Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th in the western church? I thought so…
According to Gathered Guests: A Guide To Worship In The Lutheran Church, 2nd Edition, Christmas has always been a celebration of God’s greatest gift…Himself. After Easter Sunday it was the second most important holiday in the church year.
The date to celebrate Christmas has shifted over time between March 25th, January 6th, and December 25th. It is thought that the December date was settled on because it coincided with a, “pagan winter solstice festival known as the birth of the invincible sun (natalis solic invicti).” This may have been adapted to become the festival revolving around the one true invincible God, “whom ‘the darkness has not overcome’ (John 1:5).” (63)
A historian named Thomas Tally suggests that December 25th also may have been settled on in the early 4th century for another ancient reason. Historically there was a more intense focus on one’s conception rather than on one’s birth and it was believed that March 25th was the annunciation date (the date announcing Jesus’ conception). I’m not sure how this part of the math works, but it was apparently based on a calculation connected to the date of John the Baptist’s conception. Besides this method, there was also an ancient mystical logic, “in which famous persons were said to have lived in complete years, [so] a person’s death date was often considered to be his day of conception.” (64) Since the early church calculated March 25th to be Good Friday, it was taken to be the conception date as well.
Based on records, “the earliest mention of Christmas as an official feast of the Christian community is from AD 354 in a list of commemorations primarily of martyrs from AD 336.” (64)
During the Christmas season, which begins on the 25th and goes for 12 days before celebrating Epiphany on January 6th, the church celebrates a number of feasts and festivals.
- The Festival of St. Stephen (12/26)
- St. John, apostle and evangelist (12/27)
- The Festival of the Holy Innocents (12/28)
- Circumcision and naming of Jesus (1/1)
After the Edict of Milan in AD 313 (that’s when Emporer Constantine said that Christianity was okay in the empire), we see a number of holidays take more public standing. Many festivals had been celebrated behind closed doors, but as Christianity became culturally accepted these celebrations became public and were recorded more openly. Many celebrations took over existing pagan celebrations and changed the meanings to be related to Christ rather than the false gods that were initially celebrated. When it comes to Christmas trees, specifically, here’s a link from History that has some interesting information. Of course, I recommend getting a scholarly book on the history of Christmas trees for further and more reliable information rather than just looking at History.com, but hey, it’s a start.
Regardless of how December 25th was chosen, we know that the date was set in stone in the 4th century, and is still celebrated by the Christian community in the west today as we remember God’s gift of life through a baby born in a stable.
Thoughts or questions, let me know.