I once took it for granted that Christmas was a private holiday to be spent at home with family. Candlelit Christmas Eve vigils in our living room, readings from Luke 2 and gifts labelled “From Jesus” showed that Christmas was a religious holiday. But I confess, I anticipated the presents and special foods, drinks and sweets we didn’t get the rest of the year.
A recently immigrated Congolese soldier at our corps once asked when the church would be gathering for the Christmas service, which was on a weekday that year. It made me realize that Christmas was not just a private holiday thematically connected to Jesus’ birth. Christmas was a celebration for the church.
This realization was intensified by a 2006 documentary about Sudan’s “lost boys,” God Grew Tired of Us. The film follows several young Sudanese men from a refugee camp in Uganda, where they lived for years in subsistence conditions, to their placements in North America. When Christmas Day arrived, they formed long lines, sang and danced for hours—no candy-filled stockings, no heartwarming movies, no piles of gifts. They simply celebrated the Saviour’s birth.
In comparison, my “celebration” of Christmas was shallow, dependent upon luxury, and only thematically Christian. After studying the history of Christmas, I realized that the North American Christmases I knew were unlike those of centuries ago or in the rest of the world. So, what makes Christmas Christian or not?
The earliest history of Christmas is ambiguous and coincides with observances in the pagan world in which the church found herself. Space does not allow me to detail the complex and scarcely documented developments, but the evidence allows some plausible inferences. Alas, unanswered questions remain. To “geek out” on Christmas in the early church and beyond, I recommend Thomas Talley’s The Origins of the Liturgical Year and The Oxford Handbook of Christmas.
Documentary evidence for Christians celebrating Christmas on December 25 appears about a generation after the Roman emperor, Aurelian, instituted his “Birth of the Invincible Sun” festival on the winter solstice of 274 (December 25 according to the earlier Julian calendar). These observances were never associated until hundreds of years later. Talley emphasizes that celestial events such as the winter solstice, when days begin to lengthen, were auspicious for ancient people, so religious festivals often coincided.
Earlier documentary evidence, however, reveals that Christians had entirely different reasons for their dating of Christmas. Talley explains that many ancient Jews and Christians believed that great prophets were conceived and died on the same day, yielding an “integral age.” Although this tradition was largely symbolic, several Christian writers attempted to date Christ’s birth, for liturgical purposes, from what they assumed was his death/conception.
Regional churches (e.g., North Africa, western Europe) held these observances on different dates. Even today, churches around the world exhibit diverse calendars. Nevertheless, Christians commonly calculated Christmas from the date they thought Passover was held on the year Jesus died. They simply advanced nine months to determine the date Jesus was born. We don’t know when Mary conceived or whether she carried Jesus full term. Likely, Jesus was not born “in the bleak midwinter.”
Did Aurelian aim to compete with an established Christian observance or did Christians co-opt, subvert and redeem a pagan festival? The answer remains ambiguous. Whether Christmas is truly Christian can’t be decided on a historical basis. It is also a contemporary question: Is our celebration of Christmas truly Christian?
The church does not simply observe unconnected holidays. Every holiday occurs within a recurring cycle of seasons, each of which honours some aspect of the life of Christ or the reality of the Christian faith. Christmas celebrates “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23).
If we infuse Christmas with individualism, consumerism and luxury; make Christmas a private affair; neglect the gathering of God’s people or the story of Christ’s birth; emphasize the gifts, rather than the Giver (see James 1:17); focus on what we do and not on what God has done in Christ, then we may question whether we are celebrating Christianly. Like the example of Sudan’s “lost boys,” the most authentic and vibrant Christmas celebration doesn’t require wealth or toys. How can we honour the true meaning of Christmas?
Dr. Isaiah Allen is an assistant professor of religion at Booth University College in Winnipeg.
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