by Tim Patterson
PLYMOUTH, MI – Much about Christmas remains veiled and puzzling. Not the actual birth of our Lord, but the celebrations that surround it. The celebration itself, harbors a mystery of faith, and the event has a rather checkered history.
For more than 300 years after Jesus walked on earth, Christians celebrated his resurrection but not his birth. This did not preclude a very strong and firm belief in His miraculous birth, but it was just not the focus of their celebrations. The later Christmas festival and celebration that began to have prominence in following decades was even banned in 17th century England and in early America.
The observance of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ, first began in fourth-century Rome, timed to coincide with a midwinter pagan festival honoring the imperial army's sun god, Mithra. This midwinter festival was so popular and ingrained in the culture that the December date was taken over to celebrate Jesus' birthday to help Christians move away from any pagan practices and to shift the focus from a false god to the true and living God.
The day He was born is unknown and even the precise year is uncertain. However, it was not in the year 1 A.D., as the calendar's "Anno domini" (Year of the Lord) suggests. This is agreed upon by the vast majority of conservative Biblical scholars.
The dating system derived from an error about the year of Christ's birth by a sixth-century monk in Rome, Dionysius Exigus, in working out the starting point of the Christian era. Scholars have since calculated that Jesus' birth took place in about 6 or 7 B.C., meaning paradoxically "Before Christ". The revised time was determined partly by the fact that Herod the Great ruled Judea when Jesus was born, and history records that Herod died in 4 B.C.
In what month the birth occurred, or on what day, has been a matter of speculation for centuries. Possible dates include, January 6, February 2, March 25, April 19, May 20, October 4, November 17. A British physicist and astronomer, David Hughes, has calculated
that the date was September 17, 7 B.C., based on various scientific evidence, including that of a conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces on that date.
He concludes in a book that this extraordinary celestial display was the "star" seen by the distant wise men. The 17th century German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, of the now famed Kepler Deep Space Telescope, similarly had calculated a three-planet conjunction, including Venus as well as Jupiter and Saturn, in the same constellation in 7 B.C. In any case, a variety of months and days have been used over the centuries in different parts of the world to celebrate the occasion.
Some Eastern Orthodox churches still celebrate Christmas on January 6. As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was banned in 17th century England when Oliver Cromwell and his puritan followers gained temporary rule, forbidding what was called the "heathen celebration of Christmas." The holiday similarly was banned in colonial New England. Christmas wasn't made a legal holiday in Massachusetts until 1856. Many of the hot-hearted evangelists that were responsible for spreading the Gospel in early America, were adamantly opposed to the practice of celebrating Christmas, and their fiery condemnations can be found in the historical archives of many of their sermons.
For all of the clouded chronology and legal background of Christmas, however, the biggest mystery, or should I say wonder, is in its message – that God has entered the human race in order to live among us a sinless life and become the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of all of mankind. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God... and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,".
That is the mystifying core of Christmas, an awesome concept that has challenged the hearts and minds of humanity since. Why would God so love someone like me or you, so much so that He would sacrifice His only Son on our behalf? Why would He leave the comforts of heaven and come to us? The sinful wretches that we are, are completely undeserving of His love. Yet, without pause “He Gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever would believe in Him would have everlasting life.”
The giving of that wonderful Gift is well worth celebrating no matter how you do so. So, may I encourage you that no matter what the history and practices of the past Christmas celebrations may have been, celebrate the birth that changed the world and our eternities.
Your celebrations may include trees, tensile, lights, bows, fat jolly men in red suits, dancing reindeer, carols, sentimental songs of seasons past, stockings stuffed with candy, huge meals, exchanging of presents, holly, mistletoe, and the list could go on and on with as many variations as there are cultures and ethnicities. How you celebrate is not so important. That you celebrate is important!
What a Gift! Let’s celebrate Christmas!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Patterson is Executive Director/Treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of Michigan. Elected unanimously in May of 2015, Patterson formerly served for 9 years as pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. He also served as trustee chair and national mobilizer for the North American Mission Board.