A Brief History of Christmas

Ask just about any Christian and they’ll tell you that Christmas celebrates the birthday of Jesus. That’s what they’re taught. Ask them what the Bible says about Christmas, and there’s a good chance they’ll draw a blank. But they might mention some stories about Jesus’ birth.

Luke’s gospel has the story of Jesus’ birth in a manger. Matthew’s gospel has the story of the three wise men following a star to find the baby Jesus. These stories tend to be mixed and matched, even though the birth stories in Luke and Mathew are often contradictory. The remaining gospels of Mark and John say nothing of Jesus’ birth, and Mark contradicts important aspects of the standard tale. In any case, while stories of Jesus’ birth have been incorporated into Christmas, they are not accounts of Christmas.

Ask people how Peter, Paul, and the apostles celebrated Christmas, and they’ll almost certainly draw a blank. This is not just a matter of ignorance. Paul’s letters are the oldest part of the New Testament. He never wrote his churches about Jesus’ birth, or its celebration. There’s no hint of Christmas.

Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is his account of the earliest days of Christianity, from Pentecost to Paul’s arrival in Rome about three decades later. Luke says nothing about Peter, James, or the apostles celebrating Jesus’ birthday, or anything remotely like Christmas. Consistent with Paul’s letters, Luke also says nothing about Paul’s churches celebrating Christmas.

The Teaching of the Apostles, or Didache, is an ancient handbook for the Christian community. It was first written in the apostolic era, and was updated and revised for well over a century. While the handbook includes various commemorations of Jesus, none involve his birthday or otherwise resemble Christmas.

The church fathers were prolific writers. None wrote of anything like Christmas. There were also many “heretical” versions of Christianity in these early centuries, but none celebrated Jesus’ birthday or anything like Christmas.

Christmas only made its appearance in the fourth century, three hundred years after Jesus’ death. While people celebrated birthdays in those days, no one previously thought of celebrating the birth of Jesus. Even at its inception, Christmas was celebrated around December 25.

None of the birth stories in the New Testament say when Jesus was born. But Luke tells us that when Jesus was born, “there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock” (2:8), but they dropped what they were doing to rush over to see and glorify the baby Jesus in his manger. (Evidently, you didn’t have to be a wise man or magus to figure out who Jesus was.)

Why Christmas?

While Luke gave no date, it certainly couldn’t have been anywhere near December 25. At that time of year, temperatures at night are near freezing. Neither shepherds nor their flock are out in the fields. In other words, while we don’t know when Jesus was born, it couldn’t have been anywhere near the date chosen for Christmas. Why did they pick this date?

Christmas made its appearance after the emperor Constantine had effectively made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine wanted to unify the Empire behind Christianity, and behind its leader, God’s earthly representative—the emperor. At the time, there were many gods, and the calendar contained many celebrations for them. These festivals were far more important than today’s readers imagine.

Throughout almost all of history before the industrial revolution, the vast majority of the population lived at the subsistence level. In the Roman Empire, about ninety percent of the people just got by, and many failed to make it. Life was brutish, and diets were quite limited. When the Bible talks of “our daily bread,” this is not just a figure of speech. People’s diets consisted of bread and grains, along with some vegetables and pulses. Ninety percent of the people could not afford meat, much as they wanted it. The only time they ate meat was when they were given it for free at various festivals. It was one of the ways the elite bought the loyalty of the masses.

The winter solstice, around December 25, was associated with the birth of the Sun God, and many important festivals. One of the most important was Saturnalia, which lasted a week. It also celebrated the birth of Mithras and others. Not only was free meat available, it was a rare time of merry-making.

Constantine wanted everyone to sign up for Christianity. He showered a fortune on the church, and offered the elite many incentives to convert. He also wanted the masses. But they weren’t about to give up their pagan festivals and free meat. So Constantine invented Christmas to co-opt the most important of these festivals. Besides, Constantine revered the Sun God. He even minted coins honoring Sol Invictus.

Some credit Ebenezer Scrooge with putting the humbug in Christmas. But it was humbug from its very beginning, a marketing gimmick to win over the rubes. Its inventors knew it had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, and could care less. It was a hoax. But initially, it was a benign hoax. In fact, the Church had to spend a lot of Constantine’s money to buy all that meat. But through ecclesiastical legerdemain, the Church managed to transform Christmas into an occasion for filling its coffers rather than drawing them down. I am not sure exactly how they managed this. It’s one of those great Church mysteries.

New Testament scholars have long known that Jesus was not born on Christmas, and my guess is that most priests and pastors also know it. There are many ways to commemorate Jesus without resorting to lies. Mother’s Day is not only popular, it is very good for business. Why must they repeat their solemn lies about Christmas?

© Steve Herman, 2015