Inevitably this time of year, I am inundated with questions about whether or not Christians should even be celebrating Christmas, let alone fighting for recognition of the holiday. Those who argue against the holiday generally point out that December 25th-- at least in a section of the Roman world - was a pagan holiday, and that it was the early Catholic church who set this day as the day we should celebrate. Let's look at some facts.
The earliest argument against celebrating the birth of Christ came from the church father Origin in 200 A.D. Origin felt that no man should be honored by the observance of his birthday, and so he disparaged what appears to have been a common practice among the believers of his day. So we know historically that Christians were recognizing the birth of Christ in some unofficial way at least as early as the beginning of the 3rd century.
Biblically we know the wise men from the East recognized the birth of Christ (See Matthew 2:1-12) and no where in all of Scripture are they censured for their act. Instead, they are honored, as were the shepherds (Luke 2). I point this out as an argument against Origin's contention. I think Origin's view was based upon his own self-imposed austere view and that he was, at this point at least, wrong in his attempt to make his conviction an obligation upon others. I think a strong case can be made for the fact that God the Father wants us to recognize and remember the uniqueness of the birth of God the Son and celebrate it. Why else would he record the event in such detail in his word?
Regarding December 25 as the date that marks the birth of our savior, no one really knows the exact day of his birth, to be honest. December 25th is mentioned as early as 212 A.D. by Sextus Julius Africanus as the day of Jesus' birth. So it seems that very early in church history, this day was the most popular day among believers as they remembered Christ's birth.
The day became official in 320 A.D., when Pope Julius I specified the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ. Many believe this date was chosen by the church to correspond with and transform the pagan festivals which took place around the time of the winter solstice.
These pagan festivals celebrated the "rebirth of the sun," as it is around this time when our days begin to lengthen. Some scholars believe that the church decided to celebrate the birth of Christ on this date so to make Christ, "The Light of the World," analogous to the rebirth of the sun in order that Christianity might become more meaningful to pagan converts. I see no problem with that.
When we preach or teach, we try to make our message relevant to our listeners. I believe this is what the church accomplished in the fourth century. In fact, the church was so successful in transforming this holiday from pagan ritual to Christian celebration, that today one has to look long and hard to attribute this holiday to anything but a celebration of the birth of Christ. I believe this is one of the early Catholic traditions that led to important ecclesiastical and cultural changes. Much like the Judaism of the Old Testament - to which we owe a great debt - I think we err when we forget that our earliest roots lie in the Catholic church and that many of the great doctrines of Orthodoxy find their expression from the great councils of history.
I, for one, enjoy Christmas, and I think it is good and right to commemorate the birth of our savior on December 25. I challenge believers to continue this centuries-old celebration, and to make sure that the reason for the season is neither forgotten nor lost.
Pearrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org