It is not unusual to find arguments, both from atheists and Christians, that Christmas was started as an attempt by Christians to try to usurp/replace pagan festivals with a Christian one. Atheists make this argument out of an attempt to mock Christians and undermine Christianity’s historical basis, while Christians use this reasoning to disparage the celebration of Christmas. Yet the historical evidence does not support their thesis. Here are two resources that offer a more accurate understanding of Christmas’s origins.
David Withun offers a helpful look at early Christian understandings of Christmas, including why December 25th was chosen as the day for Jesus’ birth (spoiler: it was actually related to the belief that Jesus died on March 25), and quick explanations of the traditions surrounding Santa Claus, Christmas trees, stockings, etc.
Turning to more accepted and accurate primary sources of Christianity’s early centuries, however, we find some decent indicators of the ancientness of an annual celebration of Christ’s birth, although the references are a bit patchwork and often lack details in content. A few examples:
The earliest mention of such a feast comes from St. Hippolytus of Rome’s Commentary on Daniel, written in about 202 CE; I will discuss this particular passage a bit more in depth in the next section.
St. John Chrysostom, in his homily delivered in Antioch in 386 CE, says that the celebration of a feast on the birth of Christ is an ancient tradition.
The Philocalian Calendar, a calendar of Christian feasts compiled in Rome in 354 CE, lists Christmas as an established feast of the Church.
The Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of earlier Christian canons, at least a portion of which probably date from the Apostles, compiled probably in the years 375-380 CE, demands that Christians celebrate Christmas and ostensibly attributes this demand to the Apostles.
In 302 CE in Nicomedia, one of the regions hardest hit by the persecutions of Christians ordered by the Emperor Diocletian, a number of ancient sources record that a large group of Christians were shut inside their church and then burnt alive while celebrating Christmas services. The usual number listed is 20,000 but such a number seems exaggerated; it is more likely that 20,000 is the total number of Christians martyred in Nicomedia during the persecution and that a significant portion of those were killed in the massacre on Christmas.
The heretical sect from the Donatists broke from the Orthodox Church in about 312 CE; they zealously, even legalistically, clung to Christian faith and practice exactly as it had been at that moment in time in North Africa and they rejected any further development as innovation and heresy. Significantly, it was recorded by St. Augustine of Hippo in about 400 CE that the Donatists celebrated Christmas.
In the middle of the fourth century, St. Ephraim of Syria wrote a series of lengthy liturgical hymns for use during a celebration of the birth of Christ.
Scott Aniol offers a brief look at the origins and development of Christmas, along with some thoughtful suggestions for how Christians should view Christmas today.
4. Christians should guard against the rampant commercialism and greed that dominate the modern Christmas season. Unfortunately, the vices of a culture driven by mass media and commercialism have slowly eclipsed much of the good that the season has to offer. Believers must not allow themselves and their families to be overcome with greed and materialism through the influence of pop culture. Additionally, some of the traditions surrounding Santa Claus may be harmful for Christians. For instance, telling children that they should be good because “Santa is watching” is deceiving at best and may actually confuse their views of God. How many professing believers view God as a “jolly old man” who threatens punishment for misbehavior but will always give gifts in the end?
5. The Christmas season can be a wonderful time for remembering Christ’s birth and the reason for His coming. While the Bible does not explicitly command believers to celebrate the birth of Christ, there is certainly nothing wrong with doing so. In fact, much profit can come from such an observance. Christmas can be a time to refocus one’s mind on Christ and the reason for His coming. The Christmas season can also be a ripe time for evangelistic opportunities.