The Origins of Christmas, December 15, 2017
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Have you ever wondered where Christmas came from? I can hear some of you groaning at that question; you’re probably thinking, “Well duh … it comes from the birth of the baby Jesus!”
Well, yes and no. These days, obviously, it’s a day for Christians to celebrate the birth of the Christ–child. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, the earliest church never celebrated Christmas.
In the earliest days of the church, it could literally cost your life to be known as a follower of Jesus. Being known as one of the people “who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9) was a matter of life and death.
Who opposed the earliest followers of the Way? The earliest Christians were feared and hated by two different groups.
On the one hand, the earliest Christians were Jews. As they left the synagogue in order to follow Jesus, other Jews decried them as a disruptive force, spreading division in the synagogue. Jesus was teaching radical new ideas which drew people away from the Torah, which was the heart of Judaism.
On the other hand, Christians were hated by Romans because they refused to pay homage to the emperor. They insisted that there was one true God and they were spreading that message throughout the Roman Empire, and disrupting the carefully laid plans of the oppressor to subdue the people in the countries they had conquered. Christians simply could not be controlled by the Empire. They defied the empire, and Rome could not let that happen.
In such an environment, the church didn’t celebrate any festival too openly.
When they met, they would do so in secret, in small gatherings usually in homes. For them, each Sunday was a mini–Easter, celebrated as the day of resurrection and new life.
All of that changed in the momentous year 313. The emperor Constantine declared that Christianity would be an official religion of the Roman Empire. Suddenly, it was legal to be a follower of Jesus, and within the next century or two, the church went from being an underground group of followers to being part of the power structure. The Church (now with a capital C) became an institution of power and influence.
One of the signs of that influence was that the Church took over a Roman pagan festival called Saturnalia. It was a weeklong festival of lawlessness running from December 17–25. During this week, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
The Church took over this festival in the 4th century. Christian leaders succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans to Christianity by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. The problem is that there was nothing remotely Christian about this festival. To remedy this, these same Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday. The very first mention of a Nativity feast happened in the year 354.
In his book, “The Battle for Christmas”, Stephen Nissenbaum writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviour’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.
Ever since, there has been a tension at Christmas time between an orgy of consumerism and a more religious observance of the holiday. The consumerist emphasis took hold in the 5th and 6th centuries, and culminated in a revelry of eating and drinking in the middle ages.
Inevitably, there was a backlash. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in England in the 17th century. In Boston, the Reverend Increase Mather observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” The Puritans followed the example of England and banned Christmas in New England as well.
This very brief historical overview shows that the origin of Christmas is not quite as obvious as first thought. To those conservative commentators who whine about the “war on Christmas”, we can appreciate with some historical insight that in fact, the Church took over an ancient pagan festival.
Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas—from decorating the house to purchasing presents to putting up a tree to wishing for a white Christmas—come from sources other than Christian origins.
I myself will continue to celebrate this season as the birth of Christ. But I bear nothing but gratitude for those who choose to celebrate it differently. I will join with you and appreciate once again that in the middle of winter, it is wonderful to celebrate a festival of Light as the days once more begin to lengthen.
I will wish people I meet “Merry Christmas”. And I won’t be offended if they wish me “Happy Holidays”.