The history of Christmas is quite fascinating to study. To begin, it is helpful to understand that the holiday name “Christmas” is derived from the Old English words Crīstesmæsse which means “Christ’s mass”. The first documented use of the word Crīstesmæsse was in 1038 and is a translation of the original Greek and Hebrew words Messiah1 which means “anointed”2. Mass is derived from the Latin messa or “Eucharistic service,” which literally means “dismissal” in the sense of sending one out on a mission.3 Many people are familiar with the Eucharist as communion, which is a celebration of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ for payment of sin against God4. If you are thinking that the name of Christmas seems a bit more like Easter, you would be correct. In fact, in early church history, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were the focus of remembrance celebrations, not His birth5. In fact, the birth of Jesus was not initially celebrated by His followers for over two centuries. So why do we celebrate it today?
The celebration of the birth of Jesus is the celebration of a promise fulfilled. In the Bible, God tells us that He created all things. As Creator, God gave instructions for how human beings were to live out life in the world He made them to inhabit, in a good way that pleased and honored Him. He set the first man and woman in a paradise with dominion over the created order and they were in relationship with their Creator God as He designed them to be. After being deceived by Satan who took the form of a serpent, Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Now that disobedience was a major problem, because the sinful behavior corrupted them, and as a result, they were no longer able to have the same relationship with their Creator God. Sin had breached the beautiful and fulfilling relationship between God and the people He created. Disobedience and doubting God’s goodness now gave way to blame shifting, shame, hiding and fear. As a result, the earth was cursed and God punished them by banishing them from the garden, yet God gave them grace, mercy and hope in the form of a promise. God covered the shame of their nakedness and removed their access to the Tree of Life which would cause them to live forever in their sin state. They, and all the earth would now experience physical death. God gave a promise to send a Messiah that would crush the head of the serpent and make a way for His human creation to be in right relationship with Him once again.6
Over thousands of years God gave people reassurance through His prophets that He was sending a Savior who would be a perfect and holy sacrifice, an acceptable payment to God for sin, so that a right relationship could be restored between God and mankind7. Jesus Christ is God the Son who took on the flesh of mankind through fulfilling the prophecy of the virgin birth. He lived life on the earth in perfect obedience to God His Father because we, with our sinful nature, could not. In His public ministry, Jesus revealed himself as the promised Messiah, claiming He was God the Son, sent from God to crush the serpent’s head. To prove His power over sin, death and Satan, Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons. Jesus displayed His power over the elemental creation when He walked on water, turned water into wine, called the fish into Peter’s net, quieted a raging storm with three words, and fed thousands with a few fish and loaves of bread. Ultimately, the Jewish and the Roman politicians had Jesus put to death by Roman crucifixion. While this appeared to be the manipulative plan of hypocritical religious leaders and corrupt Romans, God in His plan for salvation had pre-ordained Jesus to take the punishment for our sins. Because Jesus was God the Son with the power over sin and death, He arose on the third day, appeared to over 500 people, and later returned to Heaven where He intercedes for us before God until He returns at His Second Coming to judge the living and the dead.8 So expanding on all the words and the derivatives that make up Crīstesmæsse, what Christmas really means is the celebrating of the anointed Messiah who later in His life would offer His body and blood as the perfect and holy sacrifice as payment for sin of the world.
The second reason we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ is because God did! The biblical author Luke, who interviewed eye witnesses of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, tells us the following:
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them”.9
We know from this passage that God had sent angels from Heaven to announce the birth of Jesus and that there was awesome light, testimony of the good news that God had sent the promised Savior, and a multitude of heavenly beings giving praise to God. The shepherds were also told where to find Jesus, and they found Him and rejoiced!
Now, the Bible does not tell us the actual date that Jesus was born, but by the third century, Christian scholars began to attempt to determine the exact date of the nativity based on events in the Bible, calendars, solar equinoxes, and known historical facts.10 In 221, Sextus Julius Africanus, who was a Christian historian, writer and ambassador to Rome, is thought to have produced the earliest calculation that Jesus was born on December 25.11 The first recorded celebration of Christ’s birth was discovered written in a list of Roman bishops for A.D. 336, as “December 25th, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea.”12 Feasting to celebrate Jesus’s birth began in 37913 and in A.D. 432, the feast to celebrate Christ’s birth was first called the Feast of the Nativity.14 The earliest hymns about the birth of Christ are in Latin from fourth-century Rome.15 By the 9th century, Christmas was widely celebrated with a liturgy.16 Rome is known for the first nativity scenes in the 10th century and the first documented use of the word Crīstesmæsse in 1038, which later became pronounced Christmas. In Italy in 1223, Francis of Assisi put on the first live nativity reenactment in which children sang carols. So in time, the birth of our Savior was given honor.
The history of Christmas is indeed quite fascinating to study. Anyone who is familiar with the world history of Christmas may notice that there were no details of the pagan influences on traditions, or of Christmas being banned at various times in history. These reports are true, but a different storyline for a different type of account. For now, let us who have found the Christ Child to be our Savior sing as Mary did:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.”17
1Martindale, Cyril Charles (1908). “Christmas”. The Catholic Encyclopedia. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company. As cited by Wikipedia. (2020). Christmas. Published online/updated December 7, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas
2 Schoenborn, Christoph (1994). God’s human face: the Christ-icon. p. 154. ISBN 978-0-89870-514-0. As cited by Wikipedia. (2020). Christmas. Published online/updated December 7, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas
3Online Etymology Dictionary. (2020). Mass. Douglas Harper. Accessed on December 10, 2020 from https://www.etymonline.com/word/mass
4Hebrews 10:12 But when Christ[a] had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV Text Edition: 2016. Crossway Bibles, Good News Publishers. Accessed on December 10, 2020 from https://www.biblegateway.com
5Hillerbrand, HJ. Christmas. Encyclopædia Britannica. Published online December 06, 2020. Accessed on December 08, 2020 from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christmas
6See the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1-3.
7The Old Testament book of Isaiah contains many of the prophecies about Jesus.
8 These historical truths are found in the in the Gospels of the Bible by the eye witness testimony of Matthew, Mark and John and through Luke’s interview of eye witnesses in the biblical books bearing their name. The role in salvation of God the Holy Spirit can also be found in the Gospels. Details of Christ’s Second Coming can be found through the New Testament and in biblical book of Revelation.
9 Luke 2:8-20. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV Text Edition: 2016. Crossway Bibles, Good News Publishers. Accessed on December 10, 2020 from https://www.biblegateway.com
10 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998). Sextus Julius Africanus. Encyclopædia Britannica. Published July 20, 1998. Accessed on December 08, 2020 from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sextus-Julius-Africanus.
11Kelly, Joseph F. (2004). The Origins of Christmas. Liturgical Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-8146-2984-0. As cited by Wikipedia. (2020). Christmas. Published online/updated December 7, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas
12Graves, D. The First Recorded Celebration of Christmas. Christianity.com, Salem Web Network. Accessed December 11, 2020 from https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/301-600/the-1st-recorded-celebration-of-christmas-11629658.html
13 Roy, Christian (2005). Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 146. ISBN 978-1-57607-089-5. Archived from the original on January 11, 2014. Retrieved February 3, 2012. As cited by Wikipedia. (2020). Christmas. Published online/updated December 7, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas
14 History.com Editors. (2020). History of Christmas. A&E Television Networks. Published online December 1, 2020. Retrieved December 8, 2020 from: https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas
15 Miles, Clement, Christmas customs and traditions, Courier Dover Publications, 1976, ISBN 0-486-23354-5, p. 32. As As cited by Wikipedia. (2020). Christmas. Published online/updated December 7, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas
16 Hillerbrand, HJ. Christmas. Encyclopædia Britannica. Published online December 06, 2020. Accessed on December 08, 2020 from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christmas
17 Luke 1:46-49. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV Text Edition: 2016. Crossway Bibles, Good News Publishers. Accessed on December 10, 2020 from https://www.biblegateway.com