Factsheet: Christmas

Image credit: Rodion Kutsaev, UnSplash
Christmas is one of the most important annual festivals in Christianity, and marks the birth of Jesus. It falls on 25 December

 

What does the Bible say about Christmas?

Jesus’s birth is discussed in only two of the four gospels in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’s life: Matthew and Luke.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was born in Bethlehem after his father Joseph had been told by an angel that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’s birth took place when Herod was king, and afterwards wise men came from the east following a star and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’s birth took place when Herod was king, Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would conceive and bear a son and then Caesar decreed that all should be enrolled, so Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town.  There was no room at the inn so Jesus was laid in a manger, before angels told shepherds minding their sheep in nearby fields that a Saviour was born and they visited Jesus in the manger to worship him.

What do historians say?

Most scholars assume Jesus was born between 6-4BC, based on the date of Herod’s reign, working backwards from the date he began preaching, and records of the star the Magi followed.

There is nothing in the Gospels that gives us any indication of the date when Jesus was born. Why 25 December became the established Christian tradition is not entirely clear but is thought to be because it is nine months after 25 March. This date — which was approximately the spring equinox in older calendars — became significant in early Christianity as some ancient monks calculated by obscure means that it was both the day God created the world and the day Jesus was crucified. There was also a conviction by many in the ancient world that important people often died on the day they were born, so early traditions held Jesus was born on 25 March. This is believed to have been later switched to be the date of his conception during a campaign against a heresy called adoptionism, which suggested Jesus was conceived an ordinary human but became the Son of God only at a later point in his life.

Many centuries later, it became commonplace to believe Christmas takes place in late December because it superseded or modified pagan winter solstice festivals, such as Sol Invictus, a Roman celebration of the God of light, Mithras, or Yuletide and Saturnalia, two other northern European pagan festivals. However, this idea is almost entirely prompted by one vague marginal note in a medieval manuscript and is not supported by historical evidence, as there are records of Christians marking Christmas on 25 December many years before Sol Invictus began.

Christmas was not a significant part of the Christian calendar in the first few centuries after Jesus, when in fact some Christian writers mocked other religions for celebrating the supposed birthdays of their gods. There is no written record of an annual celebration on 25 December to mark the actual birth of Christ until 354 when Julius I was Bishop of Rome. It was not until centuries later that Christmas emerged as the other main date in the Christian calendar as well as Easter.

Where does Santa Claus come from?

The origins of Santa Claus can be traced to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (southern Turkey) 280-342CE, who over the next 1000 years became synonymous with a multitude of causes and people, including protecting children. Stories written about him after he had become one of the most popular saints in the medieval world included a myth that he had given money anonymously to a neighbour in need by throwing it through his windows in the middle of the night. By the 12th century his connections with children and anonymous gifts meant people were giving presents to their children on his saint’s day, 6 December.

In the Netherlands, he was known in Dutch as Sinter Klaas, a tradition that was then transported to the Americas by Dutch settlers, especially in the city of New Amsterdam (later to become New York). After American independence, New Yorkers seized on some of their Dutch traditions to set themselves apart from Britain and this gradually evolved into the Santa Claus we know today.

How do Christians celebrate Christmas?

Primarily, Christmas is a holy day, which means it is marked by church services similar to regular Sunday services. Christians also have a season of waiting and preparation in the month leading up to Christmas called Advent, which often includes carol services, Christingles, midnightmass on Christmas Eve and other special events at churches.

Although historically some Christian traditions looked down on the celebratory and feasting aspects of Christmas unconnected to church (it was famously suppressed by Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic), the vast majority of modern Christians will today happily also engage in giving presents, putting up trees and eating special food over Christmas much like everyone else.

Has Christianity gone out of Christmas?

Church of England attendance figures for 2019 show 2.33 million people attended church at Christmas, 2.55 million people attended special services for the congregation and local community in Advent, and 2.87 million attended special services for civic organisations and schools. This means about four per cent of the population of England went to a C of E church service for Christmas.

In his book, Christmas as Religion: Rethinking Santa, the Secular and the Sacred, Dr Chris Deacy from Kent University suggests people find religion through the secular and nostalgia, so that Christmas becomes a transcendent time. “Christmas is not just a sacred event in an otherwise profane calendar. It transcends the rest of the year and, for all its materialist and ersatz trappings, is a time when we want to cultivate good, wholesome, edifying characteristics and behaviours.”

Further reading

Christmas as Religion by Dr Chris Deacy, c.deacy@kent.ac.uk

A Christmas Cornucopia by Mark Forsyth