Advent 1 Midweek “The Dating of Christmas: Pagan Holiday?”
December 2nd and 3rd 2020 – John 1:1-18
May you receive from God the good you have not deserved, not get the bad, and may you have peace with God through the blood of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
This Advent our midweek series is on the dating of Christmas. No, I do not mean people’s romantic lives during the Christmas season. We will look at three different theories on the date of December 25th for the birth of our Saviour, Jesus.
Have you ever asked the question, Is December 25th really the day that Jesus was born? You may have heard repeatedly over your lifetime that it is the day Jesus was born, or heard that it’s impossible to know if it is, or even that December 25th cannot possibly be the day Jesus was born.
Why does looking into the process of the dating of Christmas matter? For one, a date grounds this event in the history of our world. This event we read about and celebrate does not start out with “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far far away.” This event is not based on a fictional fairy tale. This event is rooted in the middle east, in a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem, about two-thousand and twenty years ago. Because it has a date, and historical events around it with dates, it connects it to us in our real world today.
Secondly, the dating of Christmas matters because of trust. If people are told over and over again Christmas is December 25th and if it turns out to not be, people can be hurt and upset with the church for telling them a lie. If people think they have been lied to about the date of Christmas, they might start thinking the church has been lying to them about other things as well – maybe even about the existence of Jesus altogether.
Finally, some people may never bother to hear about Christianity, or Jesus and the reason He came for us, if they have an issue with the date of Christmas. In other words, the date may be a stumbling block for them. We ought to always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15).
So first let us talk turkey. Full disclosure, I myself was not present for the birth of Jesus. Were you? Do you know of someone alive who was there and can give their witness to what time it was? Neither can I.
So, we start where any logical person would, with the evidence we do have.
If you have ever thought you were the first person to question the date of Christmas, think again. You are not. We will look at only three theories about Christmas, one each week, but, as usual there are many which are not worth our time because of how outrageous they are.
Our first theory for tonight is quite a common one – especially now. Have you ever heard people say that the Christians “stole” the date of Christmas from the pagans who already were celebrating a god on that day? This theory gets serious attention for several reasons. First, Christmas was not celebrated every year since the first Christmas. Believe it or not, people did not give much attention to Jesus as He was growing up. Even more, after He died and rose, His birthday was not something people immediately started celebrating year to year. In the ancient world birthdays were not as big of a deal as we make them now, but more importantly, this guy died and rose from the dead. That was worth celebrating a little more than His basic birth.
In fact, Christians are not recorded to have started celebrating Christmas until around 300 years later. After all that time had passed, it seems reasonable they would not have known the day of Jesus’ actual birthday. Also, the Christians who started celebrating Christmas were in Rome. December 25th in the Roman calendar happened to be the winter solstice when the pagans celebrated their god, Saturn. Later, an emperor made December 25th the birthday celebration of the Sun god. These festivals, along with the equinox celebration Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) when the amount of sun in the day overtook the amount of darkness, made sense to celebrate “the light coming into the world – the light the darkness could not overcome” as John 1 speaks about. The symbolism adds up for this being a good day to celebrate the “SOn” of God coming into the world to save us from the darkness of sin. From a purely symbolic point of view, the celebrations on December 25th fit perfectly for Christians to take and celebrate what they knew to be the real God.
In the next couple of weeks we will look at other approaches to the date for Christmas grounded in what we know from Scripture.
For now, with this one theory, it may appear that Christians “stole” a celebration of the pagans because they really had no way to know the exact date when their Saviour was born into the world (although they knew exactly when He died and rose!)
But does His exact birth date really matter when we want to celebrate and remember it? Fun fact, our Queen has two birthdays. One birthday, is on April 21st when she was actually born. The second is the second Saturday of June, (June 12th coming up in 2021) when it is actually celebrated. Even now it would not be unheard of for Royalty to have their birthday celebrated on a different date than the actual.
However, if Christians really did steal a holiday from the pagans, does that mean that the God of the Bible, that Jesus, was “invented” later and really is not the true God? The entire Bible would disagree. The God of the Bible is the God who created the entire world and everything in it. Our God made days and nights, the stars, the sun, and moon. If God really did create this world as we believe, and even left signs in the stars for wisemen to discover the birth of the King of the Jews, would it not make sense He would make the day which He would send His Son into the world the day that he makes the sun to overtake the darkness each year?
Pagans of that time were people just like you and me. Would not it be entirely possible they discovered this sliver of truth about God just by observing creation? Is it not possible that the day God would send His son into the world the day He made light to overtake the darkness, and that Pagans saw this and put their own celebrations of their made-up gods on top of it? Afterall, God did make the days in the first place. He prophesied the coming of His Son all the way back to the beginning of time in the garden when He said the offspring of man would come and crush the head of the serpent.
If we simply “stole” a day to celebrate the coming of our Saviour into our darkness to save us and be our light, we snagged quite a good day to do so. A day that belongs to our God in the first place. A day that Jesus Himself made. A day that fits when Malachi speaks of Jesus coming when “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” That is what celebrating this day means for us. Stolen or not, it does not change the fact that Jesus did come that year, He did later die because of our darkness and rose to be our light so that we have hope and eternal life to look forward to with Him. You have hope. God made good on His promise to send a Saviour because Jesus came. Stolen or not.