Over the years I have heard innumerable accusations leveled against Christians and the church, criticizing us for our celebration of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus, and other targeted derogatory comments which, to be honest, are frequently valid criticisms. So in my preparation I decided to do some research of various beliefs and practices associated with the celebration of Christmas. I will present this through a series of questions, and then the answers.
Is December 25 the actual birthday of Jesus? The answer is: We don’t know. The Bible does not provide a date for his birth. We can surmise, however, that it is not December 25. Shepherds would not have had their sheep out on the hills in the dead of winter. They would have been closed in a pen near town to be fed from feed set aside for the winter months. Shepherds typically took their sheep out to graze in the spring. Once the fields had been worked over throughout the spring, the shepherd would have moved the sheep up into the mountains where there was fresh, green pastures, and also predators (see Psalm 23).
So why December 25? Good question. First, the birth of the Jesus was not even celebrated for the first 300 years or so following his death and resurrection. It was actually Pope Julius I who chose December 25. Julius was the bishop of Rome from 337-352 AD. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful. Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on – you guessed it – December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
Second, in Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Supposedly Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made night-time flights through the sky to observe his people. Then he would decide who should prosper or who should perish. Because of his foreboding presence, many Germans chose to stay inside. Oden sure sounds a lot like Santa Claus, only Santa is kindly and not so inclined to whack people! The flying around at night, and checking on who’s been naughty and nice makes you wonder.
The church went through some periods of time where the celebration of the birth of Jesus was outlawed. Martin Luther was not in favor of this practice, and the early Pilgrims in the Massachusetts Bay Colony would fine anyone who was showing any indications of celebratory activity around December 25. The fine was 5 shillings – no small sum for that time. One of the reasons for not celebrating Jesus’ birthday is that of the two other birthdays mentioned in the Bible, Pharaoh and Herod – bad things happened. And then the prophets, Jeremiah and Job, mention cursing the day of their birth.
The Christmas tree is considered by some as Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship. Saint Boniface (634–709), who was a missionary in Germany, took an axe to an oak tree dedicated to Thor and pointed out a fir tree, which he stated was a more fitting object of reverence because it pointed to heaven and it had a triangular shape, which he said was symbolic of the Trinity.
By 1841 the Christmas tree had become widespread throughout Britain. By the 1870s, people in the United States had adopted the custom of putting up a Christmas tree.
December 25–Christmas Day–has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.
People often confuse Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas (St. Nick). Here’s how to remember one from the other. Santa Claus is a fictional character at best. Saint Nicholas was a real person. He was born in a part of Greece which is now in modern-day Turkey. His parents were Christians and very wealthy. During a plague the parents died and the young Nicholas was left in the care of his uncle, also named Nicholas. Stories abound about the life of young Nicholas. Most prominently, he was known for tossing small bags of gold (from his inheritance) into the bedrooms of those in need. Supposedly, he heard that someone was waiting to see who was doing this, so Nick dropped it down the chimney whereupon it fell into a girls stocking which was hanging to dry over the warm embers.
Just remember – Christmas is a celebration of God coming to earth in the flesh, revealing himself to us in his Son, Jesus, our Savior. That’s worth celebrating!