For most people, we know that Christmas is a special time of year. Over the next week, we will hear the Christmas story in many ways in services on Wednesday night, two on Christmas Eve and a special Christmas Day service!
Christmas is a unique holiday in the Christian calendar. If you were to ask people outside the faith what is the most important holiday for Christians, their answer would most likely be Christmas. The truth is, as “major” holidays go, Christmas was an afterthought. The actual birth of Christ was understood as important to the extent of recognizing the incarnation, but it was not a high holy day.
Christmas became so central to the church because it is the benefactor of really good marketing and a nice little trick that came from the earliest Christians. Christianity was very different than other religions at the time, because blood and purity were not as important as faith and commitment. This meant that it was very common for the new tradition to adopt celebrations and traditions that were not its own. Granted, this is different than Pentecost and Easter, both of which were continued from the Jewish community by the early Christians, who saw themselves as a sect of Judaism. Christmas and some of the other holidays really are far more connected to the pagan holidays than anything else.
Truth be told, most people will place the actual “historical” birth of Christ somewhere between late spring and early summer. The first time Christmas entered a Christian calendar was around the 3rd century A.D. Christendom was embroiled in controversy as to the divinity and incarnation of Christ. This escalation is very apparent in the discussions of the council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed, which was written in 325 A.D. and revised in 381 A.D. The creed affirmed that “the divinity of Christ, the Son, is of the same substance as the divinity of God, the Father. To hold otherwise, they said, was to open the possibility of polytheism, and to imply that knowledge of God in Christ was not final knowledge of God.” But it was going to take more to get people to understand and accept this theology.
It was Clement of Alexandria who first suggested Christmas as a holiday and set the date to be May 20. Granted, I find that to be an interesting date, especially when you think of its proximity to Easter and Pentecost. But it makes sense¾Christmas was to be both a celebration and education. Locating it within the proximity of Easter and Pentecost allowed it to follow a theology that placed Christ in the most divine location. Being merely a lesson on the incarnate reality of Christ, the fanfare and focus were just not that important. And many did not celebrate it with much consistency. It would take another century and a half for it to become established as a consistent holy day.
It was not until the late 4th century, when the church was 400+ years old, that Christmas would be consistently celebrated. Until that time, the Epiphany (January 6) was the major holiday. I will write more on this topic in a couple weeks, but Epiphany formally represents the “birth” of Christ, the incarnation of Christ (when God’s spirit enters Christ at the baptism), as well as the story of the witness of the Magi and their choice not to report back to King Herod.
How Christmas moved from May 20 to December 25 is one of the mysteries of the early church, but the first record of its observance on December 25 is in the year 336. Most historians and theologians have determined that the day was picked because of the Roman pagan holiday of Sol Invictus, honoring the sun god. But this also makes sense. It is located at the winter solstice, when days are turning longer, which represented light and hope. The celebration of the incarnate Christ was perfect there.
Contrary to modern tradition, as a holy day Christmas is still not a major one. But it is a special day that deserves a celebration. Unfortunately, though, many people will force it to be something much bigger than it is. And that is the trap! There is a reason why it is so late in being canonized. That is because more important to both the church and faith are the days of Easter and Pentecost, which teach us forgiveness and call us to action. But it is good to celebrate Christmas, because it reminds us that God did give us a gift in the incarnation of Christ.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen