Have you ever wondered how the 1st century Church celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ? Well, as far as I could tell there isn’t any indication that they celebrated the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ at all. When reading Acts and the Church Epistles I could not find any reference to a celebration of his birth. There is, of course, in the gospels the coming of the shepherds at the time of his birth and the coming of the wise men about 18 months later, but in Acts and the letters of Paul, James, Peter and John there is not one reference to a Christmas celebration. That’s very intriguing to me.
Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. The pilgrims pointed out that the Bible did not mention a date for his birth which was for them reason enough to deny the legitimacy of the celebration. After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution. Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
In the early years of Christianity the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. It wasn’t until the fourth century, that church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. It was Pope Julius 1st who chose December 25 as the date. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Christmas was first called the Feast of the Nativity.
The custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day tradition asserts that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger. Of course two years ago during this season, I showed how December 25th may have actually been the date the magi arrived in Bethlehem to present their gifts to the new born Judah king. I’m not suggesting that is why Pope Julius 1st chose the date. Like the establishment of the date of Jesus’ birth, the date of their arrival could only be established by God’s Word with the light of astronomy that has only recently been recognized. The choice of December 25th may have been more coincidental than anything based on scripture or astronomy.
The Puritans took issue with Christmas because its name literally translated to the mass of Christ. Given their propensity to deny all things Roman Catholic, it hardly made sense for them to accept this practice. The Pilgrims, on the other hand, held the idea that Christmas was a holiday invented by man, and that the miracle of Jesus should be celebrated in one’s heart every day.
There are definite references to the birth of Christ after Pentecost; it is just that none of them are surrounded by a formal celebration.
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, [That happened on September 11th 3 BC.] 5 To redeem them that were under the law [That happened much later than 3 BC], that we might receive the adoption of sons. [That wasn’t until after Pentecost in 28 AD.] 6 And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.
7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
As these verses in Galatians suggest, the early Church viewed the first coming of Jesus in its entirety, as a unit. They did not see the life of Jesus as we do, in segments — the birth, the hidden years, the open ministry, the passion, the resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances. We have the record in the Gospels and we study the different facets of his first coming. Certainly the magi, the shepherds, the entire angelic host celebrated Jesus’ birth. Indeed all of Israel unknowingly celebrated Jesus’ birth as God had prearranged on Tishri 1 with the blowing of trumpets and great fanfare. I certainly do not want to discourage the celebration of Jesus’ birth; I’m all in favor of celebrating life every day for any reason we can come up with. If we celebrate our own birthdays, celebrating Jesus’ is not much of a stretch. We celebrate buying a new car, getting a new job, an engagement, a Cleveland Browns’ victory… Why not Jesus’ birth?
By Wayne Clapp