Is the History Behind Christmas Really Jesus?
I was speaking with someone the other day regarding Christmas decorations. She expressed her disappointment in the inability to find any type of Nativity scene for her yard this year. She also told me that at school, her son was told, several times, to say "Happy Holidays!" and not "Merry Christmas!" As with most Christians, examples of people downplaying one of our most important days of the year with talk of "it's not about Jesus, it's about being with your family!" makes me upset. To me, it's the same as telling an American to stop calling the Fourth of July "Independence Day" and start calling it "Fireworks Day," so as not to offend people who were born outside the United States.
As a Christian, I have always been told Christmas is a celebration of Jesus' birth. It also makes sense that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus Christ, considering the name of the holiday is "Christmas." But it got me to thinking about the history of the celebration of the holiday. Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th? Who first celebrated Christmas? Is the holiday really about Jesus' birth or something else entirely?
Researching subjects like this, especially traditional days of a calendar year that we Christians celebrate while fervently asserting these days as "Christian Holidays," is not for the faint of heart. I remember my first time to begin really researching stories that have contradicted I've come to accept over the years was when I read The DaVinci Code. Personally, I found it fascinating to read historical facts about stories within the Bible and events that happened outside of it; it gives me a greater understanding of my faith and why I believe the things I believe. However, for some Christians, doing this type of research angers and upsets them. Reading about Christmas was no exception.
From a Biblical perspective, there is nothing that tells us that Jesus' birth was December 25th. There was no mention of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, or mistletoe. There was gift-giving, as the Three Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus when they heard of His birth, but that was really the only traditional Christmas practice mentioned in the Bible. So, how did all of that other "stuff" come to be a part of our Christmas celebration?
Much like many other days of the year, political men throughout history have given dates to important events that transpired in Jesus' life. Easter, for example, is an estimation as well. In fact, Easter is the basis upon which our traditional calendar was created. Before Easter and the Passover, many different countries had different calendars with different dates, with the year beginning and ending on different days. While there are many accounts to how Jesus' birth got a date, many believe that December 25th was chosen because it was 9 months after Jesus' death, or estimation of His death. Whatever you believe, even if you are a Christian, just know that December 25th is just a day that people in the modern day world use to represent the celebration of His birth, not Jesus' actual birthday.
The celebration of Christmas is another story entirely, and not one with a great history from a Christian point of view. As with most legends, the celebration of how Christmas came to be "Christmas" has many different versions. In my research, the story I found referred to more than any other was the Pagan celebration of the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was a time around the winter soltice, between December 17 and December 23, which involved festivals, feasts, and gift giving. The traditions were practiced to celebrate the Roman diety of Saturn and to mark the winter solstice. Some believe that this particular holiday helped influence that date upon which Christians would celebrate Jesus' birthday, as it was widely celebrated already. Many in the scholastic world would argue that early Christians used this pagan holiday as a means to spread the word of Christ by "taking over" the pagan holiday and changing it's meaning, but leaving some traditions so it would be more accepted upon non-Christians, thereby reaching more people throughout the world with God's message.
Other practices and traditions we engage in during the Christmas time also got their start with early Pagan or non-religious traditions. For example, the act of bringing a tree inside a home began before Christmas ever got its' start. Romans would bring evergreen trees inside their homes during winter to celebrate and remember life during a time when most plants died. Decorating the tree, however, is a Christian tradition, as it is believed the early Christians would put red berries on the tree to represent Jesus' blood on the cross. The practice of kissing under the mistletoe began at the celebration of Saturnalia, with the belief that mistletoe had magical elements and was a image of fertility. The most widespread and well-known Christmas tradition, Santa Claus, has nothing to do with Jesus Christ and continues to be a sign of Christmas to this day.
From day to day, I hear many people mention things like, "Christmas has always been a holiday that been accepted in the US, and it's not the 'holidays,' it's Jesus' birthday!" Once again, I have found this to be untrue. In fact, the celebration of Christmas was banned for 22 years during the 17th century in Boston by the Puritans because they thought the inappropriate traditions at Christmas were, in fact, anti-Christian. It was widely accepted by England before that time to drink heavily and engage in lewd acts during this time of celebration and Puritans banned it because it got it's start and traditions from Pagan practices.
There are a few things I can conclude from all of this. First, Christmas got its start and traditions from many different religions, cultures, and people throughout history. Second, while the meanings of these traditions has changed from generation to generation, I think it's safe to say that the time of Christmas and this time of year has been around since before Jesus came and has, since His death, taken the identity of a celebration of Jesus' birth. I will no longer be quick to say, anymore, that this holiday is only about Jesus, because it's really not. We can safely say that many traditions we practice at Christmastime are not Biblically based at all, and are just traditions we like and enjoy and give us an excuse to do things and sings songs we normally do not get to participate in. For the Christian, however, this is our time to celebrate Jesus' birthday, despite the history behind it.