THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS
The topic to be discussed is “The History of Christmas.” The greater part of the Western world celebrates the birth of Christ on December 25th. No one knows exactly when Jesus was born, but the religious world has set the day of December 25th to commemorate the event. Some people take part in religious ceremonies, while others exchange gifts and decorate their homes with lights, holly, mistletoe and Christmas trees. The word Christmas comes from an early English phrase which means Christ's Mass. Christmas differs from all other holidays in that we begin to hear Christmas carols two or three weeks before the day. No other holiday has so much singing and songs associated with it.Also, we see a change come over people, and during the holiday season there is an unusual spirit of kindness, joy, well—wishing, and generosity. On the other hand, there is much controversy surrounding this holiday, and it is the most complicated of all the holidays to understand. The New Testament makes no mention of Christmas or any other annual holiday which Christians are to observe. Hence, opinions differ greatly on the merits and demerits of this festive observance.
First, I would like to present a brief review of the history of this holiday. The origin of Christmas, as a religious observance, remains in considerable obscurity. Exactly when it started, who started it, and why it was started cannot be answered with certainty. There seems to be substantial agreement that it cannot be traced back farther than 200 A.D. It does not go back to New Testament times. Christ did not mention the observance, and the apostles did not appoint it. The first century church did not have a special observance of Christ' birth. I must state that as a matter of record. Hence, this religious observance was added by man long after the apostles had died. Moreover, it was not until well into the fourth century that Christmas was recognized as a church celebration. This the focal point of controversy. By the beginning of the sixth century it was observed by the Roman Catholic church on the 25th of December. In the A.D. 500's a learned monk named Dionysius Exiguus introduced the present custom of reckoning time by counting the years from the birth of Christ, which he miscalculated four to six years later than the actual date. Dionysius used a great deal of guesswork in arriving at the day, month, and year of Christ's birth. The facts needed to ascertain the date of his birth were not available then and are not available now. No one knows the exact year he was born, much less the month and day. However, with the help of ancient historical records of Rome we know that Jesus was born four to six years earlier than Dionysius calculated. Any good Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia will state that Jesus was born four to six years B.C., and yet that is a contradiction. It literally means Jesus was born four to six years before his birth. Our calendar is based on the calculations of Dionysius and that means our calendar is in error by four, five, or even six years. According to our calendar we live in 2008, that is 2008 years after the birth of Christ. However, the truth of the matter is that we live in 2012, 2013, or possibly
2014. Christmas grew to be very popular during the Dark Ages, but with the coming of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500's and 1600's, much opposition began to develop. The Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers strongly opposed all religious observances of a calendar nature.
They declared the observance of Christmas smacked of Romanism and idolatry.
They were even able to get through an act of Parliament in 1647 abolishing
the observance of Christmas. This opposition was participated in by the
American colonists, and in Massachusetts, especially, it was considered a violation of the law, making one liable to a fine if he kept Christmas as a holiday free from labor. But in process of time about all of the Protestant churches endorsed the observance of Christmas. Although Christmas started as a religious observance, in later times it became secularized. Christmas celebrations acquired a wide secular and social significance. How this religious holiday became a secular holiday is also buried in obscurity. I am of the opinion that the secularizing of Christmas was the result of the opposition to its religious observance. Some may have wanted to keep the holiday without attaching any religious significance to it. Many observances, totally removed from the birth of Christ, have become associated with Christmas. In many countries the tradition of exchanging gifts and greeting cards arose. In addition, Christmas trees, ivy, and mistletoe became associated with Christmas. In time schools dismissed for the holiday, and men were given the day off from work. Santa Claus is something the Americans added to the day. It is believed the Santa Claus tradition was derived from the Dutch people who came to our land. The Christmas tree seems to have been a German contribution to the season. So Christmas has come down to our day with a two—fold significance: one religious and the other secular. To many people Christmas is nothing more than Santa Claus, exchanging gifts, and greeting cards, and Christmas tunes.
One other fact, pertinent to Americans, should be mentioned about Christmas. America was a religious nation from its beginning, and our government has seen fit to make Christmas one o~t our national holidays. Christmas is an American holiday like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Most all Americans participate in the Christmas holiday to some extent. Schools are dismissed from one to two weeks. Banks close, factories shut down, business places close, and most everybody has a day off from work. In the time that remains I would like to make a few practical observations based on the facts which have been presented. My first observation is that there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th. We have learned that we do not know the exact year He was born, and how could we know the month and day? It should not be taught that he was born on December 25, and we should not believe it. It is simply the day the world has chosen to commemorate his birth, and they should tell the truth about the impossibility of knowing His birthday. Christians should not accept guesswork for the truth. My second observation is that the observance of Christmas has nothing to do with our salvation. It will not help anyone get to heaven because it is not one of Gods commandments. Christmas did not become a church observance until hundreds of years after the apostles died. Hence, man added this observance on his own. If annual, once—a—year holy days were necessary in the Christian religion, Jesus or the apostles would have said something about them. There are no holy days in the Christian religion except Sunday, and every Sunday is a holy day. The birth of Christ is not a church celebration, but the death of Christ is a church celebration; and there are fifty—two such celebrations every year. God's command to remember Christ every Sunday and commemorate his death makes any other holy day unnecessary. Whatever your feelings may be about Christmas, you should know that it is a man—appointed observance and not a God—appointed observance. Christians have no obligation to observe Christmas, either from it's religious side or its secular side.
My thirdird observation is that since Christmas is an American holiday, a Christian can participate in it in a way consistent with the word of God and his own conscience. In one sense Christmas is Christ, but in another sense it is Santa Claus. The observance of special days not mentioned in scripture is right or wrong according to the conscience of the Christian. If a Christian observes these days in the belief that he must do so in order to be saved, then it is wrong. This would be adding to God's word. On the other hand, if a Christian observes special days simply as national customs, does not bind his opinions on others, and does not recognize them as a binding commandment, then there is no harm in it. In my judgment as a gospel preacher, Christmas as practiced in .America)is a harmless tradition. There is nothing religious or wrong with the Santa Claus idea, and I think we should be careful about charging something to be wrong if it isn't, for this distorts the judgment of our children. However, if it violates your conscience, you shouldn't do it. If you think it is wrong for you to do it, it is wrong. However, you should not force your opinions on others. How a Christian is to observe the national holidays of his country belongs to the realm of private opinion. Christians are not required to agree on such matters. Because of the human origin of Christmas, Churches of Christ do not make it a church celebration. However, as long as Christians do not transgress the word of God, we do not interfere with their private opinions about this day or that.
In Matthew 15:9 Jesus said, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” The Lord was speaking of man—made commandments which were bound on people as necessary to salvation. The Pharisees and Sadduccees disregarded the commandments of God and observed the commandments of men. This is always wrong. Some of the early Christians were guilty of this very thing in regard to special days. Paul said to them in Galatians 4:10, “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.” The obvious reference is to the holy days of the Jewish religion. Jewish teachers taught that it was sinful not to observe the Passover, Pentecost, New moons, and other Jewish feast days. This was wrong and Paul condemned them for it. Christians are not obligated to observe Jewish holy days or any other holy days.
However, the Christians in Rome were observing certain holidays in a way which was not wrong and which Paul allowed. In Romans 14:5 Paul said, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it to the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it..” Now, these two scriptures do not contradict each other. Both are to be obeyed by Christians. The Roman Christians observed holidays but not as the commandments of God, neither did they consider them as necessary to salvathn. National holidays are matters of opinion and matters of indifference so long as they are not considered essential to salvation. Romans 14:5 is the scripture which applies to such holidays as Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Christmas, etc. Romans 14:5 recognizes the C}klstian's right to private opinion which may differ with others. Since neither the government nor the denominational world makes American holidays as matters of salvation, then God's instructions are: "Let every man be fully persaded in his own mind." It is my judgment that we should take advantage of the religious feelings which season exccites and try to lead people to a fuller understanding of the Christ and the church.