Christmas: meaning, history and origin

Christmas, the cherished annual Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, is a time-honored tradition observed on December 25th in the Western Church. The origins of this date trace back to ancient times, with its association dating as far back as A.D. 273.

Interestingly, the historical significance of December 25th intersects with two pagan festivals that honored the sun. Some historical accounts suggest that the choice of December 25th for Christmas was deliberate, aiming to counteract the influence of these pagan celebrations.

Nevertheless, even today, a lingering unease about Christmas persists among certain individuals who worry that its historical connection to pagan festivals might somehow taint its Christian significance. However, at the heart of the Christian faith lies the belief that the gospel not only transcends cultural influences but also has the power to transform them.

In the early 4th century, around A.D. 320, a theologian responded to these concerns by offering a profound perspective, stating, “we hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.” This eloquent assertion underscores the essence of Christmas—honoring the birth of Jesus Christ as the true source of light and hope, transcending any historical associations and reaffirming the profound spiritual significance of this sacred holiday.

When is Christmas?

Christmas is a fixed holiday and celebrated on December 25th every year, though the days of the week shift.  Here are the dates for Christmas over the next five years:

  1. 2023 – Monday, December 25, 2023
  2. 2024 – Wednesday, December 25, 2024
  3. 2025 – Thurday, December 25, 2025
  4. 2026 – Friday, December 25, 2026
  5. 2027 – Saturday December 25, 2027

Why is it celebrated on December 25th?

There are two specific theories for why we use the date of December 25th for Christmas.

First, people and religions of the day celebrated some sort of holiday around that time. From Jewish Chanukah to Pagan Winter Solstice to Germanic Yule to Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered Sun); the sheer number of celebration days with trees, decorations, yule logs, mistletoe and feasts seem to point to a season of celebration to which Christians added the birth of Jesus as a counter-cultural event and possibly even an escape from the pagan holidays for early believers.

December 25th was the Saturnalia Festival of emancipation, gift giving and the triumph of light after the longest night. The Christian sees the truth implicit in this pagan tradition that reflects: Christ the Light of the world, His triumph over the night of sin in Luke 1:78-79: “…Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

The second theory centers around the date “accepted” by the Western Church of March 25 as the Annunciation or Immaculate Conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. December 25 is 9 months later and thus celebrated as the birthday of Jesus. Regardless of the possible reasons for the date, the church calendar was set in the West during Constantine’s reign while the Eastern Church held onto the date of January 6 for some time. 

How did Christmas begin?

The origin story of Christmas dates back to the Christian tradition, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ as the central event of Christmas. The nativity story of the birth of Jesus is primarily found in the New Testament of the Bible, specifically in the books of Matthew and Luke.

According to the Bible, the story begins with the announcement of the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary by the angel Gabriel. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary is visited by the angel, who tells her that she will conceive and give birth to a son, Jesus, who will be the Son of God. Mary accepts this divine message with faith.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, Mary’s husband-to-be, also receives a divine message in a dream, confirming the miraculous nature of Mary’s pregnancy and instructing him to take Mary as his wife. Joseph obediently follows God’s guidance.

The birth of Jesus itself takes place in Bethlehem, as prophesied in the Old Testament. The couple, Mary and Joseph, travel to Bethlehem for a census, and because there is no room in the inn, Jesus is born in a humble stable or manger. Angels appear to shepherds in the fields, announcing the birth of the Savior and guiding them to the newborn baby.

Later, wise men from the East, known as the Magi, follow a star to Bethlehem, where they present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus, symbolizing his royal and divine nature.

The Christmas story, as told in the Bible, is central to the Christian faith and is commemorated annually on December 25th. The celebration of Christmas has evolved over the centuries and incorporates various cultural and religious traditions, but its core message remains the birth of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring salvation and hope to humanity.

The origin of Christmas Eve

For centuries, Christmas was celebrated not as a single day, but as a whole season in parts of the world, beginning with this day, December 24, Christmas Eve. Perhaps the practice of celebrating the evening before the big day is an echo from ancient Jewish reckoning. Among earlier Jews, a day began at six in the evening and ran until six the following evening. Had not Moses written: “An evening and a morning were the first day?

Why is it called Christmas?

Christmas means “Christ-mass.” Although the date is a guess, the tradition of observing it goes back to at least the fourth century. Under the influence of the church, Christian traditions replaced pagan solstice festivals throughout Europe.

Often the more innocent pagan practices (such as bringing in a Yule log, decorating with holly and the like) were carried over into the Christmas observance, transfigured with new meaning.

The Christian meaning behind Christmas traditions

Evergreen Trees were the symbol of eternal life. Martin Luther introduced them to the Reformation Church as a picture of our endless life in Christ, by bringing in a tree to his family on Christmas Eve lit with candles (Isaiah 60:13).

Candles are a picture that Christ is the Light of the world (John 8).

Holly speaks of the thorns in His crown (Matthew 27:29).

Red is a color of Christmas that speaks of Christ’s blood and death.

Gifts are a reminder of the gifts of the Magi to baby Jesus. Each of them speak to a component of His incarnation: Majesty in life, Bitterest Agony in Death and He as God’s Perfect gift to us (Matthew 2).

The Yule Log was a symbol by which all the men in the family would carry a log large enough to burn for 12 days into the house. They were identifying with Christ and His Cross. The fire was started with a fragment from the previous years [this refers to the eternal existence of Christ before His birth] log. It speaks of warmth, unity, joy and the security of endless life.

Mistletoe was an ancient symbol from the Roman times. It was under mistletoe that old enmities and broken friendship were restored.  So Christ was the One who took away the enmity and gave us peace with God (Romans 5:1; Romans 8:1).

Bells are associated with ringing out news. Christ is the good news, the best news of all.

How Christmas has evolved

Christmas has evolved over the centuries from its origins as a Christian religious holiday to a global celebration with a diverse array of cultural and secular traditions. Here is a brief overview of how Christmas has evolved into its modern form:

  1. Early Christian Celebrations: The earliest recorded Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth dates to the 4th century when December 25th was established as the date for Christmas. It was initially a religious observance focused on the nativity of Christ.
  2. Medieval and Renaissance Europe: During the Middle Ages, Christmas became a time of religious pageantry and feasting in Europe. Nativity scenes, carol singing, and church services played a central role.
  3. Incorporation of Pagan Elements: As Christianity spread, Christmas absorbed elements from pre-existing pagan winter festivals, such as the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic Yule, to help facilitate the conversion of non-Christians. This included traditions like decorating with greenery, lighting candles, and exchanging gifts.
  4. Protestant Reformation: The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century led to various approaches to Christmas. Some Protestant groups embraced the holiday, while others rejected it as too Catholic in nature. In some regions, Christmas was banned entirely.
  5. Victorian Era Revival: The 19th century saw a revival of Christmas traditions in the English-speaking world, particularly in Victorian England. This era popularized many modern Christmas customs, including the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, and the idea of Christmas as a family-centered holiday.
  6. Commercialization and Santa Claus: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christmas became increasingly commercialized, with retailers promoting the idea of gift-giving. The image of Santa Claus, based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, evolved into the jolly, gift-bearing figure we know today.

While the there are many new traditions and customs surrounding the celebration of the season, the core of Christmas remains the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Modern Christmas traditions

Singing Christmas Carols

The tradition of singing Christmas carols is a heartwarming and communal practice that brings people together to celebrate the holiday season. Rooted in medieval Europe, these festive songs have evolved over the centuries to become an integral part of Christmas celebrations worldwide. Many Christmas carols retell the biblical story of the nativity, allowing people to reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ.

These hymns often carry a sense of reverence, emphasizing the spiritual significance of the season. In addition to their religious themes, Christmas carols also encompass a wide range of secular songs that capture the joy, warmth, and festive spirit of the holidays. Whether sung in churches, homes, or public gatherings, carols create a sense of unity and merriment, bringing people of all ages and backgrounds together in harmonious celebration.

Carolers spreading cheer door-to-door and the community-organized caroling events exemplify the enduring tradition of singing Christmas carols, making it a cherished and inclusive part of the holiday season.

In 1822, Clement Moore wrote a poem for children that has never been forgotten. It was entitled, “Twas the Night before Christmas…“!

Santa Claus

The name Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas. While the modern Santa Claus is associated with a fictional character, the historical St. Nicholas was a revered figure known for his charitable acts and generosity. St. Nicholas was born around AD 280 in Patara, Asia Minor, to wealthy Christian parents who had prayed for a child. He was devoted to God from a young age. After losing his parents to a plague, Nicholas inherited their wealth and chose to use it for honorable purposes.

Nicholas later became the Archbishop of Myra, displaying remarkable wisdom, maturity, and continuing in his acts of kindness. During his service, he faced persecution and likely imprisonment for his Christian faith, enduring a challenging period of eight years of persecution under emperors Diocletian and Galerius. With the advent of religious freedom under Emperor Constantine, Christians faced new challenges, including doctrinal disputes.

Constantine convened the Nicene Council in 325 AD to address these issues, where Nicholas of Myra was one of the bishops in attendance, contributing to the development of the Nicene Creed. Thus, the historical St. Nicholas left a lasting legacy of faith, charity, and unity in the Christian tradition.

St. Nicholas is most famous for his extraordinary acts of generosity and charity. One well-known story tells of how he helped a poor man with three daughters who were unable to afford their dowries. St. Nicholas provided bags of gold to the man, secretly delivering them through a window or down the chimney, depending on the version of the story.

Christmas cards

The tradition of sending Christmas cards started in 1844. An English artist named William Dobson, drew up some pictures in England for use at this season. They found local use there and soon spread to America. In 1846 Cole and Horsley saw the commercial potential of this growing tradition and started the production of what is now over a $1,000,000,000.00 industry, that sees 4 billion cards sent each year in America alone. 

Christmas stockings

The tradition of Christmas stockings is a charming and widely embraced aspect of Christmas celebrations, particularly in Western cultures. It involves hanging stockings, typically made of fabric, near the fireplace or elsewhere in the home on Christmas Eve. These stockings are believed to be filled with small gifts, treats, and surprises by Santa Claus or other gift-giving figures overnight, to be discovered by children on Christmas morning.

Here’s a brief overview of the tradition of Christmas stockings and its origins:

  1. Legend of St. Nicholas: The origin of the Christmas stocking tradition can be traced back to the legend of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus). According to one popular story, St. Nicholas learned of a poor man with three daughters who couldn’t afford their dowries and were at risk of being sold into servitude. To help them, St. Nicholas secretly dropped bags of gold down the man’s chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fireplace to dry.
  2. Dutch Influence: In the Netherlands, the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace was already established in the 16th century. Dutch children would leave shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with gifts and treats. The Dutch name for St. Nicholas, “Sinterklaas,” is believed to have evolved into the modern name “Santa Claus.”
  3. Spread to Other Cultures: The custom of hanging stockings for gifts gradually spread to other countries, including England, where it was associated with the story of Father Christmas. Over time, it became a cherished Christmas tradition in many parts of the world.
  4. Modern Tradition: Today, Christmas stockings come in various sizes and designs, often personalized with the names of family members. The act of hanging stockings is typically done on Christmas Eve, and children eagerly anticipate waking up on Christmas morning to discover what surprises Santa Claus has left for them.
  5. Variations: While the traditional Christmas stocking is hung by the fireplace, some cultures have variations. In France, children place their shoes by the fireplace, while in some Scandinavian countries, stockings are hung on the bedposts.

The origin of the Christmas tree

Among the many accounts claiming to explain the origin of the Christmas tree, the three most popular are from Germany — making it the likeliest place of origin. The stories span from the 8th to the 16th century. All three have some element of historical fact, and they may even loosely connect from one to another.

These German narratives not only establish Germany as the probable birthplace of the Christmas tree tradition but also highlight the enduring nature of the customs associated with it. The interplay between historical fact and folklore in these stories adds to the richness and depth of the Christmas tree’s cultural significance, illustrating how traditions evolve over time while maintaining their core themes of hope, faith, and celebration.

1. The first story is about St. Boniface. In the 8th century, he was a missionary to some of the remotest tribes of Germany. He is probably best known for what is called the “Felling of Thor’s Oak.” It is said that upon entering a town in northern Hesse (Hessia), Boniface learned that the people worshiped the god Thor who they believed resided in a great oak tree among them. Boniface determined that if he wanted to earn an audience with the people, he would have to confront Thor. He announced before the people that he was going to cut down the oak, and he openly challenged Thor to strike him down.

Miraculously, as Boniface began to chop the oak, a mighty wind blew and hurled the tree to the ground. Tradition holds that a fir tree was growing in the roots of the oak, and Boniface claimed the tree as a symbol of Christ. Needless to say, the people readily accepted Boniface’s message, and the tree eventually came to be associated with the birth of Christ and a celebration of the day when the mighty God (who could hurl a gigantic oak to the ground) chose to humbly enter the world as a babe.

2. Another possible source of the Christmas tree (and probably the most likely) comes from medieval religious plays in Germany. Among the most popular of these plays was the “Paradise” play. It started with the creation of man, acted out the first sin, and showed Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise (the Garden of Eden). It closed with the promise of a coming Savior, which made the play a particular favorite during the Christmas season. In the play, the Garden of Eden was most often represented by a fir tree hung with apples and surrounded by candles.

3. A third tradition about the origin of the Christmas tree attributes it to Martin Luther, an influential leader of the Reformation. Some say that on Christmas Eve, Luther was walking through the woods near his home. He was struck by the beauty of how the snow shimmered in the moonlight on the branches of the trees. In an effort to re-create the magnificent sight for his family, he cut down the tree, placed it in his home, and decorated it with candles.

3 Christmas Carols that Tell the True Christmas Story

“The First Noel”

“Noel” derives from the Latin verb “nasci,” to be born, and eventually trickled down into the French reference to the Christmas holiday. Defined, it literally means, “a Christmas carol” (Merriam Webster). The very world “Noel” is synonymous with Christmas.

It’s quite possible that the tune of this song has been played since the 1200s. Davies Gilbert added the lyrics in the 1800s, and it was published in 1823. The song retells the story from Luke 2 of the angels telling the shepherds in the field of the Savior being born, and the wise men following that same star to bring Him gifts.

Embracing Noel sends us traveling back to an ancient era, where our timeless Savior was born. The word used to describe the day of His birth became an anthem in celebration of the day of His birth. Though the angels sang in celebration of His birth first, we get to share in that joy of His coming by singing along today.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

Historically an Advent song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” exudes the angst of a people waiting for their Savior. With references to the Rod of Jesse and the Key of David, it envelopes the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus Christ, which brings the New Testament into an even brighter light.

The first verse of the song speaks of the Son of God appearing. When we sing this classic Christmas carol, we are lauding the Lord over stanzas of Scripture that took over 800 years to be fulfilled.

Isaiah spoke of the Messiah’s birth around 740-680 BC: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Centuries later, Matthew recorded these words: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”; Matthew 1:23). 

“Joy to the World”

Isaac Watts penned the lyrics to “Joy to the World,” but God Himself ordained the Scripture that is referenced throughout its stanzas. Psalm 98, Psalm 96:11-12 and Genesis 3:17-18 are all embraced in the beautiful truth of what Christmas is really about. Since 1719, we’ve had a melody to weave around the embrace of these promises. They are timeless and without boundary.

“And so, let the heavens resound in gladness! Let joy be the earth’s rhythm as the sea and all its creatures roar. Let the fields grow in triumph, a grand jubilee for all that live there. Let all the trees of the forest dig in and reach high with songs of joy before the Eternal” (Psalm 96:11-12).

“Joy to the World” is a repetition of God’s promises; ones that we need to repeat to ourselves far beyond the Christmas season. The very definition of the word, “joy,” is “a source or cause of delight” (Merriam-Webster).

Christmas bible verses

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” Isaiah 9:6-7

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said:

“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2

Source: Crosswalk

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