Why didn’t the early Christians celebrate the festival honouring the birth of Jesus Christ? They did not – for the same reason they honoured no other birthday or anniversary. It was strongly felt that the celebrating of any day or date – be they birthdays or anniversaries of an event – was a custom of the pagans. By the word ‘pagans’ they meant irreligious people who still live in the darkness of superstition. In an effort to divest themselves of all pagan practices, therefore, they did not even set aside or note down the date of their Saviour’s birth.
However, in the fourth century – 354 AD - Bishop Liberius of Rome declared that Christians everywhere should celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25. Ironically, it was in that century that controversy, heresy and false teaching began to plague the church. In fact, it was at this time that the church began to lose her fervour and fire. Zealous faith was at an all-time low. Unfortunately, just like today, the Christians looked to outward sources to bolster their flagging faith. Celebrations and entertainment began to surface within the church; and continues, may I say, in certain sections of the church even today. Most scholars agree that the birth of the Redeemer did not take place in the month of December at all. In fact, the 25th of December was not even chosen by the Christians, but by the Romans – the traditional arch enemies of the early church. You may be asking – how on earth did this happen? Here’s how:
When the Romans of that age noticed that the days grew shorter each year during the months of November and December, they began to fear that the earth might be dying. Therefore with the ‘return of the sun’ at the end of December resulting in longer days, the Romans began to celebrate the “Feast of the Sol Invictus” (the Unconquerable Sun) on December 25. Soon many Christians began to join in this pagan festival and the various celebrations that went with it. Their faith wasn’t vibrant enough (or real enough) to stand against the strong pull of the festivity and celebration around them. They drifted with the crowd.
Thus, in order to keep the Christians away from all the pagan rituals that was part of this worship of the sun, Bishop Liberius of Rome declared, in 354 A.D., that all Christians everywhere should celebrate the birth of our Lord on December 25 – and so it has continued from that day to this. Did this celebration continue unbroken? No – not quite. During the rule of Oliver Cromwell, (Lord Protector of Britain and the Commonwealth), the celebration of Christmas was banned because of “the heathen traditions surrounding this sacred event”. From 1649 to 1658 no celebration was allowed except for special church services on Christmas eve. Cromwell was a dedicated Christian who lived by the commands and principles of Scripture.
We must recognise a parallel in what took place in church history and what is taking place in this day and age. The pagan festivities of the fourth century and Cromwell’s day are much like the commercial celebration of Christmas today. When a salesperson showed a dazzling array of toys and Santas to a little boy, he innocently though wisely asked …but where’s the baby Jesus? His parents had taken care to teach him the true meaning of the advent of Jesus Christ on this planet and into the history of the human race.
Christians no longer participate in the worship of the sun or the sun god as in the fourth century. The centrepiece of Christmas is now no longer the sun but the unconquerable Santa Claus. This white bearded, chubby benefactor typifies the god of this age – materialism. It was Coca Cola who first gave the white bearded individual his red suit to go with the advertising colour of the popular drink. What this plump, rosy cheeked individual has to do with the advent of the precious Lamb of God, I cannot even begin to understand! Writer Jonathan Skinner puts it this way: “A white-bearded old man has thrown the baby out of the cradle, and his trinket-filled grotto has replaced a rustic stable…The spiritual has been swallowed by the secular, the sacred obliterated by sentiment. Christmas has been gutted of its meaning.”
These humanistic and unscriptural traditions have quietly crept into the church when true faith and real worship were fading. All this is reflected in the entertainment aspect of much of the Christian worship of today. If we claim to be Christians and disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us distance ourselves from the commercial (and pagan) celebration of the so-called Christmas season. Holy celebration is Scriptural but must begin from within – in the hearts of those who claim to follow Jesus. The crazy rushing whirl that typifies the celebration of Christmas today has nothing to do with our servant Lord who had no place to lay His head.
The Saviour’s life has been an enigma to many. Author Roy Lessin wrote: “The natural mind asks, How could a Prince be born outside a palace, a Teacher have no degree, a King no army, a Ruler have no place to lay His head, and a Miracle-worker be unable to come down from a cross?” As we endeavour to follow and obey Him implicitly, we too might be considered an enigma by our peers.
Lessin goes on to say, “In the Kingdom of God…
…a person is lifted up by humbling himself, not by exalting himself in the eyes of others.
…fullness comes by becoming empty, not by running after pleasure.
…life is gained by losing it, not by looking out for ‘number one’.
…riches come by giving them away, not by storing them up.
…greatness comes by becoming a servant, not by seeking power and celebrity.”