Friday, November 8, 2013

The Mystery of Christmas

It isn’t even Thanksgiving, and Christmas carols are already floating through the air.  In television ads, gifts pile up under a tree covered with decorations.  A jolly, bearded elf waves merrily.  Streets are starting to fill up with images of angels.  Homes will soon be ablaze with lights along with the joyous sounds of families gathering to enjoy the season.

No wonder early Church Fathers hated Christmas.

They would have found the hoopla surrounding the holiday unfathomable.  Christmas wasn't even celebrated with any known festivities for at least 200 years after Jesus was born. Even the term “Christmas,” so familiar to us, was unknown then. Christmas does not show up on the list of Christian festivals described late in the second century by such men as Irenaeus -- who was the first to list the books now in the New Testament -- or Tertullian, one of the great scholars of that era. 

Iconic view of Church Fathers
Origen, the most prolific writer among the early Church hierarchy, didn't like the idea of a birthday party at all.  He noted that the birthdays of Moses, Abraham and prophets didn't warrant a single cake or candles.  In the holy texts, he added scornfully, only sinners celebrate their birthdays.

Arnobius, another great leader of that day, satirically commented on the "birthday of the gods."  He may have been thinking of Roman emperors who ordered annual feasts on their birthdays.

When the Church finally decided to have a holiday to mark Jesus’ nativity, the question was: what day? In 200 A.D., the holiday finally earned an official mention.  Clement of Alexandria said then that, in Egypt, the day chosen for the big occasion was May 20.  He said the theologians thought the fifth month of their calendar corresponded to the ninth month of the calendar at the time when Jesus lived. 

Other dates suggested for Jesus' birthday included April 19 and April 20.  March 28 earned a vote because that was the day, supposedly, when the sun was created.  A later study found that
Two Christmas stories combined
Christ's birthday has been earnestly placed on virtually every day of the year, each claim supported by ample evidence or wise conjecture.

In reality, no one knew exactly when Jesus was born.  At the time of his nativity, no one thought to record the date.

December reportedly was given the nod by bishops at the famed Nicea Council in 325.  That view didn’t have much impact, based on the welter of proposed dates that followed that significant clerical session.

In 350, supposedly, Pope Julius I decided to resolve any lingering debates.  According to extant correspondence, he acted at the request of Cyril of Jerusalem, a famed priest who was upset that his clergy had to march into the Holy City twice for separate holidays.  Based on this account, Cyril asked Julius to declare that Christ was born on December 25, relying on census documents supposedly brought to Rome by Titus, the Roman general who destroyed the Temple in 70 AD.  If the story is true -- and the documents recounting it may have been forged -- Cyril still hadn't changed the date six years after Julius died.

The Pontiff certainly didn't convince many people.  In Jerusalem, Silvia of Etheria could write about the celebration she witnessed in 385, which lasted 40 days and started January 6.  She also said the major Christian religious festivals were only Easter and Epiphany. 

In fact, Jerusalem didn't succumb to the December 25 designation until at least 300 years later.  Instead, commemorations of Jewish King David and James the Apostle were held annually on December 25.

Antioch, another important early Christian stronghold, opted to join the December 25 bandwagon, but not until as late as 386 or 387.   St. John Chrysostom, the Church leader there, attempted to hold one celebration rather than have it scattered around the calendar.  He wrote that part of the community had been celebrating Christmas on December 25 for at least a decade.  Ironically, he faced conservatives who opposed the move. 

St. John Chrysostom
In Constantinople, Christmas was held on January 6, conforming to Chrysostom's view.  In Hispanic countries today, the big day is still January 6, commemorating when the traveling magi reportedly arrived in Bethlehem to worship baby Jesus.

In Rome, December 25 also held sway.  Early documents from 354 contain a calendar listing claiming Christ was born that day.  Naturally, given the carelessness associated with the handling of the texts, there's some question whether later pious insertions helped "confirm" the exact date. 

By the late fourth century, the diocese in Constantinople, capital of the eastern Roman Empire and residence of the emperor, supported December 25.  That ended the argument.

The holiday quickly took on pagan attributes.  That didn't sit well with Christian authorities. In 425, they banned circus games.  About 100 years later, they ordered all work to stop on December 25.  A few years after that, they extended the holiday and matched the old 12-day Egyptian version, and added a fast.  None of that choked off the merrymaking.  Around 1000 A.D., some inventive leader fabricated the "Laws of King Cnut," which mandated a fast from December 25 to January 6.

No doubt, this austere approach made Christians hungry for some real holiday excitement.

After Christmas festivities returned in the Middle Ages, Puritans banned the celebration of the holiday first in England and then in their new home in America.  They were upset because Christmas does not appear in the Bible, which they considered the final word on such holidays.  Some Christian sects today refuse to acknowledge Christmas for that reason.  Some Catholics still do not begin to trim their Christmas trees until Christmas Eve to maintain the sanctity of the holiday.

1700s Christmas celebration
Most others went about enjoying the season. A Terre Haute (Indiana) newspaper editor in 1855 commented on the frivolity. He was bemused by the "gambol," gift exchanges, and the person of "Santa Clause" who seemed to dominate the holiday. He wondered if such behavior was the proper way of celebrating the birth of Christ. In a telling comment, he noted that it was probably already too late to change things, as the trend was already well established.

He could say the same thing these days.  With no Church Fathers to provide opposition, Christmas has crept far beyond a single day in December to cast a red-and-green shadow over the last two months of the year.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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