Why Do They Celebrate December 25?
PERHAPS the most natural response to that question is: “Because it is the day Jesus was born.” But no one seriously claims that Jesus was born on December 25. In fact, it is quite evident that he was not born in December. Though the actual date of Jesus’ birth is not known, the fact that the shepherds were spending the night in the fields would eliminate December. The autumn would be a much more logical time.
Many people will say: “Since we do not know when he was born, one day is as good as the other, just as long as we celebrate his birth.” However, that is not true either, as we shall see.
The celebration of Christmas is not as old as you might think. It does not go back to the time of Jesus, his apostles and disciples. The writers of the Sacred Scriptures never mentioned the date of the birth of Jesus, though they obviously could have known it. What they do state is the date of Jesus’ death. That date is specific—the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nisan. Jesus commanded his disciples to celebrate that date, but neither Jesus nor his apostles nor his disciples ever mention celebrating the date of his birth. Auguste Hollard truthfully says in Les Origines des Fêtes Chrétiennes: “The first Christians did not even have the idea of celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus: the anniversary of his death interested them much more, as well as that of his resurrection, that is to say of his victory over death.”
Both Catholic and Protestant authorities are agreed on this. Oscar Cullmann, Protestant, Doctor of Theology, connected with the Universities of Strasbourg and Basel and with the ‹École› des ‹Hautes-Études› in Paris, wrote: “Our Christmas holiday, celebrated December 25, was unknown to the Christians of the first three centuries. Until the beginning of the fourth century, this day that, afterwards, would be a central date in the Christian Church, passed unknown to the Christians.”* The Roman Catholic abbot L. Duchesne explained to his students at the Catholic Institute of Paris (Institut Catholique) that “there is no authorized tradition on the day of Christ’s birth.” He then discussed the different dates that were proposed by various church authorities during the third century, and added: “Those who proposed such combinations obviously knew nothing of the existence of the celebration of Christmas.”*
SPECULATION ABOUT HIS BIRTH
It is interesting to note that in those ancient days, and in the absence of any specific comment in the Sacred Scriptures, it was generally assumed that Jesus was born in the springtime. The abbot Duchesne reports: “As to the month and day, Clement of Alexandria [who lived during the third century] talks of calculations that ended at the 18th, at the 19th of April or again at the 29th of May; but these were private calculations, that did not establish the observance of any celebration. The book entitled ‘De Pascha Computus,’ published in 243, either in Africa or in Italy, says that O. L. [Our Lord] was born March 28.”*
You will appreciate how little really is known about the true date of Christ’s birth when you know the strange way in which this last book established that March 28 date. It argued that when God created the world he first divided the light from the darkness. God is perfect, so that division must have been equal. Night and day are equal at the equinox, March 25 on the Roman calendar. The sun was created on the fourth day, so that would be March 28. The next step in this hazy juggling of ideas was to say that since, according to Malachi 4:2, Christ is the “sun of righteousness,” he was born on the day the sun was created—March 28.
The spring was especially favored in all these calculations because, having completely forgotten Daniel’s specific prophecy that showed Jesus would preach for three and a half years after his baptism at the age of thirty, most church authorities of this epoch believed Jesus would have lived a round number of years.* At least one writer, Clement of Alexandria, scoffed at those who, through such speculations, tried to determine the date of Christ’s birth. He was not entirely free of blame, however, because he elsewhere seems to favor a November 17 date.
WHEN CHANGED TO DECEMBER 25
December 25 was not the first date on which Christ’s birth was celebrated. While the various speculations mentioned above were not used to establish a celebration or festival in honor of Jesus’ birth, still another date was chosen. Again it is Clement of Alexandria who reports that the disciples of Basilide celebrated the baptism of Jesus on January 6 or 10. They thought Christ’s “manifestation” (Greek: epipháneia) was at the time of his baptism, and they called this celebration Epiphany. The church considered this doctrine to be heresy, and she fought it by adding a celebration of Christ’s birth to the already existing celebration of his baptism on the same day. Thus Cullmann says: “We see that from the first half of the fourth century the Church celebrated Epiphany on January 6 and that in this celebration she united the baptism and the birth of Christ. Nothing was taken away from the original celebration of the baptism; the celebration of the birth was simply added to it.”*
Though Epiphany still is the date for gift-giving in many Latin countries, it no longer is celebrated as the day of Jesus’ birth. When was this changed to December 25? Abbot Duchesne says its most ancient testimonial is a calendar “drawn up at Rome in 336.”* Cullmann adds: “December 25, as anniversary of the birth of Christ, is attested at Rome from 336 and should already have been celebrated as such earlier, under Constantine the Great.”*
PAGAN SUN WORSHIP
Why since Constantine’s time? Cullmann gives as a very important reason “the fact that in the pagan world December 25 was celebrated as a particularly important holiday in honor of the Sun, and that the emperor Constantine the Great purposely intended to unite Sun worship to Christian worship.”* While the church says it chose the dates of such pagan celebrations “to compete with the pagan worship,” Constantine, Roman emperor gifted with a strong political sense, wanted unity within his empire, not division. Thus he wanted practices that bore Christian names, not to compete with pagan ones, but to unite with them.
This emperor, who had enough influence that he personally could call the first of the Catholic church’s list of twenty general (or ecumenical) councils—a power that in this twentieth century was reserved to John XXIII himself!—was not in opposition to the pagan celebration, but in agreement with it. “During all his life,” Cullmann says, “he did not cease to favor the worship of the Sun.”*
You will remember that it was the still-unbaptized Constantine whose sun worship was responsible for pointing Christendom’s churches from west to east, as was discussed in Awake! September 22, 1959. It also was Constantine who, in 321, legalized the mélange between the “Christians’” weekly rest day and the day that was dedicated to the worship of the sun—still called “Sunday” in the Germanic languages.
Cullmann says: “The analogy given by Sunday, that became under Constantine an official holiday, explains, in our opinion, that, already during his lifetime, and without doubt also under his influence, the celebration of the birth of Christ was changed to December 25, grand holiday in honor of the sun.”*
That this celebration did begin in Constantine’s Rome, and not in one of the other seats of the early church, such as Antioch, Jerusalem or Alexandria, is shown by a fourth-century writer. The abbot Duchesne explains: “The celebration of Christmas was at first a celebration characteristic of the Latin Church. Saint John Chrysostom testifies in a homily pronounced in 386 that it had been introduced at Antioch only about ten years earlier, or about 375. At the time he spoke the celebration was not yet observed at Jerusalem, neither at Alexandria. In this latter metropolis, it was adopted about 430.”*
In the days of Pope Leo the Great (440-461) there were Catholics who still celebrated, on this pagan date, the birth of the sun instead of the birth of Christ. And even now this pagan celebration of the Natalis Invicti, or “birthday of the undefeated [sun],” has perpetuated itself in many customs, such as the lighting of fires, and so forth, that those who celebrate Christmas still follow.
Anyone who is familiar with the Sacred Scriptures knows the condemned place that sun worship occupies in God’s sight. Almost universal among the pagans, whether they be Romans, Africans, Asians or even American Indians, sun worship was categorically forbidden for God’s people. Every time it is mentioned in the inspired Scriptures it is condemned as being one of the ways Satan draws the worship of men away from the Creator and directs it toward some created thing.
At Deuteronomy 4:19, for example, serving “the sun and the moon and the stars” is put in the same condemnable category as is idolatry. So condemnable is it in God’s sight that, at Deuteronomy 17:3-5 the person who worships “the sun or the moon or all the army of the heavens” is said to have practiced such a “detestable thing” that he is worthy of death! Further, among the impurities cast out by good King Josiah, in the seventh century before Christ, were the idolatrous “foreign-god priests” and those who made “sacrificial smoke to Baal, to the sun and to the moon.” Yet similar sun worship in Rome provided the background for today’s Christmas celebration!—2 Ki. 23:5.
The desecration of Jehovah’s temple, recounted in Ezekiel chapter 8, tells of “detestable things” in addition to the hateful pictures drawn on the temple’s walls, and to which the elders of Israel offered incense. It tells of “detestable things” even worse than those committed by the women who were weeping for the Babylonian god Tammuz in the temple dedicated to the true God. What “detestable things”? Twenty-five men “bowing down to the east, to the sun.” Yet this sun worship, passed on down to the pagan Romans of the third and fourth centuries of our Common Era, is the basis for today’s Christmas celebration!
WHAT THE CHRISTIAN SHOULD DO
The fact that the date of Jesus’ birth is not mentioned in the Scriptures, although they are explicit about the date of his death, should be a warning to Christians. It is not that this date was not known to Bible writers. Instead, it is as if it were deliberately ignored, almost as if it were purposely hidden. Nothing in the Sacred Scriptures—not even one word—indicates that we should celebrate Christ’s birthday. Indeed, had it been intended that we do so, the Divine Record would at least have given the date. Nor is the lack of that date an oversight. These Bible writers had the holy spirit that Christ had promised, and that spirit reminded them of all the necessary things. Jesus had told them: “But the helper, the holy spirit which the Father will send in my name, that one will teach you all things and bring back to your minds all the things I told you.”—John 14:26.
Exactly to the contrary of this day that owes so much to paganism is the one celebration that Christians are told to keep. That celebration is not of Jesus’ birth, but of his death. The date is precise—the date of the Passover, Nisan 14 according to the Jewish calendar. It comes, not in the winter, but in the springtime. Regarding this new celebration that Jesus instituted, he said: “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) That statement was never made about Jesus’ birth. The commemoration of his death, in the springtime, is the only ceremony the Bible commands Christians to keep.
Though the authorities cited in this article do not agree, the early Christians of the first centuries were right in rejecting the pagan celebration onto which Christ’s name has been grafted. True Christians also will reject it, celebrating, not the rebirth of the sun, no matter how it has been renamed, but only Christ’s death. They will do this because they agree with the apostle Peter that “the time that has passed by is sufficient for you to have worked out the will of the nations.”—1 Pet. 4:3.
Noël dans l’Église Ancienne, by Oscar Cullmann, No. 25 in Cahiers Théologiques de l’Actualite Protestante, page 9.
Origines du Culte Chrétien, by the abbot L. Duchesne, Second Edition, page 247.
Origines du Culte Chrétien, by the abbot L. Duchesne, Second Edition, page 247.
For a discussion of Daniel’s prophecy of the “Seventy Weeks,” see the book “This Means Everlasting Life,” Chapter VIII.
Noël dans l’Église Ancienne, page 18.
Origines du Culte Chrétien, page 248.
Noël dans l’Église Ancienne, page 23.
Ibid., page 24.
Ibid., page 26.
Noël dans l’Église Ancienne, page 27.
Origines du Culte Chrétien, page 248.