No clear record exists of a celebration of the birth of Christ as a separate event until the fourth century AD. As a separate celebration of the birth of Christ, Christmas appears to have originated in the Western church. On December 25, 380 Gregory of Nazianzus preached a sermon celebrating the birth of Christ as the consummate “Theophany” (God-appearance). Chrysostom delivered a Christmas sermon in Antioch on December 25, 386. As renowned church historian Philip Schaff relates, Chrysostom described the Christmas celebration as “the fundamental feast, or the root, from which all other Christian festivals grow,” for “without the birth of Christ there were also no baptism, passion, resurrection, or ascension, and no outpouring of the Holy Ghost; and hence no feast of Epiphany, of Easter, or of Pentecost.”
THE PAGAN CONNECTION?
From time to time some have suggested that the Christmas celebration, falling as it does near the winter solstice, is rooted in paganism. These late-December festivals celebrated “universal freedom” and equality” and honored “the unconquered sun” as it “survived” the longest night of the year. Schaff observes,
This connection accounts for many of the customs of the Christmas season, like the giving of presents to children and to the poor, the lighting of wax tapers . . . and gives them a Christian import. [At the same time] it also betrays the origin of the many excesses in which the unbelieving world indulges at this season, in wanton perversion of the true Christian mirth.
Such abuses and perversions, however, “no more forbid right use” of Christmas observances “than the abuses of the Bible or of any other gift of God,” concludes Schaff. Several church fathers acknowledge the parallel between the timing of the celebration of Christmas and the winter solstice as highlighting the greater spiritual truth blindly groped after in pagan festivals. Jesus Christ is the unconquered “Sun of righteousness” arising “with healing in his wings” (Mal 4:2), the “light of the world” who sheds on all who follow Him the “light of life” (John 8:12). If there is any chronological correlation, it seems more likely that Christmas originated as a distinctively Christian alternative to the heathen festivals at the same time of year.
Paganism has always been about the distortion of reality, the corruption of truth, the perversion of revelation. Satan is not a creator and originator, only an imitator and counterfeiter. The Christian church recognized the appropriateness of celebrating an event detailed and emphasized in two of the Gospels. Its timing undercut the simultaneous pagan festivities by stressing the reality of spiritual truth of which the heathen were ignorant in their darkness.
But might there be another providential connection?
THE HANUKKAH CONNECTION?
The Jewish Feast of Hanukkah is calendrically adjacent to the celebration of Christmas. This year’s Hanukkah celebration commenced just two days before this post (Sunday December 2) and occupies this entire week. Also known as the Feast of Lights or the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration of the recapture and rededication of the Temple from the forces of Antiochus IV. Antiochus had massacred the priests, pillaged the Jerusalem Temple, and defiled its sanctuary by erecting a statue in honor of Zeus (and Antiochus himself) and an altar dedicated to Jupiter upon which he sacrificed a sow. The date was Chislev 25, 167 BC. (Chislev corresponds to November-December on the Gregorian calendar.)
Three years later, under the direction of Judas the Maccabee (the “Hammerer”), a revolutionary army of Jews recaptured Jerusalem, cleansed and rededicated the Temple, and reinstituted the priesthood. The date was Chislev 25, 164 BC, and an annual celebration was instituted to commemorate the event (1 Maccabees 4:36-59 NRSV). Even though the Jewish observance of this intertestamental occasion is not of biblical origin, Jesus the Messiah chose to be in Jerusalem for the observance of Hanukkah (John 10:22-23). (For a more thorough discussion of the Feast of Hanukkah itself, see Ken Casillas’s post.)
Alfred Edersheim (a converted Jew) argued that a central factor in the timing of the early Christian celebration of the incarnation of Messiah had nothing to do with pagan rites and festivities, but that it arose out of the Jewish observance of Hanukkah. He described the physical and spiritual parallels between the two events this way:
As the once extinguished light was relit in the Temple . . . it grew day by day in brightness, till it shone quite out into the heathen darkness, that once had threatened to quench it. That He who purified the Temple, was its True Light, and brought the Great Deliverance, should (as hinted) have spent the last anniversary season of His birth at that Feast in the Sanctuary, shining into their darkness, seems most fitting. Thoughts of the meaning of this Feast, and of what was associated with it, will be helpful as we listen to the words which Jesus spake to the people in ‘Solomon’s Porch’” in John 10:22-39 (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, II:226-228).
The providential similarities are worth pondering: the arrival of the Light of the world (John 8:12) penetrating human darkness (Isa 9:2; Matt 4:16), the Greater than the Temple (Matt 12:6), the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45), the Lamb of God and Lion of Judah (Rev 5:5-6), the Royal Priestly Prophet who filled full all the hopes held dear by those intertestamental heroes who “knew their God” (Dan 11:32) and forfeited their lives for their allegiance to Yahweh (Dan 11:33; 1 Macc 1:54-64 NRSV).
The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah both commemorates history and expresses a fierce determination for the future. A genuinely Christian Christmas should celebrate the true Light that has shined into our lives (2 Cor 4:6), a rededication of our bodies as the temple of Yahweh (1 Cor 6:19), and the living hope of the certain return of the Lamb who will Himself one day be both the Temple and the Light of the new earth (Rev. 21:22-23).