I’m offering 2 copies of my award-winning Christmas story, One Holy Night, for our drawing, so be sure to post a comment today before midnight to be entered! I’ll announce the winners tomorrow morning.
Now on to Christmas.
When Was Jesus Born?
There have been a number of theories about when Christ was actually born, but most of the evidence points to either 5 or 4 BC. The Bible records that Jesus was born during Herod’s reign, and Herod died in 4 BC. Consequently, Jesus could not have been born any later than 4 BC.
|Engel erscheint den Hirten, anonymous Dutch painter|
If Jesus was born in the winter of 6 BC, he would have been close to two years old when Herod ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem to be killed not long before he died a painful death in the spring of 4 BC. If Jesus was born in 5 BC, then he would still have been a baby when his parents secretly fled with him to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous designs.
|The Adoration of the Magi, Abraham Bloemaert|
These unnamed wise men were likely Zoroastrians from Persia. Since they are known to have studied the stars, it would have been natural for them to investigate an astrological phenomenon like the one recorded as announcing Jesus’ birth. It is also very credible that the journey from Persia to Bethlehem could have taken up to two years.
What Was the Star?
There are two theories that may identify the star the Magi followed to Bethlehem.
First, in December of 7 BC there was a confluence of Jupiter and Saturn. By February of 6 BC Mars was in close proximity to the two planets. Astrologically, this is known as Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces. To the ancients, Jupiter represented the greatest of the gods, while the sign of Pisces (the fish) would indicate that a very important ruler was to be born.
In his book The First Christmas, Paul L. Maier suggests that the configuration of Jupiter with Saturn in 7-6 BC alerted the Magi that a new ruler would soon be born. Then when the comet of 5 BC appeared with its brilliant light, it is very believable that they would have followed it. Maier also believes that when Herod questioned the Magi about when they first saw the star, they described the astrological sign they had observed two years earlier. This would explain why Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem less than two years old killed.
Where Was Jesus Born?
|Birth of Jesus by Gerard van Honthorst|
The first full account of a Christmas service at the grotto was written in the fourth century. Aetheria, a nun, described hangings of silk, decorations of gold and jewels, numerous lamps and candelabra, and the chanting of psalms during the sacrament of the Mass.
Why December 25?
The actual date of Christ’s birth has never been credibly established in spite of a number of attempts to do so. Church leaders early on began to speculate on the actual date of Jesus’ birth, with a number of dates being proposed. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20, while other church leaders argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) advocated January 2, and others argued for November 17, November 20, and March 25. A Latin treatise written around 243 set the date as March 21, the supposed date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had already followed the same logic in concluding that Christ’s birth and baptism most likely occurred on a Wednesday because God created the sun on the fourth day of the week. But there wasn’t enough evidence available to conclusively prove any of these dates, and there were serious flaws to the calculations behind all of them.
From the beginning, celebrating Christmas was controversial. Origen (c.185 to c. 254) preached that the celebration of birthdays was for pagan gods, and that Christ would be dishonored if his birth was celebrated in the same way the pagans honored their rulers. The giving of lavish gifts and excesses of eating and drinking that accompanied pagan celebrations contrasted drastically with the nativity’s simplicity and offended church leaders. Even today, many people condemn these traditions as being contrary to the true spirit of Christmas.
Not all of Origen’s contemporaries agreed that Christ’s birthday should not be celebrated, however. In fact, the nativity has been observed in some form since 98 AD, and in 137 the bishop of Rome established it as a solemn feast day. As Christianity spread, individual churches increasingly adapted traditions from some of the pagan winter festivals practiced throughout the Middle East and Europe, such as hanging evergreens and giving presents, for their celebration of Jesus’ birth.
For the first three centuries of the Common Era, the celebration of Christ’s birth didn’t take place in December. When individual churches observed the nativity, they usually did so on January 6 during Epiphany, one of the church’s earliest feasts. Western Christians first celebrated the Christ mass on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion. That was the date of two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti, the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun,” and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Since pagans already honored deities with some parallels to the true God, church leaders decided to appropriate the date by substituting their own festival. So in 350 AD, Pope Julius I set the observance of the Christ mass on December 25.
Although Eastern churches initially held on to January 6 as the date for Christ’s birth and baptism, most eventually also adopted December 25, while still celebrating his baptism on January 6. The Armenian Church continues to celebrate the nativity on January 6, while the Western church designates Epiphany as the date the Magi located the Christ child. The earliest English reference to December 25 as Christmas first appeared in late Old English in 1038 as Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ.
Traditional Christmas Customs
|The Christmas Fair, Georg von Rosen|
Although the pagan origins of the date of Christmas and of many Christmas traditions have caused opposition to the holiday from the beginning, in general the church has viewed efforts to reshape the surrounding secular culture in a positive light. In 320 one theologian wrote, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.” And to that, I say, Amen!
Do you have a favorite Christmas tradition, perhaps one you share with your family? If so, please share it with us!
I’m offering 2 copies of One Holy Night in the giveaway. Any comments posted before midnight will be entered and 2 winners will be chosen. Check back tomorrow morning to find out who the lucky winners are!