Question: Why Do Christians Celebrate Christmas on December 25?
A reader asks:
When is our Savior's real birthday? Is it December 25? If not, why do we celebrate his birth on Christmas?
The date of Christ's actual birth is unknown. It is not recorded in the Bible. However, Christians of all denominations and faith groups, aside from the Church of Armenia, celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.
The History of Christmas
It is believed that the first celebrations of Christ's birth were originally grouped together with Epiphany, one of the earliest feasts of the Christian church observed on January 6. This holiday recognized the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles by remembering the visit of the Magi (wise men) to Bethlehem and, in some traditions, the baptism of Jesus and his miracle of turning water into wine. Today the feast of Epiphany is observed predominately in liturgical denominations such as Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic.
Even as far back as the second and third centuries, we know church leaders disagreed about the appropriateness of birthday celebrations within the Christian church. Some men like Origen felt birthdays were pagan rituals for pagan gods. And since the date of Christ's actual birth had not been recorded, these early leaders speculated and argued about the date.
Some sources report that Theophilus of Antioch (circa 171-183) was the first to identify December 25 as the birth date of Christ. Others say that Hippolytus (circa 170-236) was the first to claim that Jesus was born on December 25. A strong theory suggests that this date was eventually chosen by the church because it aligned closely with a major pagan festival, dies natalis solis invicti (birth of the invincible sun god), thus allowing the church to claim a new celebration for Christianity.
Ultimately, December 25 was chosen, perhaps as early as A.D. 273. By 336 A.D., the Roman church calender definitively records a nativity celebration by Western Christians on this date. Eastern churches maintained the January 6 commemoration together with Epiphany until sometime in the fifth or sixth centuries when the 25th day of December became the widely accepted holiday. Only the Armenian church held to the original celebration of Christ's birth with Epiphany on January 6.
Mass of Christ
The term Christmas appeared in Old English as early as 1038 A.D. as Cristes Maesse, and later as Cristes-messe in A.D. 1131. It means "the Mass of Christ." This name was established by the Christian church to disconnect the holiday and its customs from its pagan origins. As one fourth century theologian penned, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it."
Although it is true that many traditional Christmas customs find their origins in pagan practices, these ancient and forgotten associations are far removed from the hearts of Christian worshipers today at Christmastime. So much so, it seems a pointless concern. If the focus of Christmas is Jesus Christ and his gift of eternal life, then what harm can come from such a celebration? Moreover, Christian churches see Christmas as an occasion to spread the good news of the gospel at a time when many unbelievers pause to consider Christ.
Why Do We Celebrate Christ's Birthday?
The same reader posed this question:
God didn't tell us to celebrate Christmas, so why are Christians doing this?
I am compelled to respond with a few simple questions of my own: Why do we celebrate a child's birthday? Why do we celebrate a loved one's birthday? Is it not to remember and cherish the significance of the event? What other event throughout all time is more significant than the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ? It marks the arrival of Immanuel, God With Us, the Word Become Flesh, the Savior of the World—his is the most significant birth ever. It is the central event in all of history. Time chronicles backward and forward from this moment. I find myself wanting to ask, how can we fail to remember this day with great joy and reverence? How can we not celebrate Christmas?