Well, that depends on what you mean by Christmas. I won’t go into the whole, “When did we start to celebrate with trees and Santa and elves and Rudolph,” and all that stuff. The history channel has shows like that ad nauseam. Just watch one of those.
No, I’m talking about when did the Early Church first start to celebrate the birth of Christ?
Believe or not, early Christians were far more interested in deathdays than birthdays. They even had a special word for it—dies natalis or “day of birth” which didn’t refer to the day one came to the earth but rather the day one entered heaven, or the day one was reborn. In the early days this was celebrated with the martyrs during funeral meals which were aptly named “refigerium” because they took place in the catacombs.
But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that when it came to Jesus they were far more interested in the day He died (Good Friday) and then reborn (Easter) than they were the day he was brought into the world.
But you probably already know that.
What you may not know is that there was a bit of a controversy over when he actually arrived on earth. In Egypt, a Gnostic group believed that Jesus first appeared at his baptism when God declared, “This is my beloved Son.” Before this moment, Jesus was just a man. They celebrated this doctrine known as “adoptionism” on January 6th and declared it the day of “Epiphany” or “appearing.”
But why January 6th? Well, this coincided with an Egyptian pagan holiday celebrating the birth of Aeon commemorating the fact that the days were getting longer. In the narrative about Aeon, magical properties were given to the waters of the Nile River.
In other words, the Gnostics proclaimed, “No sillies. The god Aeon wasn’t born from the Nile to make the days longer. The God Jesus was born from the Jordan to bring light to the world!” And it became a very popular holiday among the Gnostics which they even celebrated by decorating their homes with garland.
Well, the Christians in Alexandria didn’t like this. First of all, they believed Jesus first appeared when Mary gave birth to him and placed him in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Second of all, they didn’t like how the Gnostics were baptizing a pagan holiday and making it Christian.
So the Alexandrian Christians baptized the Gnostic holiday of Epiphany and made it orthodox by celebrating the birth of Jesus on that day.
In other words, they proclaimed, “No sillies. The Son of God didn’t appear when Jesus emerged from the Jordan River but when He emerged from the Virgin Mary!”
Yet they liked the whole “light of the world dispelling darkness” spin so they kept it and introduced the narrative of the Magi following the star to Bethlehem . Get it! Star/light; night/darkness!
As with many holidays, over time all this stuff got mixed together like the ingredients in sugar cookie dough. It was then popped in the oven, baked at 350 degrees for a couple of centuries until out popped Epiphany.
Here’s an early hymn recorded by the Syrian Church Father Ephraem commemorating this holiday:
The whole creation proclaims,
The Magi proclaim,
The star proclaims:
Behold, the king’s son is here!
The heavens are opened,
The waters of Jordan sparkle,
The dove appears:
This is my beloved son!
Eventually the holiday got quite elaborate, with a service on the evening of January 5th in Bethlehem at the cave where it was believed Jesus was born. From there a solemn procession made its way to Jerusalem, arriving at dawn where they had yet another service at the Church of the Resurrection. Once again, we have the light/dark motif that started with Egyptian pagans. This is important so remember it.
So how does Ephiphany on January 6th become Christmas on December the 25th?
WELL, scholars argue about this just a little, but essentially Constantine gets the credit. As you may know he was a sun worshiper, and I don’t mean by this that he was blonde and tan and grew up in California and loved to surf and say “dude” a lot. No, he literally worshipped the Unconquered SUN. On SUNday. And this Roman deity was born on December the 25th in conjunction with the winter solstice when days started to get longer and the light conquered darkness.
Constantine liked this holiday a lot. And the Roman Christians liked Constantine a lot. And they were more than happy to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December the 25th because by now they really hated heretics. I mean REALLY hated them. And they didn’t like sharing a holiday with them that might be seen as accommodating. So suffice it to say that they were ready for a clean break with Epiphany.
And yes, we have come full circle. The Alexandrian Christians didn’t like the Gnostics accommodating the pagans and so they created Epiphany. And the Roman Christians didn’t like Alexandrians Christians accommodating the Gnostics and so they created Christmas (thus accommodating the pagans).
Oh, the irony.
It wasn’t just to appease Constantine, though. The Latin Christians saw scriptural support for celebrating Christmas on December the 25th. Not because anyone thought that Jesus was actually born on the date. Nobody really cared about that. What they did care about was doctrine. And in the Gospel of John the logos entered the world as light to dispel the darkness. And in Malachi 4:2 the prophet proclaimed, “…the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves (NIV).” Sounds like Christmas to me!
So now armed with a mandate from the emperor and a few snippets of Scripture, St. Ambrose of Milan (among others) proclaimed “Christ is our new sun!”
And Christmas was born.
Now do you see why I told you to remember the whole light/dark theme.
But though the very first Christmas was probably celebrated in Rome on December 25, 336 CE, it was by no means popular with the rest of the church. In fact, western Christians had to strong arm eastern Christians to get them to abandon Epiphany and to embrace Christmas as the day of Jesus’ birth. And it took a long time.
With one exception (Armenians) the few stubborn eastern congregations finally caved somewhere around the middle of the 6th century, a good half a millennium after the celebrated event. And you’ll never guess which church was the very last to give in….
Sources: Oscar Cullmann, The Early Church (London: SCM Press, 1956 )pp. 21-36. And “Christmas” in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, second edition.