The birth of Jesus Christ is one of the milestones of human history. Celebrated at Christmas—by some with emotion, by others with indifference—most of the time the holiday loses sight of the main character. Religious significance remains in the shadows, while commercial dimensions are pursued at all costs.
Why December 25th?
Christmas is celebrated annually on December 25th. It is accepted, however, that the exact date of Jesus’s birth is unknown. New Testament evangelists reported the birth of the Saviour without mentioning a specific date, and the early Christian Church did not celebrate the birth of the Lord. Starting with the second century AD, Christian writers spoke of the probable date of Jesus’s birth, without considering it a holiday. However, opinions were divided, with some opting for May 20th, others for March 29th (by correlating it with the Jewish Passover) or September 29th (in association with the old Feast of Tabernacles).
At the beginning of the second century AD, Bishop Telesphorus, leader of the Western Church, claimed that the church service for the celebration of the birth of Jesus should take place in December. However, there is no convincing evidence in this regard. In the first three centuries of church history, Christians celebrated the birth of the Saviour on various days of the year.
In 274, Aurelian (214-275 AD), the Roman emperor, proclaimed December 25th as “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (the birthday of the invincible sun). The festival was dedicated to the sun, and it was promoted throughout the empire. Then, in 320 AD, Pope Julius, bishop of Rome (337-352), took the first step towards making official the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity on December 25th. With the Christianisation of Emperor Constantine and the proclamation of Christianity as the official religion, a process of assimilation of the old pagan beliefs began, with many holidays being absorbed into Christianity.
The winter holidays, which last for two weeks (December 24th-January 6th), overlapped with the ancient holidays that honoured the return of the sun on winter solstice, Roman Saturnalia (December 17th-23th) and the feast of the god Mithra (December 25th). Saturnalia was a harvest festival, the date of which varied every year between December 17th and 23rd, and was an occasion for excessive debauchery and partying.
Gradually, December 25th became a landmark holiday. On December 25th 800 AD, Charlemagne (742-814 AD), the king of the Franks, was crowned by Pope Leo III as Imperator Augustus of the Holy Roman Empire. Emperors and influential figures from different periods of the Christian era would later confirm the existence of a feast dedicated to the birth of the Saviour. There have been cases when the celebration of Christmas was banned. For example, during the time of Oliver Cromwell the celebration of Christmas was severely restricted in England by the so-called “Blue Laws” between 1647-1660. The traditions that accompanied Christmas were considered immoral. In 1660 Cromwell was removed from power and the law banning the celebration of Christmas was abolished.
Furthermore, during the revivalist movements, there were Christians who opposed this holiday. Sixteenth-century Puritans, who promoted the reform of the Anglican Church following the principle of “Sola Scriptura”, were against celebrating saints, clerical remission of sins, godparents at baptism, and the celebration of Christmas. They continued to promote these beliefs in the New World, where they emigrated.
There is no argument for associating the birth of Jesus with December 25th. In fact, there is a closer connection with the Roman holidays, which took place during the winter of the year. It is good, however, that the Christian world wishes to have a day each year to rediscover the significance of the incarnation of the Son of God.
The truth about Santa Claus
An ancient legend says that while they were looking for accommodation in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary arrived at the door of a malevolent inn owner called Christmas. Evil by nature and devoid of any feelings, Christmas is said to have refused to let in the couple, who seemed miserable and poor. However, his wife, who was a generous soul, housed them in the stable without the husband’s knowledge. After learning of his wife’s deed, Christmas became terribly angry and cut off her hands as punishment. However, the virgin performed a miracle, and reattached her hands. This miracle, the legend says, brought about a profound change in the character of Christmas, who became a good man.
The historical and religious tradition of Santa Claus is generally linked to a bishop in Asia Minor, St. Nicholas of Myra, who made himself known for his generous deeds at the beginning of the fourth century. He died on December 6th, 345 AD, which later became the feast of St. Nicholas, after he was sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church. “The evolution from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus involves the integration of many traditions.”
In the Nordic countries, some legends describe small creatures called Nisse or Julenisse, with white beards and dressed in red, who were believed to bring gifts after Christmas dinner. For the Germans, Winterman is the legendary character who descends from the mountains to announce the arrival of winter. In the Netherlands, the character called Sinterklass crosses the country to put food in the boots of obedient children, or a birch twig for those who have been disobedient.
When the Dutch emigrants established the New Amsterdam colony in the New World, their children enjoyed the visit of St. Nicholas. Later, under the authority of England, the colony became New York and most of the English Presbyterians, unwilling to maintain a Catholic custom, moved the visit of the mysterious Santa Claus to December 25th and changed the image of the character.
Writers such as Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” (1843) and Washington Irving in “The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall” (1822) popularized the holiday. Around the same time, Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863), a poet and professor of theology, published a poem entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, in which he recounted the story of a cheerful, playful old man flying in a miniature sleigh, pulled by eight equally small reindeer. In 1860, inspired by European stories about St. Nicholas, American illustrator and cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1903) gave the character a face, creating the one who would become the famous Santa Claus.
Santa Claus was dressed in a red fur tunic, wore a wide leather belt, and had a bushy white beard. Norman Rockwell painted Santa Claus for the Saturday Evening Post in 1931. The most widespread image today is that of Haddon Sundblom, from the same year, who created it for a Coca-Cola-sponsored promotion. Santa Claus started being associated with the religious celebration of the birth of the Lord more and more, and is an extremely popular character. However, Santa’s gifts have distracted attention from the gift that God has given to mankind in the person of His Son.
The baby that came from Heaven
New Testament writings are the primary historical source of information about the person of Jesus. The accuracy of the biblical writings has been confirmed by archaeological discoveries, with William Albright and Sir William Ramsay among the archaeologists who argued that the texts of the Bible are anchored in historical reality, and are more than mere myths or legends. However, for some, the divinity of Jesus is just an unwarranted claim. For others, Jesus Christ remains just one of mankind’s great teachers, a good man who lived a virtuous life, a prophet who preached about love, or a rabbi whose teachings we should heed.
The birth of Jesus
According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus Christ was born during the reign of Herod the Great (74-4 BC), the king appointed by Rome to govern Palestine and the one who cunningly wanted to take the life of the Baby born in Bethlehem. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16).
The decree to kill the male infants did not affect Jesus, because his family fled to Egypt, where he remained until Herod’s death. Herod the Great died in 4 AD, which leads to the conclusion that Jesus was probably born in 5 or 4 BC. The apparent chronological contradiction is explained by the fact that Dionysius Exiguus (533 AD), the one who calculated the beginning of the Christian era a few centuries after the birth of Jesus, made a calculation error of about four or five years. The date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, but his birth is demonstrated by the aforementioned evidence.
The idea that God became human by being born in the family of Joseph and Mary and that He miraculously intervened in human history was attacked by the “Program of Demythologising” of the theologian Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976). He concludes that much of the New Testament is made up of myths. In his view, the writers of the Bible sought to express what happened to them in their existential plan, therefore their accounts do not accurately depict reality.
Thus, the coming of Jesus into the world is a myth, and according to this approach, the only thing that people need to understand is the intent of the Godhead to draw us to Himself. Bultmann’s theory does not take into account the fact that the Gospels relate the incarnation of Christ in a concrete historical context and that it is supported by clear testimonies. Moreover, there is no indication that biblical authors considered the birth of Jesus a mere fairy tale.
In fact, the merit of the biblical record is that it frees the fallen man from mythical notions, explaining that “the glory of God is supremely revealed in the God-man Jesus Christ”. Indeed, the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God is a difficult concept to assimilate intellectually, but biblical documents lead us to the conclusion that God became human in the strict sense of the word, in a historical manifestation that transcends logic.
John the Evangelist uses the metaphor of the Logos to describe the coming of the Son of God among men: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Of course, the Son of God could have taken human form without being born of a woman, but He wanted to be considered an ordinary man. Mary, His mother, became pregnant by the supernatural manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit. Both she and her future husband, Joseph, were foretold by the angel of God that the baby would be called Jesus, meaning “Jehovah saves”.
The first witnesses of the birth of Jesus
Jesus was born in a stable because there was “no guest room” for a pregnant woman. The dirtiest place in the world was the first bedroom of the only Immaculate Conception. On the plains around Bethlehem were humble shepherds, to whom the angels of God brought the good news of the birth of the One who was to save mankind from its sinful condition.
“Above the hills of Bethlehem are gathered an innumerable throng of angels. They wait the signal to declare the glad news to the world. Had the leaders in Israel been true to their trust, they might have shared the joy of heralding the birth of Jesus. But now they are passed by.” Instead, shepherds, as an embodiment of the simplicity of faith in God, hurried to the manger and began to announce the revelation. The One, born of a woman, was accepted by some and rejected by others—a situation similar to the reality of the twenty-first century, when some people enjoy the peace of mind offered by the Saviour, while others remain indifferent.
The Gospels also describe the magi who came from the East, influential people famous for their knowledge, who sought Jesus Christ to worship Him: “…they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). Guided by the star that appeared to them, these rich and wise connoisseurs of the mysteries of heaven came to the manger and, in a symbol of humility, bowed before the Infant. Their gesture was a public testimony to the fact that the infant Jesus was descended from among those who are above kings and emperors.
The purpose of the first coming
Postmodern Christianity, stuck in meaningless traditions, needs to rediscover the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ—the hallmark of Christianity. It has been suggested that events similar to the incarnation of the Son of God are found in other religions. For example, Siddartha Gautama (Buddha) is said to have been a descent of the divine among people as well. But the birth of Jesus is a radically different, unique, and meaningful event.
“It is not until we, as individuals, allow the Christmas reality to transpire within us personally, by the introduction and indwelling of the life of the risen Lord Jesus, that Christmas finds fullness of meaning.” – James Fowler
The originality of this event must be associated with the ultimate goal of God. The Word became flesh for sinful people to discover and understand God’s love and concern for the salvation of created beings. Through the incarnate Son of God, “the way towards communion with God has been opened to us as a communion of persons whom we cannot reduce to the state of objects, and thereby the way to full communion with our fellow people. Through His incarnation as a man, Christ made accessible to us the communion with Him as God in culminating human form, or, rather, with the entire Holy Trinity”.
His incarnation means, above all, the revelation of a God who wants us for Himself. His beauty is eternal, His reign will never end, and all history is inconceivable without Christ, said the French writer and philosopher Ernest Renan in his book, “The Life of Jesus”. The mystery of the incarnation and His exemplary, sinless life reveal His saving death for all who believe in Him. The chasm between us and God ceases to exist, because Jesus Christ can understand us and help us cross the existential gorge between us and the Godhead created by sin.
Christmas can be a good occasion, but by no means the only one, to remember the saving act of the Saviour’s incarnation. It may be a good time to remember our quality of spiritual beings, to look more closely at what God has given to us. Jesus Christ, if received in our homes and souls, will guide us to gestures of kindness that will bring joy to the lives of our fellow people. Last but not least, the remembrance of Jesus’s first coming must make us look forward to the event that will complete it and give it meaning—the Second Coming.