This time of year, for generations, and in many cultures, brings religious celebrations: Hanukkah, Diwali, and Christmas just to name three. For Canada the most historically significant has been the celebration of Christmas. In 2023 the number of actual Christian believers may have decreased, but “holiday celebrations” carry on, nevertheless. There seems to be, perhaps as a cultural reset, attempts to focus holiday activities on Winter Solstice traditions. In the process somehow, Christian practices are claimed to be derived from pagan or heathen ones, even when this is not the case.
To be truthful, the idea of giving birthday gifts is a pagan influence, as Jewish tradition sets aside birthdays as a time for self-examination and prayer. The three Wise Men, the Magi, spoken of in the Gospel of Matthew, are understood to be pagan/heathen.
As to why the Undivided Church chose to celebrate the birth of Christ on 25th of December, there is a range of opinions. To say that the Church merely
piggy-backed on the celebration of Sol Invictus is misleading. Evidence points to the fact that Emperor Aurelian instituted the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti as an important festival to counteract Christian influence on Roman society. (Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, Liturgical Press, 1991)
Church leaders, including St John Chrysostom, spoke of how this coincidence was even fitting, as Jesus Christ is to be seen as the Sun that Enlightens the world.
How then did the Christian Church choose the 25th of December as the day to celebrate the Saviour’s birth? There is a coincidence of two other dates, one in March and one in January.
The 25th March in the Ecclesiastical calendar is the Feast of the Annunciation. This is the day that the Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to Immanuel, “God with us”.
The choice of this date is based on beliefs about when God created the world, which of course cannot be proven. Nevertheless, having settled on this date, the Church easily concludes that Jesus is born nine months later.
Early in the calendar year, 1 January, the Circumcision of Christ is commemorated. Bear in mind that to be the Messiah, Christ must fulfill all the requirements of Jewish Law. As circumcision is done on the eighth day after birth, this points us again to 25 December as Jesus’ birthday.
As with the date of Creation, the date of Christ’s circumcision is unproven, but these two commemorations antedate any separate celebration of Christmas.
In the end, it is the way we celebrate the Birth of Christ, not the fact that we celebrate it, or the date chosen, that is influenced by heathen culture.
As our society becomes more and more post-Christian our celebrations focus more on partying and eating, but this does not mean that we should deceive ourselves into thinking that Christmas is merely some derivative of heathen celebrations. If we choose to adopt beliefs that are no longer Christian, we should understand what that actually means.
Wishing you a blessed and joyous Christmas season!