As the longest year in the history of mankind comes to a close, we take this time to celebrate a holiday that we called Christmas. Why do we celebrate Christmas? Where do all our traditions come from? What is the point? If you have ever wondered or thought about these questions, keep reading.
The truth of the matter is, it’s a bit more complicated than meets the eye. Some practices and traditions date all the way back to the Romans. Some reasons that we celebrate date back even further than that. There is a historic influence to our present day holiday, as well as a biblical influence, despite what some may say. Let’s start with the historical influences.
There are so many Christmas traditions that it will be difficult to explain them all in one article. We celebrate the season by singing songs, baking delicious treats, watching our favorite Christmas movies, and it all climaxes on the big day when we open up the gifts that we bought with our credit cards and pretend to like what we’ve unwrapped. We bring in a specific family of tree and decorate it with glass, wires, and thin pieces of plastic. We hang gigantic socks from our fireplace, if we even have a fireplace, we string lights up outside of our house, and adorn our lawns with inflatable snowman and reindeers with red noses.
Don’t get me wrong, I think all of it is wonderful. Christmas is my favorite time of year. My family celebrates birthdays during this time of year, we decorate our house, we go to the bougie side of town to view the spectacle of their light displays, we watch our favorite Christmas movies and drink hot chocolate, and yes we even buy presents for our loved ones and wrap them in fancy paper that we bought at Costco. With all this hustle and bustle, people come to dread this time of year, but I suspect it’s because they lose sight of the true purpose. More to that in a moment.
When did we first celebrate Christmas? When did it all begin?
Some state that it dates back to the Roman holiday Saturnalia. Saturnalia, celebrated as early as 131 BC, was a week-long festival held towards the end of December. It celebrated the god Saturn, who was the god of agriculture and time. Normal business was suspended during this week (even slaves had the week off), conventional togas were traded in for more festive attire, and homes were decorated with green wreaths.
During Saturnalia, people gave gifts to one another, threw their morals to the wind, drank excessively, sang songs, danced, gambled, and partied like it was 2012 on the Myan Calendar.
Then there is the Roman holiday called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti which was celebrated on December 25th. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, translated from Latin as “birth of the invincible sun,” was a celebration of the Roman god of Sun, Sol. The cult of Sol Invictus, or “invincible sun,” began as a Persian cult dedicated to Mitra. The Roman Emperor Auralian introduced the cult of Sol Invictus and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti in the 3rd century AD.
In comes Constantine I or Constantine the Great. Born around 280 AD, Constantine would have grown up in the celebratory environment of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Some even state that coinage of Rome had his face inscribed on one side and the words “Sol Invicto Comiti”, or “committed to the Invincible Sun,” on the other.
Constantine self-identified himself as a Christain and even ascribed his rise in fame, fortune, and power to the Christian God. An agreement was reached between Constantine I and Licinius in February 313, known now as the Edict of Milan. This edict enabled Roman citizens to worship whatever deity they pleased and secured other rights for Christians. It was during Constantine’s rule, in the year 336 AD, that Christmas was officially celebrated as December 25th. 100 years earlier, Sextus Julius Africanus, who was the first Christian to record the history of creation, placed the actual birth of Christ as December 25th.
Why did Constantine recognize Christmas as the birth of Christ on December 25th? It is possible that as he was transitioning the Roman empire from a pagan empire to a Christian one, he refocused the celebration of the birth of the invincible sun, to the birth of God’s only Son. By enabling the people to still throw a party (with less debauchery) in the middle of winter, it could have eased the transiton from paganism to Christianity.
Will we ever know the truth? Probably not.
The true meaning of Christmas
There is certainly a strong historical influence in the traditions that we hold today, but the purpose is much different. If you ask people today why we celebrate Christmas I think you would get a myriad of different responses. Some would say it’s to give presents to one another, some would say it’s a time to spread joy and cheer, some would say that it’s an altruistic holiday when we have the moments to give back to our fellow citizens. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the religious aspect of Christmas is dwindling from society. Well these are all good, they are all missing the actual point.
The reason why we started celebrating Christmas is because of Christ. We can argue and debate about the origins of the day and whether the church should have claimed a pagan holiday as its own, but at the end of the day we celebrate Christmas because of Christ. Was Christ actually born in what we now know as the month of December? Most biblical historians do not think Christ was born in December but more likely in a month of April or even during the fall.
In the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, the picture of Jesus‘s birth is illustrated for us. Jesus, as the bible states, is God in human flesh. Philippians chapter 2 explains that God became a man. Jesus is fully God because he was God in a human body, but he was also man because he had an earthly mother. In Luke’s account of the gospel, which means good news in Greek, he explains that angels appeared to nearby Shepherds proclaiming the good news of this event. Luke chapter 2 and verse 11 says “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” NKJV. The reason for Christmas (which means Christ’s mass) is Christ.
Now I know many of you reading this blog article do not believe that Jesus is the son of God and the only way to heaven, but we need to recognize that that is why the holiday was originally instituted. Sure Christmas was placed on December 25th to detract from the festivities of Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, but the date of Christmas was instituted to remember the birth of Jesus Christ. He was born to bear the sins of the world (1 Peter 2:24) so that those who believe in Him will have eternal life (John 3:16). So as a Christian holiday, Christmas is critical!
This is why the oldest Christmas songs are about Jesus and his birth. We still sing songs like Joy to the World, Silent Night, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, Hark The Heard Angels Sing, What Child is This, Oh Holy Night, Noel, and others that are filled with Christian symbolism. As Christmas is becoming increasingly secular we sing songs like Frosty the Snowman, Deck the Halls, and Mele Kalikimaka.
Now I really enjoy songs like Frosty the Snowman and all the other cultural songs that we sing on Christmas. The point I’m trying to make is the reason for the season of Christmas is Christ. The way we truly celebrate the Christmas season is not through giving gifts to one another, but by receiving the gift that God has given us in his son Jesus.
Christmas IS the season to be generous. Christmas IS the season to give so that those who do not have what we have, may have a little more. Christmas IS the time to spread joy and cheer and laughter and hope. But the hope of Christmas is not in a PlayStation 5 or a Samsung galaxy 20s; the hope of Christmas comes because Christ was born, died for our sins, and rose again to give everlasting life to those who believe in him. As the Grinch aptly said “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps, means a little bit more.“