On December 25th, the world will celebrate Christmas — the festival commemorating the birth of Jesus.
It’s surely the world’s largest religious and cultural celebration. Not just because Christianity is the religion with the most followers (more than 2.2 billion). But because in most parts of the world — even if you’re not a Christian, you can’t help being affected by Christmas.
Who can avoid admiring the beautifully lit up streets and buildings? The gigantic Christmas trees in shopping malls with their colorful decorations. The sounds of modern artistes giving their best renditions of ancient Christmas songs.
For me, it’s definitely the best time of the year. And it brings out the best in people: kindness, grace, and generosity.
Have you ever wondered about the origins of Christmas though? Where and when was it first celebrated? Was it Jesus himself who asked his followers to remember his birthday? The facts might surprise you.
25th December Isn’t Jesus’ Birthday
Here’s a common conversation I hear when parents attempt to explain Christmas to kids:
Child: Mommy, why do people celebrate Christmas?
Mommy: Oh sweetie, it’s Jesus’ birthday.
Except that it’s not.
Jesus was certainly not born on 25th December, 0 AD.
In the Bible, there is no mention of when Jesus was born. The only hint given is that shepherds were out tending their sheep when they heard about His birth. This suggests that it was springtime. Definitely not winter (December) — when it would have been too cold.
Both non-Christian and Christian writers from the early centuries do not mention anything about Jesus’ birthday. In fact, the early Christian writer Origen of Alexandria dismisses Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries as “pagan” — suggesting that there was no way Jesus’ birth was celebrated.
Not only is 25th December not the right date, but we now know that early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas too.
Christmas — The Roman Festival?
So where did Christmas come from, if not from Christians?
The most popular theory is that Christmas originated from a Roman festival.
Wikipedia tells us:
Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means “the birthday of the Unconquered Sun”, a festival inaugurated by the Roman emperor Aurelian to celebrate the sun god and celebrated at the winter solstice, 25 December.
During the reign of the emperor Constantine, Christian writers assimilated this feast as the birthday of Jesus, associating him with the ‘sun of righteousness’…
During the early centuries, Jerusalem was under the rule of the Roman empire. For about three hundred years, Christianity was illegal — so Christians were frequently hurt and killed. Emperor Constantine was the first Roman emperor to publicly embrace Christianity. In 313 AD, he issued the Edict of Milan — decriminalizing Christianity, and changing the course of history forever.
The theory is that during Constantine’s reign, the now-legal Christian church decided to set the date for Jesus’ birth on the exact same day as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. This was to encourage Christianity to spread through the Roman empire as much as possible.
Bible History Daily explains it best:
If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.
And spread it did. By the 15th Century, Christianity had spread to all of Europe. Christmas was now a firm part of it. And it’s remained that way till today.
What and Why Do We Celebrate?
None of the above is new. Some Christians have been “exposing” the unpleasant truths about Christmas for a long time. Several of the websites I visited strongly suggested that Christians stop celebrating Christmas — since it originated from pagan roots. There were also arguments against Christmas trees, Santa Claus, reindeer, and mistletoe — which are all man-made traditions.
But I’d like to think the fact we still celebrate Christmas is proof that rational thought beats narrow-minded fundamentalism. Does it really matter what it used to be, as opposed to what it means to billions of people today? Doesn’t religion teach us that it doesn’t matter where we’re from, but what matters is where we’re headed?
I’m far from the most faithful Christian — but this Christmas I’m going to celebrate. I’m going to celebrate all the good things that have come out of tradition. Appreciate spending precious time with family. Enjoy the gift of giving gifts. Be amazed by the magnificent beauty that comes with commercialism. And have my heart warmed as I read stories of people serving the less fortunate.
There are two ways to view the world.
One where there’s evil in everything. One where all Muslims are crazed Jihadists plotting the next terrorist attack. One where all Western education is evil and immoral. One where Christmas is originally pagan — so Christians are actually honoring the wrong god.
And then one which tries to find beauty in everything. One where the Pope and a senior Muslim cleric can pray side by side in a mosque. One where a predominantly Christian community stands up to protect minority Muslims. And one where a festival on the wrong day can bring out the right spirit in people.
The amazing thing is — whichever way we choose to view the world — it becomes our reality.
I hope you choose wisely.
Pic Credit: “Early and Late (November 2012)” by skippyjon