Is December 25th Christ's Birthday?

Indeed, many claim that today, December 25th is the birthday of Christ. During this time of year, many are announcing the story of the birth of Christ as if this is the time to think of all that Christ has done for us. In many churches of human origin there will be pageants, plays, special music and sermons on the birth of Christ in celebration of Christmas. These usually are shocked to find that churches of Christ have no special Christmas program. Amazement is expressed when one hears that one can be a Christian and not celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Christ. Upon hearing this the question is asked, “Well, where did Christmas come from then?” Perhaps this is an appropriate time to call attention to some of the practices involved in this time of year and to point out some of the perversions of facts as well as to make some observations designed to benefit the Christian and his relationship to such. So let us tell the story again.

One does not learn of a Christmas festival from a study of the Bible. Yes, the Bible does tell us of the birth of Christ, but does not give the time of year, nor indicate in any way that the early church celebrated his birth. In fact we learn from history that “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 3, page 724). The Bible teaches us that the death of Christ is the important thing and not the birth. Certainly, if Jesus was not born, he could not have lived in the flesh and offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. However, we are not instructed to have a special worship service in honor of his birth. We are taught that baptism is a form of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-4) and the Lord’s Supper is to be observed each first day of the week (Acts 20:7) as a memorial of the death of Christ and a proclamation of His promised return (1 Cor. 11:26). Men have no authority to set up other memorials.

Even the name “Christmas” is of Catholic origin. “The name is derived from the medieval Christes Masse, the Mass of Christ” (Encyclopedia Americana). The Catholics had a special “mass,” (their corruption of the Lord's Supper) for Christ. This was called “Christ-Mass,” later shortened to “Christmas.”

Concerning the date of December 25th, three dates have been variously considered: January 6, March 25, and December 25. Liberius, Bishop of Rome (Catholics consider him as one of their early popes), in 354 AD ordered that December 25 be adopted. The choice of this date was probably influenced by the fact that this was the day on which the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sun-god (The Lincoln Library of Essential Information). The Roman Saturnalia also came at this time. “The indications are that the church (Catholic church, mdg) in this way grasped the opportunity to turn the people away from a purely pagan observance of the winter solstice to a day of adoration of Christ the Lord. Both St. Cyprian and St. John Chrysostom allude to this thought in their writings” (Collier’s Encyclopedia). The Syrians continued to use January 6 and accused the Romans of sun worship and idolatry. Please note that in Britain, December 25 was a festival long before nominal Christianity came to that land. It marked the beginning of the new year for them. “The traditional customs connected with Christmas have developed from several sources as a result of the coincidence of the celebration of the birth of Christ with the pagan agricultural and solar observations at midwinter. In the Roman world the Saturnalia (December 17) was a time of merrymaking and exchange of gifts. December 25 was also regarded as the birth date of the Iranian mystery god Mithra, the Sun of Righteousness” (The Encyclopedia Britannica).

However, December 25 is a most unlikely date for the Savior’s birth. “It was a custom among the Jews to send out their sheep to the deserts, about the Passover, and bring them home at the commencement of the first rain: during the time they were out, the shepherds watched them night and day. As the Passover occurred in the spring, and the first rain began early in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to part of our October and November, we find that the sheep were kept out in the open country during the whole of the summer. And as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could he have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light upon this disputed point” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary).

Consider the facts from the following Bible chronology: Birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25; Lk. 2:1-7); Visit of Shepherds that same night (Lk. 2:8-20); Jesus’ circumcision when he was eight days old (Lk. 2:21); Jesus’ presentation in the temple at least 40 days after his birth (cf.  Lev. 12:2-6; Lk. 2:22-38); Visit of the wise men (Matt. 2:1-12); Journey to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15); Male Children killed (Matt. 2:16-18); Return to Nazareth (Lk. 2:39; Matt. 2:19-23). Note that the wise men and the shepherds were not the same and did not arrive at the same time or same place. The wise men came after Jesus’ presentation in the temple at least 40 days after his birth and they found him in a “house” (Matt. 2:11), not in the manger as so many believe. The Bible does not tell us how many wise men there were.

Many local customs from various lands have been injected into this time of year. “Most of the customs now associated with Christmas were not originally Christmas customs, but rather were pre-Christian customs taken up by the Christian church” (Encyclopedia Americana). The English gave the season more of a social flavor than anything else. The feudal barons extended their hospitality to their friends, tenants and households. There was rich food and gifts for children. The Roman Saturnalia provided many of the merry-making customs of Christmas. Santa Claus is a contraction of Saint Nicholas who was a real bishop in the Roman Catholic church, who lived in the fourth century and became the patron saint of children. To honor Santa Claus is to honor a Catholic saint. Space does not allow us to give a detailed discussion of the many customs now practiced.

For the Christian however, there should be no effort to blend a season of giving, hospitality and family gatherings and many other things which might be called “folk customs” with any type of celebration of the birth of Christ. The fact that certain customs originated in paganism, does not necessarily make them wrong. Paul dealt with the problem of eating meats sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8). To eat it as a religious act was wrong. Yet, aside from that, such eating was not wrong, provided it did not embolden the weak brother to eat doubtfully. It should not be hard for the Christian to keep Christ out of “Christmas” for truly he was never in it. The Catholic church dreamed all that up by themselves without the help or approval of Christ. There will be no special services at the church of Christ in observance of this pagan and Catholic holiday.  Micky Galloway