Thanksgiving is over and we light the first Advent candle, a joyous season of festive music, fattening foods, and fun gatherings. I decided to read about the origins of Christmas during this year’s Advent season to gain a historical perspective on the incarnation and nativity of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Joseph F. Kelly, retired Professor of Religious Studies at John Carroll University authored The Origins of Christmas (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2014). I learned from Dr. Kelly’s research that Christmas wasn’t celebrated for many years after Christ’s birth. “By the end of the second century, the Nativity had become part of Christian tradition. With the New Testament canon established, the Infancy Narratives had also become part of the Bible. Yet nowhere in these two centuries do we find any mention of a feast in honor of Christ’s birth, that is, no Christmas.” (page 66) No Christmas – humbug!
There was no Christmas because there was no Christmas Day in the church calendar. Scripture does not give a date for Christ’s birth and there are no records of Caesar Augustus’ census during the time of King Herod. To make matters worse, the Jewish and Julian calendars did not match. The first search for Christ’s birthday was undertaken by Gnostic Christians in Alexandria, the Basilideans, who placed the birth on “January 6, the date of Epiphany for most contemporary Christians and the date of Christmas for some.” (page 73) But this date was also Christ’s baptism date. “It is likely that the Basilideans believed that he had been baptized exactly thirty years after his birth, that is, on January 6, since the birth was one form of epiphany.” (page 74)
According to the ancient Roman calendar, the spring equinox was on March 25. Spring equinox was celebrated in the ancient world as the birth of the world. “A Roman writer named Hippolytus (ca. 170–235) considered March 25 as both the anniversary of the creation and the date of Christ’s death, linking the creation with his redemptive death.” It was Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160–ca. 240) that put the dates of creation and incarnation together. He “contended that Jesus became incarnate not when he was born, but when he was conceived. … This distinction between Jesus’ birth and conception is crucial because if Jesus had been conceived on March 25, he would have been born nine months later on December 25, the day the Church eventually chose for Christmas.” (pages 75-76) His conclusion did not influence many due to his lower social status. It wasn’t until 336 that “the local Church at Rome proclaimed December 25 as the dies natalis Christi, ‘the natal day of Christ.’” (page 80)
The official Church document, Chronograph of 354, was produced in 336 affirming December 25 as the dies natalis Christi. It took about 300 years after Jesus was born to decide on the feast of Christmas. Since Christianity extended over a large Roman empire, it took additional time to gain widespread acceptance. “By 379 the Church at Constantinople had accepted the new date, and in 386 the Church at Antioch did likewise. The Egyptian church, original home of January 6 as a date of the Nativity, held out longer, but in 431 Alexandria accepted December 25, and the other Egyptian churches followed. The oldest Christian church, Jerusalem, stuck to a January 6 date until the sixth century … Some Eastern churches retained the old date. Modern Armenians celebrate the nativity on January 6 and the Russian Orthodox on January 7 with Christmas Eve, on January 6, being the major celebration.” (pages 84-85)
While the early Christians tried to rationalize Jesus’ birth date, we will never know the actual date of his birth. For example, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks outdoors on the day Christ was born, but Judean shepherds were outdoors only from March until November. (page 71) The early Church did not seem to consider this important detail when deciding on December 25 since their focus was theological, not historical or factual. The actual birthday of Jesus is not as important as remembering that Christ, our Savior, was born in a manger in Bethlehem. This is the greatest reason for a special feast.