Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated by the apparent secularization of Christmas? As the baby Jesus shares the spotlight with Santa Claus, and glowing, mailbox-size candy canes pop up alongside nativity displays, it’s easy to grow nostalgic for a time when the celebration of Christmas as a Christian holiday was unfettered by commercialism — when reverent worship services and quiet family gatherings weren’t juxtaposed alongside raucous winter festivals and velvet-clad pop stars.
But was there ever really such a time? Why did Christians begin celebrating the birth of Jesus to begin with?
Despite its contemporary prominence in Christian culture, formal celebrations of Christmas did not begin until the fourth century. Easter, not Christmas, was the focal point of the year for the early church. The gospels themselves reflect this: only Matthew and Luke give any account of the birth of Jesus, and they vary greatly in details and significance, while all four gospels share a powerful record of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. When Christmas celebrations began to take shape in the church, Christians combined elements of the nativity stories presented in Luke and Matthew with other traditions that had been picked up along the way. The first record of Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus is found in the Philocalian Calendar of 354. Long before this, however, December 25 had been a high point in Roman culture.
Traditional calendars marked December 25 as the winter solstice, and it was popularly celebrated as the birthday of the pagan god Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The festival for Sol Invictus fell right in the middle of two other popular Roman feast days — the harvest festival, which began on Dec. 17, and the New Year’s festival that typically lasted five days (ending on what also became an important Christian holiday, the Day of Epiphany, or “The Twelfth Day of Christmas” according to one obnoxious Christmas jingle)
Naturally, it made sense for the church to take advantage of the existing excitement that surrounded the winter festival when forming a new holiday to celebrate the birth of God’s son. From the very beginning, Christmas has not been a day set apart for Christians to retreat from the world; rather, it has been a day Christians use to celebrate with, and hopefully, transform the world. Taking unholy things and making them holy, as the 4th Century Christians did with the pagan worship of Sol Invictus, is a fitting way to remember the reason that Christ came into the world to begin with. He has transformed us, unholy as we are, into new creations. Let us continue searching for new ways to do the same.