in the context of early Christian teachings, before 313 A.D.

edited by Robert Nguyen Cramer (



The Christmas celebration as we know it today had its real beginnings with Constantine's reinvention of the Christian church after 313 A.D. (For details regarding Constantine's considerable influence on Christian practices, teachings, and institutions, see

In his excellent article on the origins of the Christmas celebration, Hendrik F. Stander (Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition, edited by Everett Ferguson, NY: Garland Publishing, 1998, pages 249-250):

CHRISTMAS. From Old English "Mass of Christ," festival on December 25, celebrating the birth of Christ. This festival was not generally established before the end of the fourth century. The early Christians were far more concerned with the death and resurrection of Jesus, celebrated during Easter, than with his birth. Moreover, Origen said that Christians should not celebrate birthdays because it was a pagan custom, adhered to by unrighteous people, such as Pharaoh and Herod (Comm. in Mt. 10.22)...

The true roots of what we know as Christmas lie in a feast celebrating the baptism of Christ on January 6. The heretical Basilideans taught that the divine Christ first appeared on earth at the baptism of Jesus and was then temporarily united with the human Jesus. The festival on January 6 was accordingly called Epiphany ("Appearance"). The orthodox church regarded Christ's birth as the real appearing of Christ upon the earth, and thus January 6 came to mark both the baptism and the nativity of Christ.

The Council of Nicaea (325) condemned the doctrine that God himself did not become incarnate in Jesus at birth. This Christological dogma probably caused the festival of Christ's birth to be separated from the heretical custom of commemorating Christ's "appearance" at baptism. The festival of the birth of Christ ... was then transferred to December 25, to counter a pagan festival held that day in honor of Sol Invictus ("The Invincible Sun").

The nativity festival was probably separated from Epiphany in Rome between 325 and 354. The first evidence of the celebration of Christ's birth on December 25 comes from Rome in the year 336, although the older Epiphany festival continued to exist for some time in its original form.

...The strongest opposition, however, came from Christians in Jerusalem, and it was not until the middle of the sixth century that Palestinian Christians accepted the festival of December. The Armenian church continues even today to commemorate Christ's birth on January 6.

Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) provides a few additional details in her article on "Christmas:"

...One theory for placing Christmas on 25 December suggests that the motivation for a Christian observance came from the pagan birthfeast of the unconquered sun (dies natalis solis invicti) which the Roman emperor Aurelian, in 274, ordered to be held annually throughout the empire on the day of the winter solstice, determined then to be 25 December. According to the 'apologetics' or 'history of religions' hypothesis, the church at Rome adopted the day of pagan festivities for its own purposes, providing a Christian alternative by celebrating instead the birth of the true 'sun of righteousness'; the heathen content of the festival was reinterpreted and its date retained...

The festival of Christmas spread quickly from the 4th century onwards. It allowed for a liturgical counterpart to the theological conclusion reached at the Council of Nicaea which, in condemning Arianism, affirmed that Jesus Christ was the eternal and only-begotten Son of the Father, humanly born of Mary (recognized by the Council of Ephesus as the 'God-bearer', Theotokos)...

So what did Christians prior to Constantine think of the types of celebrations that are now associated with Christmas? Below is a sampling from the Christian leader and theologian Tertullian, as presented in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, edited by David W. Bercot (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998, page 342).

Addressing pagans:

On your day of gladness, we [Christians] neither cover our doorposts with wreaths, nor intrude upon the day with lamps. At the call of public festivity, you consider it a proper thing to decorate your house like some new brothel. ... We are accused of a lower sacrilege because we do not celebrate along with you the holidays of the Caesars in a manner forbidden alike by modesty, decency, and purity. [197 A.D., ANF 3:44]

The Roman traitors clad their doorposts with green and branching laurels. They smoked up their porches with lofty and brilliant lamps. [197 A.D., ANF 3:44]

Addressing Christians:

What less of a defilement does he incur on that ground than does a business ... that is publicly consecrated to an idol? The Minervalia are a much Minerva's as the Saturnalia is Saturn's. Yes, it is Saturn's day, which much necessarily be celebrated even by little slaves at the time of the Saturnalia. Likewise, New Year's gifts must be caught at. The Septimontium must be kept. And all the presents of Midwinter and the Feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted. The schools must be wreathed with flowers.... The same thing takes place on an idol's birthday. Every ceremony of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are benefiting to a Christian teacher? [200 A.D., ANF 3:66]

The Saturnalia, New Year, Midwinter festivals, and Matronalia are frequented by us! Presents come and go! There are New Year's gifts! Games join their noise! Banquets join their din! The pagans are more faithful to their own sect... For, even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord's Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet, we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans! [200 A.D., ANF 3:69]

The following are the biblical texts from the ESV that reference the birth of Jesus:

* See commentary at


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