2. Christmas


R. S. Bartle
February 2013


Galatians 4:8-11 [KJV]:

8 Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.

9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?

10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.

11 I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.


In this second article of our series on pseudo-Christian festivals, we investigate the history and practices of the Christmas festival that has grown – ostensibly – to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  To do this, a few lines are sacrificed to reiterate our findings on the general principle governing celebrations[1].

At the crucifixion, the veil of the sanctuary was rent in two (Mt. 27:50-51): the symbol of the fulfilment and abrogation of the ceremonial law[2].  Henceforth, no day was to be set apart by virtue of the calendar, except the Christian Sabbath which, being a part of the Moral Law, shall endure.  As Christians, we are consecrated by the Holy Spirit as temples of God, and therefore everything that we seek to do must have Him as the object.  Being consecrated vessels, we do not have the liberty to make a demarcation between civic celebrations and religious ones.  We do not have a civic and a separate religious life; all must intend to glorify Him.  Nowhere in the New Testament do we read of Christians celebrating civic festivals, and Scripture commands us not to ritually estimate one day above another (Gal. 4:9-11).

Scripture does permit the private or corporate proclamation of days of fasting and thanksgiving in response to extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence.  By its etymology, an extraordinary thing cannot be routine or normal, so Scripture does not permit a celebration held because of its existence on a calendar.

The conclusion we arrive at is twofold.  Firstly, we have no warrant to separate our lives into civic and religious spheres.  Secondly, we must not celebrate recurrent festivals; those that exist on a calendar without respect to extraordinary dispensations of providence.

How did Christmas come into existence?  Scholars continue to assess exactly how the birth of Christ came to be associated with the date of 25th December[3].  Almost all Reformed academics and most secular historians adopt the History of Religions Theory, which views the festival of Christmas as a “christianised” version of pre-existing pagan festivals held on 25th December.

In the past century or so, a second strand of thought has developed, called the Calculation Theory.  Talley is a recent advocate of this argument[4].  In it, it is assumed that Jesus lived a perfect thirty-three years, and that therefore Mary’s conception of Christ and His death on the cross occurred both on the same day, which they select as 25th March, or the vernal equinox.  They then add exactly nine months to the date of Christ’s conception to arrive at His birth on 25th December.

Förster dismisses the Calculation Theory as an act of “breathtaking mental acrobatics,”[5] and we are inclined to agree with him.  He also presents his own theory, which runs as follows.  Pilgrims to the Holy Land took with them back to Rome the date of the nativity celebrations in Jerusalem and Bethlehem (6th January) where, in Rome, they were associated with the traditional pagan celebrations.  It is correct that a festival was celebrated on 6th January in fourth century Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  The fourth century congregations there had misinterpreted Luke 2:23 to read that Jesus was actually baptised on His thirtieth birthday, and so lumped together His birthday and His baptism into one celebration.  Although this date is recorded by John of Nice in a letter by Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, to Julius, Pope of Rome 337-52, no evidence exists as to why 6th January was chosen to be the day.  This itself does not invalidate Förster’s theory, but a complete lack of evidence of Holy Land pilgrims returning and seeking to implement the festival in Rome, leaves it as speculation.

As the bulk of evidence supports the History of Religions Theory, it is from this broad stance that we recount the history of Christmas.  As the Huguenot, Scaliger, wrote in the late sixteenth century:

“If I had said sixty years ago that Our Lord was not born on December 25th, I would have been burnt.  If a Papist said it nowadays, he would be hauled before the Inquisition.  But it is allowed in our religion, since we are permitted to speak and profess the truth.  In fact, the basis of their assumption is so absurd that it is astounding that all of Europe has agreed with it.”[6]

Similarly to Halloween, the component parts of Christmas have their basis in pre-Christian pagan festivals.  Whilst Halloween was a particularly British composition of Celtic and Roman religious elements, later exported to North America, Christmas – in its complete form – has many distinct influences.  Christmas is a diasporic stew of ingredients: the stock is Middle Eastern, the main flavours are Greek and Germanic.  These ingredients were first brought together for the Roman palate, and now Christmas is a favourite for many across the world.

Although we cannot endorse her motives or religious position, much of the succeeding detail of the pre-Christian history of Christmas is gratefully drawn from Dorothy Morrison’s work on Yule[7].

The earliest element of Christmas can be traced back four thousand years to Ancient Egypt sun-worship.  Horus – the sun – was reborn into the sky each morning and, to reflect the twelve month calendar, a twelve day festival was celebrated to commemorate his daily rebirth.

Believing that the Egyptian rituals were critical to their success, neighbouring Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) adopted the festival under the name Zagmuk, to venerate their creator-sun-god Marduk.  In this iteration, the onset of winter brought on the challenge to Marduk’s sovereignty by way of a twelve-day battle.  Zagmuk began five days before, and ended six days after, the Winter Solstice.  With this chronology, after initially appearing to succumb to the forces of darkness, the battle begins to turn to his favour on the seventh night.  Mesopotamians urged Marduk on during the festival, and exchanged presents afterwards as a means of celebrating his victory.

Zagmuk emigrated from Mesopotamia to neighbouring Persia (Iran), where it changed its name to Sacaea, in which the battle between light and darkness was re-enacted.  Chaos was invoked through the exchanging of social positions between masters and slaves, and the maintenance of law was suspended during the festival.

The expansion of the Greek Empire brought it into contact with those areas of the Middle East and North Africa in which sun worship festivals were celebrated.  These tenets were assimilated into Greek religion.  During the twelve days chaos was wrought on society just as in Zagmuk and the Persian Sacaea, except that this time Kallikantzaroi, or imps, were held responsible.  It was believed that the Kallikantzaroi were unable to be in the presence of smoke, so a large log would be kept smouldering throughout the festival; this was adopted by the Celts and is why the Yule Log exists today.  The Greek Sacaea also commemorated the defeat of Kronos and the Titans by Zeus.

Along with the military and political interaction between the established Greek and the upcoming Roman empires, came cultural exchange.  Many Romans practiced Mithraism[8], a sun-worshipping religion, and gladly adopted the sun-worship traditions with which they came into contact. The Greek gods were replaced with the Roman ones, so Zeus and Kronos were replaced by Jupiter and Saturn respectively.  As the stated festival to the honour of Saturn, the festival was named Saturnalia.  Being the Roman evolution of Sacaea, the events of Saturnalia shared many similarities.  Civic business was suspended for a week, and societal rank was temporarily revoked.  Candles were lit to ward away evil spirits, and it would have been common to see candlelit processions of singing Romans.  The giving of gifts, a major part of Christmas today, was first definitively associated with Saturnalia.  Furthermore, the lineage of the premier festival in the year being around the 25th December can be traced back from today’s Christmas to the ancient Roman Saturnalia.  Specifically, Saturnalia lasted from the 17th to the 24th December and was marked by the giving of candles, from which the tradition of Christmas candles stems.  Brumalia, the feast of the first of the new sun, was held on 25th December, and followed by Sigillaria, during which parents gave dolls to their children[9], and from which can be traced the exchange of Christmas presents.

The religious context into which Christianity was born was one dominated by Rome.  Nothing is written of celebrating the birth of Jesus, either in Scripture or until the fourth century.  In the third century, 245 AD, Origen wrote that only pagans celebrate birthdays; therefore it is unlikely that the birth of Christ was celebrated at that time except in very limited instances[10].  Indeed, Chrysostom, in 376 AD Antioch, writes about the feast of the birth of Christ “after the flesh”, and says:

“It is not yet ten years since this day became manifest and known to us…This day is everywhere a matter for discussion; for some accuse it of being a new feast and new-fangled, and of having been introduced but now; while others contend that it is old and original, because the prophets long ago foretold about his birth; and they argue that long ago it was revealed and held in repute by the inhabitants of regions extending from Gades to Thrace.”[11]

The Chronograph of 354 is the first document that identifies 25th December as both the festival of the Roman sun-god Sol Invictus (which had been celebrated on this date since 273 AD), and the date of the birth of Christ.  Criticism exists as to how strong the evidence of the Chronograph of 354 is for the identification of sun-festivals with Christmas, and indeed if it were the only evidence we had, it would be insufficient.  However, it is documented that the heretical followers of Mani identified Christ with the celestial sun after around 275 AD[12].  Coupled with what we already know of pre-Christian sun-festivals held on or around 25th December, there is no question that the birth of Christ was linked to pagan sun-festivals by the middle of the fourth century.  Considering that Chrysostom writes in 376 AD that it is “not yet ten years since this day became manifest”, it can be deduced that this link was made official by the government of the Roman Empire at some point between 366 and 380 AD.  Constantine, the new capital city of the Roman Empire, certainly received a 25th December Christmas by 380 AD[13].

There was notable opposition to the introduction of Christmas amongst fifth century Christians.  Conybeare states that they made it “clear by their protests against the pagan merriment with which the last week of the old year and the first days of the new were still marked, that the new feast of Christmas had been put on December 25 in order to hallow in the Christian way a day round which more than round any other the associations of the older religion centred.”[14]  Eastern Christians rejected Christmas altogether and accused Rome of idolatry.  However, with the military might of the empire at their disposal, Rome was able to silence most of the opposition to Christmas during the succeeding centuries.

As Christianity spread northwards to Britain and Scandinavia, Christmas received regional flavourings.  The Aryan god, Odin, Lord of the Winds, travelled on the night winds, driven by his eight-legged horse, and left tokens of his passing.  The parallel between Odin and the Santa Claus or Father Christmas figure is plain with respect to their mutual unseen status, their mode of transport, and the evidence of their passage.  Wreaths, mistletoe and holly are also examples of pagan symbolism accrued by Christmas through the ages.

The Reformation in Scotland judged Christmas a product of man: without scriptural warrant, and so to be discontinued.  Knox’s 1560 First Book of Discipline, summarises the view of the Scottish Reformers, that Christmas is a Papist invention “without the expressed commandment of God’s word”.  He judged them “utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”[15]

The celebration of Christmas, and other festivals nonexistent in Scripture, was indeed made illegal in England, Ireland and Scotland on 4th January 1644/45[16], as part of the Second Reformation.  The document summarising the position held by both the English and Scottish parliaments, and the Church of Scotland, is the Westminster Directory for Public Worship, to which we have regularly referred in this work.

Some in the Visible Church today, whilst maintaining a verbal allegiance to the Directory for Public Worship, argue that the prohibition is against celebrating Christmas in the belief that it is religiously meritorious.  Our emotive response to that is simply that all that we do ought to be for God’s glory, and something that is not for God’s glory is something that we ought not to do.  Far less, then, when God specifically speaks against the observance of regular festival days, save the one day in seven that we hold for our Lord until He comes.  There is also a technical response to their argument.  A documentary standard is to be interpreted in the manner intended by the writers.  It is injurious to take a standard out of the context in which it was written, and then to pick holes therein, until it satisfies the argument that one seeks to forward.  Such may lay claim to the letter of the law, but not the spirit, and stand there with the Pharisees.

A thorough history of Christmas in Presbyterianism can be found in Chris Coldwell’s           ‘The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism’[17].  A few points can be gleaned in order to provide context to the Directory and so establish just what its prohibition of holy days is, with respect to our study of Christmas.  On 25th December 1644, Rev. Edmund Calamy wrote:

“This day is commonly called The Feast of Christ’s nativity, or, Christmas-day; a day that has formerly been much abused to superstition, and profaneness. It is not easy to say, whether the superstition has been greater, or the profaneness…. And truly I think that the superstition and profanation of this day is so rooted into it, as that there is no way to reform it, but by dealing with it as Hezekiah did with the brazen serpent. This year God, by his Providence, has buried this Feast in a Fast, and I hope it will never rise again.”[18]

Parliament made the prohibition of Christmas more legally-explicit in June 1647:

“Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise notwithstanding.”[19]

It is the hope of your penman that this buries underfoot the dangerous notion that a person can both adhere to the Directory and celebrate Christmas.

Presbyterian denominations have historically held a stance against the celebration of Christmas although today only a small percentage, comprising conservative evangelicals, continue so to do.  The departure from the foundational position began in the late nineteenth century in both Britain and the USA.  In Britain, the slide seems largely to have been governed by a departure from the regulative principle into the frame of mind where the end justifies the means, a frame contrary to the Word of God.  Specifically, it was reckoned that Scripturally-unsanctioned means were acceptable tools to bring people to Christ; for example, through crusades incorporating uninspired means of worship and using people unqualified to preach.  Christmas was so used by those evangelicals who are now seen to be the forerunners to Pentecostalism; the pagan and Roman Catholic elements to it were seen as unimportant, and the “Christmas story” was used to draw people into meetings.

The Divine Second Person had to be united to humanity, born as the man Jesus, to act as Covenant Head of His people, and so satisfy Divine Justice.  As Adam sinned through disobedience and sin is imputed to his posterity, so incarnate Jesus was righteous through vicarious obedience and righteousness is imputed to His posterity.   Jesus was born a baby, yes, and it is vitally necessary for us to grasp His humanity, but He was and remains the Lion of Judah, the Redeemer of His People; almighty, omniscient, omnipresent God.  Neglect either His divinity or His humanity, and the Gospel is not preached.  The “Christmas story”, the presentation of Jesus solely as a baby in a manger, is not the Gospel.  It neglects the purpose in His incarnation of bringing salvation to sinners, and the fulfilment of that purpose in His life, death and resurrection.  It does nothing to convict a man of his sin and his hopelessness in himself, and so does nothing to point him to the Fountain of Life.

On 25th December 1644, a Day of Fasting and Humiliation was held.  Ministers preached a Christmas sermon.  They preached its sin.  They preached the condition of sinful man, and He who came to save from sin.  They preached Christ, crucified and risen, exalted at the right hand of God.

[1] The reader will find this subject discussed in greater detail in the preceding article of this series, entitled ‘Halloween, Reformation Day and Guy Fawkes.’

[2] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Rent Veil (Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington: 25 March 1888) <http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2015.htm> [accessed 14 January 2012]

[3] C. P. E. Nothaft, ‘The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research’, Church History, 81 (2012), 903-911

[4] Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd edn. (Collegeville, Minnesota: Pueblo, 1991)

[5] Hans Förster, Die Anfange von Weihnachten und Epiphanias: Eine Anfrage an die Entstehungshypothesen (Tübingen: Mohn Siebeck, 2007)

[6] Scaligerana, Thuana, Perroniana, Pithoeana, et Colomesiana, ed. P. des Maizeaux (Amsterdam: Covens & Mortier, 1740), 2:467–68: ‘‘Si j’eusse dit, il y a 60 ans, que Nostre Seigneur n’est pas ne´ le 25 Decembre, j’eusse este´ brusle´, maintenant si un Papiste le disoit, il serolt mis a` l’Inquisition; mais il est permis en nostre Religion, parce que veritatem licet dicere & profiteri. Et cependant leur fondement est si absurde que c’est de merveilles que toute l’Europe ait consenty a` cela.’’

[7] Dorothy Morrison, ‘The History of Yule: How It all Began’, in Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth, ed. by Karin Simoneau (St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2004), pp. 3-8

[8] James George Fraser, The Golden Bough (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951)

[9] F. C. Conybeare, ‘The History of Christmas’, The American Journal of Theology, 1st ser., 3 (1899), 1-21

[10] Origen, ‘Homily 8’, Leviticus (245)

[11] J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 49, p. 351

[12] F. C. Conybeare, ibid.

[13] Thomas J. Talley, ‘Constantine and Christmas’, Studia Liturgica, 17 (1987), 191-97

[14] Conybeare, ibid., p. 3

[15] John Knox, The First Book of Discipline (Edinburgh, 1560).  Online version available at:  http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/bod_ch03.htm> [accessed 18 February 2013]

[16] William H. Shaw, A History of the English Church During the Civil Wars and Under the Commonwealth (New York: Longmans, 1900).  The date is expressed as 1644/45 because Britain was then regulated by the Julian calendar.  The Julian year is 1644, the Gregorian is 1645.

[17] Chris Coldwell, ‘The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism’, The Blue Banner, 8, #9-10 (1999).  Online version available at http://www.naphtali.com/articles/chris-coldwell/the-religious-observance-of-christmas-and-%E2%80%98holy-days%E2%80%99-in-american-presbyterianism/ [accessed 4 February 2013]

[18] James Reid, Memoirs of the Westminster Divines (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982; Reprint of 1811)

[19] Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans (London: 1837)

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