alphabet. One group contended that Jesus was the same (Greek: homo) substance as God and the other said He was similar (Greek: homoi) substance to God.
The main body of the church finally settled on the former. Jesus was divine. He was God in human flesh. This, of course, was what the apostles had taught many years before. The council did not make the truth any more true, but it did affect church history in a powerful manner.
But now another problem arose. If Jesus was divine, did it not lend encouragement to the false teachers who said He was a mere man when the church observed January 6th as a holy day, even though they did it to celebrate His birth? It was decided that this was the case, and that another day should be chosen to celebrate His birth. Here history stepped in to lend a hand.
This was the age of Constantine. He is often called “the first Christian Emperor.” Historians say he was not as interested in Christ, however, as he was in unifying the elements of his empire. If he could encourage the pagans and the Christians to observe common celebrations, this would help bind together the empire under his rule. He had already declared the first day of the week an official holiday for this very reason. The pagans kept that day in honor of the Sun, and called it “Sun-Day.” Christians had observed the first day of the week from the beginning as the Lord’s Day. Constantine made the day a legal holiday in hopes of bring the two together.
So it was when the Roman Christians began to look for a day to keep in honor of Christ’s birth, Bishop Liberius (who was a friend of the government) was quick to help. It just happened that the pagan Romans had for years celebrated December 25 as a special annual holiday in honor of the Sun god, Sol Invictus. Some Christians decided that it would be fitting for Christ to replace the sun as honoree on this day. And so, almost 400 years after Christ, December 25 began to be observed as a special day in honor of the birth of Christ. Again, the people did not really think that Christ was born on that day. They merely observed it in honor of the fact of His birth. But this, too, was to change.
With the passing of time, the Romans decided that everyone ought to observe December 25 in honor of Christ’s birth. But not everyone was ready to accept this rule. In fact, one ancient denomination (The Armenian Church) still observes January 10 in honor of the birth of Christ. To help their cause, the Romans began to say that December 25 should be observed because it was the true birthday of Jesus Christ!
John Chrysostom, a noted preacher in the East, preached a famous sermon urging his congregation to celebrate December 25 as the birthday of the Lord. This teaching did take hold eventually through most of the world. Since then many people have believed that December 25 is Christ’s birthday.
Through the centuries many other customs became attached to Christmas. Some came from pagan backgrounds. Others were borrowed from Judaism. Constantine was not the last “Christian” emperor to adjust his religion for political advantage! You can read about many of these customs in an encyclopedia. The Christmas tree, Santa Claus, lights, holly, the exchange of presents — these are just a few. Most of them have lost all religious significance long ago. They have become a part of custom with no thought given to their origin.
This is the story, told rather briefly in parts, of how December 25 came to be celebrated by many people as the birthday of Jesus Christ. It should be added that from the days of the apostles until now there have been many Christians who did not observe any day in honor of Christ’s birth, but who did keep the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day, in honor of His resurrection.
In the next chapter we will see the point that God’s Word makes: that Jesus Christ was indeed God in human flesh. We will also notice some lessons contained for us in that fact.