The time and place of the first Christmas celebration is not known; although history seems to indicate a date after the last great persecution of Christians as late as the third century. The observance of Christmas is not of "divine appointment", nor is it of New Testament origin. It is also known that the earliest followers of Christ did not observe a Christmas celebration; and there is no evidence that they even observed their own birthdays.
It is believed that Pope Julius the First pronounced that Christ's birth should be celebrated on December 25th around 350 A.D. This date was selected not because it actually was Jesus Christ’s birth date, but because it coincided with the culmination of the Winter Solstice celebration in ancient Rome and church officials saw the date as expedient for promoting Christianity. Christmas is in fact derived from the original Roman practice of observing Saturnalia; a celebration marked with lawlessness and a time when normal life was suspended in favor of eating, drinking and gift-giving.
Winter Solstice marked the shortest day of the year, as well as the point when the days gradually lengthened again. For the Romans, this symbolized a time of re-birth and new growth. It was the Roman pagans who introduced December 17-25 into their law as the Saturnalia celebration. During that period of time, Roman courts were closed and the law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people for the duration of the festival.
Ancient Saturnalia customs have probably contributed more to modern day Christmas traditions than any other. Feasting, merry-making, and adornment with greenery were all elements of the old observance that have carried through to modern times. In addition to the revelry and drinking, the Romans expressed good will towards one another by exchanging small gifts, such as wax candles, wax fruit, and clay dolls. Other popular customs included various kinds of informal masquerades, in which men and women cavorted in the clothing of the opposite sex, engaged in drunken excesses and caroused the streets of the cities and villages.
The pagan tribes of northern Europe also celebrated their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the birth of the pagan sun god, Mithras, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. They believed as the days became longer and warmer, that the sun god grew and matured. It was customary to light candles to encourage Mithras--and the sun--to reappear the following year. Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun as well. The word Yule itself means "wheel", with the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. When pagan Germanic tribes (the Franks and the Alemans) found the Romans celebrating solstice during their early invasions, they, liking the custom, incorporated it into their own type of religion. The early Egyptians even celebrated a mid-winter festival, claiming their god Horus, the son of Isis, was born near the end of what we now call December.
As Christianity spread during the early centuries, the Roman Catholic Church of the day became alarmed by the continued practice of its converts indulging in pagan customs related to the Saturnalia festival. At first, church leaders prohibited this type of revelry, but to no avail. Eventually, a decision was made to "tame" such celebrations and make them supposedly more suitable to honor the Son of God, rather than the Roman god, Saturn. Authorities of the Church felt it was a wise idea to give a "sacred" meaning to pagan observances, rather than to discourage possible converts by eliminating their celebrations entirely. The date of "Christ's Mass" on December 25th was formally adopted by the church in 375 A.D and was changed to honor the birth of Christ rather than the sun.
When the Emperor Constantine decreed Christianity as the "new faith" of the Roman Empire, he could see no conflict between what he viewed as "Christianity" and the Roman practice of sun-worship. The result was an accommodation of the beliefs and traditions of the two. Followers of the church wereinstructed to celebrate this "new” holiday “after a heavenly manner, not an earthly manner". There were, however, many individuals who refused to celebrate the observance altogether, because it reminded them of the old pagan festival.
The use of greenery to decorate homes continued to be prohibited as pagan idolatry, but over the centuries this too became an accepted custom of the celebration and remains so even today.
At the winter solstice, the Romans decorated their homes with boughs of laurel, evergreen trees and foliage. The Germanic observance of the solstice used holly, ivy and bay for both decoration and in their religious rites, with the belief that holly berries were a food of the gods. In northern Europe, evergreen branches were used as a "devil-defying" means, and mistletoe was offered as a sacrifice to idols and was also linked to legends of their so-called gods. The use of the Christmas tree dates back to the early Druidic practice of tree worship. Later, when Christmas came to be celebrated, the tree supposedly became a tribute to baby Jesus, replacing the pagan sacrifices offered to the trees, which were often human lives.
Although many people associate gift-giving with the wise men and their presents to the Christ-child, that practice also stems from pagan origin. The Romans exchanged "good luck" presents during the Saturnalia. During that festival, the wealthy also gave gifts to the poor in honor of the "golden age of liberty when the god Saturn ruled the known world". Other customs such as candles and the baking of small cakes and cookies began as pagan customs that were supposedly changed to honor the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Biblical Perspective:
The most probable reason that the Christmas celebration was not initiated until several hundred years after Christ’s death is the fact that there is no record in history, scriptural or otherwise, from which the exact date of Christ's birth can be ascertained. The date of December 25th in view of astronomers, historians, and Bible scholars, is decidedly not the correct date of his birth, nor does it rest on historical findings more than any other. The Bible does, however, provide some evidence to support that December 25 is the incorrect date for Jesus' birth.
From the Biblical description, many historians believe that his birth most likely occurred in the fall of the year. In Luke 2:8 it is written: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." Meteorologists have found December in Bethlehem to be quite cold, with the average temperature ranging near freezing to slightly above. December and January is also the time of year Bethlehem receives its greatest amount of precipitation. The climate has not changed to any great extent over the last 2,000 years, so it is very unlikely the shepherds would be camped in the fields with their flocks when it was so cold. To add to this, the Talmud (the body of Jewish law) states the flocks were put out to grass in March and were brought in at the beginning of November. In present day Palestine, both animals and shepherds are under cover at the Christmas season.
Another clue rests in the Bible book of Daniel 9:27, which explains how Christ's earthly ministry was only to last for 3-1/2 years. He began that ministry when he turned 30 years old, (Luke 3:21-23) as prescribed by Jewish law. The scriptures also show he was killed at the Jewish Passover (John 18:39), which occurred in the spring of the year, making it stand to reason that he would have to have been born in the fall.
It is also noteworthy that a number of specific dates of certain events are mentioned in the Bible. If Almighty God felt it was important for his followers to know the birth date of when His Son was born in a human form, He positively would have made sure it was recorded.
Another Christmas belief disproved by the scriptures is that of the Magi, or wise men, arriving at the manger the night of Jesus' birth. The account in Luke 2:8-17 tells how the shepherds, not the wise men, found the baby lying in a manger after receiving word from an angel. This was the "sign" the angel told them to look for. However, the wise men traveled from another country—possibly quite some distance away--at a later time by observing and following a star. When they arrived to offer their gifts to Jesus, they found a young child, rather than a baby, in a house with his mother, Mary. (Matthew 2:9-11) There is a difference between the shepherds finding a "baby in a manger" and the wise men discovering Jesus as a "young child in a house". It is also unclear how many wise men there actually were: Matthew 2:11 mentions three gifts presented to Jesus by them, but does not list the number of men who were there.
Another point in Matthew 2:16 explains what happened when King Herod of Judea discovered that the wise men had not returned to tell him where Jesus was: Herod became enraged and sent out a decree in Bethlehem and the surrounding coasts that all children, two years old and under, were to be killed. If Jesus was but an infant at the time, it seems doubtful that Herod would have considered it necessary to kill the children up to the age of two. It appears he made this determination according to the time which he had “diligently enquired of the wise men”.
While some people argue that celebrating Christmas is just an innocent, fun holiday meant with good intentions, it should be noted that Jesus Christ did not give his followers any instructions to commemorate his birth with a festivities of pagan origin. Through God's true ministers in the Bible, who include the prophets and apostles, the Creator has warned against learning customs that are not set forth by Him. The prophet Jeremiah was instructed to write: “Family of Israel, listen to what the Lord says to you. This is what he says: ‘Don’t live like the people from other nations, and don’t be afraid of special signs in the sky, even though the other nations are afraid of them. The customs of other people are worth nothing. Their idols are just wood cut from the forest, shaped by a worker with his chisel. They decorate their idols with silver and gold. With hammers and nails they fasten them down so they won’t fall over.’" (Jeremiah 10:1-4 NCV) While one may not consider a Christmas an idol, the customs surrounding it may make one think.
In the apostle Paul‘s letter to the followers in Galatia, he gave this warning, quite possibly because they were reverting back to some old customs: "Previously, however, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to gods that essentially are not gods. But now, when you know God, or better yet, are known by God, how is it that you are turning back again to those weak and beggarly rudiments to which you want to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months, festivals and years. You make me fear that perhaps I wasted my efforts on you." (Galatians 4:8-11, Revised Berkeley Version)
God warned His people to not learn the ways of the nations that didn’t know Him because in so doing, they could be lured away from following what was right. In Deuteronomy 18:9 He said, “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations."
There is a question one can ask themselves: “Can Christmas be right when so much is founded on the pagan customs God warned about?” The celebration has retained many of the same practices for centuries, rooted in traditions which clearly have no scriptural association and which God opposes. Study of God's true word in the Bible teaches a person to question whether things are right or wrong. The Bible is the guidebook Jehovah God has provided so an individual can make those distinctions for themselves. His instructions should be taken seriously and followed. The apostle Paul wrote: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing people what is wrong in their lives, for correcting faults, and for teaching how to live right." (2 Timothy 3:16NCV)
Most people do not consider that the real reason Jesus Christ, the Son of Almighty God, was born as a man on the earth was not to give an excuse for revelry, but to fulfill the ministry his Father sent him to do. Christ came preaching the good news of the new kingdom (government) which he and his heavenly Father would one day establish and taught how individuals could become a part of it.
Looking at some facts about the history of the Christmas celebration, coupled with Bible proofs, should make an individual consider just how many modern day practices are derived from ancient pagan customs. While many argue or justify Christmas by saying it is celebrated with Jesus in mind, can one sincerely believe that the Son of Almighty God would find pleasure from an observance--supposedly in his honor--that is rooted in commemoration of false gods and so often marked by greed, carousing and even violence?
While many people would not even consider the prospect of not celebrating Christmas for fear of resentment, animosity or ridicule from family members, friends or acquaintances, the apostle Paul summed it up quite simply: “Do you think I am trying to make people accept me? No, God is the One I am trying to please. Am I trying to please people? If I still wanted to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10 NCV)
1 Earl W. Count, 4000 Years of Christmas, (New York: Henry Schuman, 1948), p. 11.
2 Cyclopeadia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, (1882), Vol. 2, p. 276.
9 Charles F. Vinson, "Why the World Needs Christmas", The Plain Truth, Vol. XXXVIII (December 1973), p. 19.
10 Alfred C. Hottes, 1001 Christmas Facts & Fancies, (A.T. deLamare Co., Inc., 1950), p. 14.
11 Joseph Gaer, Holidays Around the World, (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1953), p. 133.
12 Barrie Ruth Straus, The Catholic Church, (Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1987), p. 36.
13 Maymie Richardson Krythe, All About Christmas, (New York: Harper & Bros., 1954), p. 3.
15 Keller, p. 353.
16 "Christmas", Man, Myth & Magic, Vol. 4, p. 480
17 Francis X. Weiser, The Christmas Book, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1952), p. 31.
18 Keller, p. 352.
20 Keller, p. 353.