There is some debate about what time of year Joseph took a very pregnant Mary to Bethlehem (see Luke 2:1-7):
- Scholars have tried tracking Jesus’ birth with how it relates to the birth of John the Baptist, or with details regarding the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born.
- There have been calculations backward from Jesus’ death to figure out his birthdate.
- Circumstantial evidence about different holy feasts can be associated with both John’s and Jesus’ conceptions and births.
All of these arguments have their strengths and weaknesses, and no combination of them gives us an exact picture of when Jesus was born. So, if there are such issues with pinning down an exact date, how did we come to celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
The Sanctification of Saturnalia
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)
We don’t get more definitive reasons until Constantine comes to power in Rome. When he converted to Christianity, he made the worship of Jesus not only legal, but also the official religion of the Roman Empire. Active usurpation of pagan festivals and traditions into the Christian religion seems to have begun with his reign.
Starting about December 17th, a several-week-long celebration began, known as Saturnalia. The main festival was dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn, who supposedly ruled over a golden age of peace, justice, and prosperity.
Saturnalia was a season of both charity and debauchery. Masters served their slaves, gifts were given to all, the needy were cared for, drinking and overeating was expected, freedom to the point of chaos was encouraged.
This season incorporated several distinct holidays, but the date that would become most important to modern Christians was the celebration of the invincible sun god, Sol, which took place on December 25th.
While there may have been some unknown circumstances in the early church that contributed to Christmas in December, it was during Constantine’s reign when the Saturnalia festival season began to be purposefully consumed by the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
Jesus is both the true invincible Son and the King of the future, eternal golden age, so there may have been an association with the traditions of Saturnalia. Since Saturnalia was an extremely popular festival in the Roman Empire, doing away with it would have been difficult, but changing it to serve the One True God was more feasible.
Over the years, much of the charity of the Saturnalia season was adopted and expanded by the celebration of Jesus’ birth, while the most debaucherous elements were discarded. Other elements (like caroling) dropped their seedier and sinful components and kept their light and uplifting components to serve and worship Jesus. As the centuries rolled on, the Mass of Christ (Christmas) picked up traditions from other cultures as those cultures encountered the saving work of Jesus.
The Celebration of Today’s Christmas
Because of its history, Christmas is not only the celebration of the birth of Christ, the Savior of the world, but a wondrous portrait of his work in the life of every believer:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1-7)
When we come to Jesus, we are debased sinners. We bring him our habits, lusts, desires, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses. He gives us a new heart, sends us the Holy Spirit, and begins to rebuild us with him as our foundation; he becomes both our strength for striving and our greatest goal. Everything we are turns to serve him or gets left behind. This process takes our whole lives, and his grace sustains us in the low and the high times.
This is the story of every believer, and it is also the story of the modern Christmas holiday—just as Jesus has justified us through his blood and is sanctifying us through the Spirit, so he has changed a pagan festival into a celebration of his coming.
So, when we celebrate Christmas, instead of the traditions reminding us of their pagan history, let them remind us of Jesus’ work of salvation for the world and sanctification of his people.
This is the story of Christmas: not about what we were, but what Jesus has made us, what he is doing in us now, and what he is leading us toward—an eternity of joy with him.