The History of Christmas
There are two major theories for how the church landed on December 25 as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The first theory is known as the “Computation Theory,” and “computes” the day of Jesus’ birth from the day he was believed to have been crucified, which was March 25. In ancient times it was believed that important figures in history lived literally “complete” lives, meaning that they would die on the same day they had been conceived. Believing that Jesus died on March 25, they thus believed this was the date in which he had been conceived, and so working forward nine months they arrived at December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth. Simple math!
The second theory, which is perhaps more well-known, is known as the “History of Religions” theory. In this theory, December 25 was chosen because of its proximity to the pagan holiday celebrating Sol Invictus, the “Invincible Sun.” By the 4th century (around the time we first hear of Christmas), Sol, the sun god, had become the chief god of the Roman Empire.
December 25 was celebrated as the chief holiday for the sun—the literal light of the world—and this theory holds that Christians chose to celebrate the birth of their “light of the world” on the same day. Why they might have chosen to do this is debated. The cynical view, popularized by books and shoddy scholarship, claims Christians simply “baptized” this pagan holiday, claiming and reinterpreting it as their own. This is unlikely—the pagan celebrations would have been far different from Christian worship, and appropriation is not quite that easy.
Another view, which I find more compelling, is that the church landed on this date to celebrate the coming of their “great light” as a way of offering a counter-testimony to the light of the Empire. When the world around them would be celebrating the fiery light of the Roman rule, which must have seemed as invisible as the sun, Christians chose to celebrate a different light. A light that while as small as a baby born in the backwaters of the empire, nonetheless shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There may be some wisdom in this history for us today.
The secular “Christmas” celebrations that happen around us can be exhausting and even demoralizing, with the rampant consumerism, superficial calls to peace, photoshopped images of familial bliss, and nostalgia more saccharine than a gumdrop tree. So it’s tempting to look back to a pristine Christmas past when there weren’t these modern corruptions. But, as is so often the case, this pristine past never existed. There have always been competing celebrations that at first glance might appear to be similar, but with a closer look are revealed to be a different holiday, telling a different story altogether.
So instead of retreating into the darkness of winter and reemerging when the Christmas trees are on the curb, let your light shine—small and as it may be. Let it be a witness to the true light, that shines not with the bright lights of popular culture, but with the flickering candle flames of hope, peace, joy and love. And watch how the darkness will not overcome it.