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Saturday, 12 July 2014

Christmas in July: Where did this holiday come from, and should it be celebrated?

For many Christians, Christmas is the highlight of the liturgical calendar. Indeed, for some nominal Christians it is practically the only event in the liturgical calendar. Other Christians, however, reject this holiday in view of its lack of biblical warrant, alleged pagan roots, or contemporary commercialization. How did Christmas come about, and should it be observed today?

By 336 A.D., Christmas, held on December 25, marked the beginning of the festal year in Rome.1It is difficult to determine how much earlier than this the observance originated, with most scholars opting for a date in the late third century or early fourth century. A couple of earlier Christian writers speculated about the date of Christ's birth but gave no indication of a festival associated with it. In fact, the early third century Christian writer Origen decried the practice of celebrating birthdays and observed that it was something that sinners, not saints, got involved with.
“The whole discussion communicates a general attitude held by some early Christians that birthdays were something only ‘pagans’ (non-Christians) celebrated, not good Christians.”2
What can be said with certainty is that there was no observance of Christmas in the apostolic age or for several generations thereafter. This absence is important for anyone with a restorationist vision of Christianity:
“Restorationism, or Christian primitivism, is an ideology that identifies early Christianity (variously defined) as the timeless norm for Christian doctrine and practice. Restorationism’s adherents seek to replicate this normative ‘early Christianity’ in their own times.”3
For anyone who views the doctrine and practice of the apostolic age as normative to the exclusion of later developments in the patristic church, Christmas will likely appear as an unwelcome innovation. This probably explains, at least in part, why some restorationist groups either reject Christmas (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses) or view it with some ambivalence (Christadelphians).

Does Christmas have pagan roots? There are two main hypotheses concerning how December 25 came to be the date on which Christ's birthday was celebrated: the History of Religions hypothesis and the Calculation hypothesis.4 The History of Religions hypothesis posits that Christians of the early fourth century, with their new-found legal backing under Constantine, hijacked an existing pagan holiday known as Natalis Solis Invicti. This holiday was a commemoration of the unconquered sun-god which coincided with the winter solstice. With biblical backing for the use of sun imagery in relation to Christ (Malachi 4:2), and a festal vacuum left by the increasing conversion of pagans to Christianity, it is argued that Christians appropriated Natalis Solis Invicti to mark Christ's birth.

The Calculation hypothesis holds that early Christians held a highly symbolic view of time in which God only worked in whole numbers and not fractions. Persons regarded as great in God's eyes would die on the same day as they were born. Christ was regarded to have died on March 25, based on calculations between the Jewish and Julian calendars. Thus his conception (i.e. the Annunciation, regarded as more theologically significant than his actual birth) was also dated to March 25, from which it was inferred that he was born on December 25.

These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive,5 so the symbolic calculations may have provided the impetus for the Christian takeover of Natalis Solis Invicti. Importantly, neither one lends any credibility to the view that Christ was actually born on December 25, which must be regarded as extremely unlikely. If the History of Religions hypothesis is correct, then Christmas does indeed have its roots in paganism. However, it represents a reaction against paganism. While it may also suggest a willingness to accommodate former pagans, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as “the early Christians had little choice but to adapt to the surrounding Hellenized-Roman culture if they had any pretensions to universality.”6

Neither of these hypotheses fully explains why the church began to celebrate Christmas. It is unlikely that the need to replace former pagan holidays in the calendar with some Christian analogue can entirely account for the invention of Christmas. Some scholars have tentatively suggested that the Arian controversy played a role in the spread of Christmas observance. Since Arians placed less emphasis on the incarnation than proponents of Nicene orthodoxy, Christmas may have been promoted in line with anti-Arian polemic.7. Kochenash has argued in an unpublished work that the origin of Christmas coincided with the development of a belief that certain spaces and times were inherently sacred, which had not been part of Christian belief in prior centuries in which house churches were the main place of worship.8

What is the significance of Christmas today? From a secular standpoint it has been heavily commercialized:
“The massive production, advertising and marketing essential to the stability and health of the retail sector of the economy in developed countries serves as the secular form of the feast, the content of which derives not only from the incarnation in the salvation history of Christian belief, but even beyond Christianity in a complex of folklore, custom, art, familial bonding, common values and personal and collective memories. The Gospel story of the birth of Christ secures the base, the original core, sometimes amounting to only a barely-detectible pretext, for the feast in its contemporary manifestation; yet the story is not in itself determinative of what Christmas is.”9
Forbes observes that many of the cultural features of Christmas observance in the contemporary West derive from pre-Christian winter solstice festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia or the Yule/Jul of northern Europe.10

Nevertheless, in Christian communities today which emphasize the religious aspect of Christmas observance, the liturgical context depends largely on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. In such situations, the historical event of Christ's birth, which is portrayed in Scripture as a joyous occasion, is the focal point of the celebration. For me this suggests that, although the origins of Christmas are somewhat dubious and although this holiday is heavily exploited by commercial interests today, there exists a potential to rehabilitate Christmas into an observance that glorifies God. This is my vision. However, I believe there is a warrant for freedom in Christ with respect to the observance or non-observance of Christmas. As Paul says, 
"5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God...13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer." (Romans 14:5-6, 13)
From a restorationist point of view, the observance of Christmas can be legitimately called an un-biblical corruption of the purity of apostolic worship. However, for those communities which allow for a sense of history within the church,11 Christmas can be viewed as a tradition which, in spite of its shaky origins, rightly encourages celebration of the birth of the Saviour.

1 Roll, S.K. (1995). Toward the Origins of Christmas. Peeters Publishers, p. 174.
2 Forbes, B.D. (2008). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press, p. 18.
3 Dunnavant, A.L. (2012). Restorationism. In B.J. & J.Y. Crainshaw (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States, Vol. 2. ABC-CLIO.
4 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 50.
5 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 108.
6 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 69.
7 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 174.
8 Kochenash, M. (n.d.) The Origin of Christmas in Early Christian Sacred Space. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5226888/The_Origin_of_Christmas_in_Early_Christian_Sacred_Space.
9 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 269.
10 Forbes, B.D. op. cit., pp. 3-11.
11 It has been said that one of the central themes of primitivism (a term roughly synonymous with restorationism) is “a rejection of any sense of history.” (Hughes, R.T. (1995). The Meaning of the Restoration Vision. In R.T. Hughes (Ed.), The Primitive Church in the Modern World (ix-xviii). University of Illinois Press, p. x).

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