In the Christian religion, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ by the virgin Mary, which is observed on December 25 by Roman Catholics and Protestants. Many in the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity observe the Christmas holiday, Epiphany.
Many people today, even Christians, celebrate Christmas with traditions such as Christmas trees (follow link for a history of the Christmas tree) and the figure of Santa Claus (follow link to read about Saint Nicholas).
The English word “Christmas” derives from the old English Christes maesse, meaning “Christ’s mass.” Christians have been celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 since at least the early fourth century. The first evidence of its observance is in Rome in 336 AD.
The earliest Christians do not appear to have commemorated the nativity, but only the baptism and resurrection of Christ and the deaths of the martyrs. In fact, some early Christians, most notably Origen of Alexandria, strongly opposed the celebration of Christ’s birth. Pointing out that only Pharaoh and Herod celebrate their birthdays in the Bible, Origen argued that birthdays were for pagans, not Christians. Jehovah’s Witnesses follow the same reasoning today in rejecting both Christmas and celebration of birthdays.
The History of Christmas
Despite the objections of some church fathers, attempts to determine Jesus’ date of birth began early. By the close of the second century, numerous dates had been advanced, including May 20, April 18, April 19, May 28, January 2, November 17, November 20, March 21 and March 25.
Putting to use the then-popular method of allegorical theology, some reasoned that Christ must have born on the same day the sun was created. Polycarp (d. 155 AD), for example, suggested that Christ was born on a Wednesday, since the sun was created on the fourth day in Genesis.
So when was Jesus actually born? Modern scholarship estimates the year of his birth from 7 to 4 BC. Although the Gospel narratives offer no indication as to the date, they do seem to indicate it was not in the winter. Luke describes the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” and this was not done in the coldest winter months.
But as early as 273 AD, Western Christians had decided on December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The December date for the holiday probably arose from a desire to provide an alternative to the Roman “birthday of the unconquered sun” and the Persian birthday of Mithras, both of which were celebrated on or around the winter solstice. A Christian writer explained in 320 AD:
We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.
In the early Eastern church, the main winter holiday was Epiphany, which commemorated both the birth and baptism of Christ on January 6. This date may have been derived from a calculation based on an assumed date of crucifixion of April 6 coupled with the ancient belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception.
The baptism of Christ was initially the more important event in the East, but January 6 became connected more with the nativity of Christ by the later 4th century.
The Eastern church celebrated Christ’s birth and baptism on January 6 until the middle of the 5th century, when the December date for Christmas was adopted there as well and Jesus’ baptism was celebrated on January 6. An exception to the December date is the Armenian Church, which continues to commemorate both the birth and baptism of Christ on January 6.
Although Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25, some still use the Julian calendar (“old calendar”) for their religious calendar. The Julian calendar is the predecessor to the Gregorian calendar (“new calendar”) that is now the civil calendar of the western world. The Julian calendar is 13 days different from the Gregorian, so December 25 on the Julian calendar occurs on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar and Epiphany on January 19. Those who use the Julian calendar include the Churches of Jerusalem, Russia and Serbia, and the monasteries on Mt. Athos.