Origins of Christmas
"O Come All Ye Faithful"

Notes on a seminar conducted December 5, 1998
by Dr. Jack Kineer, an ordained minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
at Echo Hills Christian Study Center, Indian Head, PA

Topics to be covered:
When and why was Christmas instituted?
Christmas as a religious / liturgical event

(Much information was taken from the book "Origins of the Liturgical Year," by Thomas Talley.)

General comments on church celebrations:

"Christmas" is an English word for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ   Church feasts, or celebrations, date to the early years of the church.

The development of Christmas as a church feast was later than the development of "Easter" as a celebration.

(The feast is properly called "Pascha" – the Greek word for Passover. "Easter" is a Germanic word for a pagan festival that occurred near the same time of the year.) Other church feasts included (besides Pascha): Pentecost, Epiphany, and Christmas (Nativity).

Among the annual feasts, Pascha was the earliest. The celebration of Pascha is documentable to 150 to 200 AD. The feast encompassed Christ’s Incarnation through His Ascension. The focus was on Christ’s death.

Because of this focus, there were attempts made to match the day of Christ’s death. We know that Christ’s death was at the Passover time. Passover was the 14th of Nissan – according to the Jewish lunar calendar

Early Eastern Christians used the solar calendar. By the eastern calendar, 14 Nissan falls on 14 Artemis, which translates to our Gregorian date of April 6.

Early Western Christians used the Julian solar year. By the western calendar, 14 Nissan falls on the "8th of the Kalens (sp?) of April," which translates to our Gregorian date of March 25.

This explains why we have "eastern" (often called Orthodox) and "western" dates for Easter.

What we call March 25th was, in the Julian calendar, the Spring Equinox.

It is plausible (though not documentable) that the celebration of Christ’s death dates to the apostolic age (pre-100 AD). This is because the time of Christ’s death was the Jewish Passover, and the timing of Passover was well known.

Dating the celebration of Christmas in the early church: What is the early evidence for a date for Christmas? (Nativity celebration) "Chronograph" – a document dating to 354 AD in Rome. This was a list of martyrs and their birth dates, and a list of bishops of Rome and their birth dates. The Chronograph lists these dates (birth dates) in calendar order. The first date listed is the "8th of Kalens of January" ("Kalens" is used to refer to the first of a month – putting a number in front of it counts backward.) This translates to our December 25th. The notation in the Chronograph is that this is the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.

On the list, the last two bishops were added on apparently after the list was otherwise complete (dates out of order). The first bishop had died in 336 AD. Thus it is probable that this list dates to 336 AD.

Is there other evidence for Nativity celebrations earlier than 336? Info from the sermons of Augustine – (died in 430 AD).

A bit of church history – in 303 AD, under Diocletian, was the "last" persecution of the church. After this time of persecution, lapsed Christians (those who had recanted under persecution) were allowed back into the church (upon profession). There was a group called the Donatists that disagreed with this practice – they felt that the lapsed Christians should not be allowed to rejoin the church. The Donatists broke away from the church.

Augustine opposed the Donatists. He noted that "the Donatists do not celebrate Epiphany". (Epiphany was established in the east and moved west – was started as a celebration of the baptism of Jesus.) Apparently, the Donatists celebrated Christmas – Augustine doesn’t say that they didn’t.

This was during a time of church – state tension – just following the persecution of the church. It is not likely that the celebration of Nativity is an accommodation by the church (or state) of pagan festivals. Can we go back further? A document called "De Pascha Computus" – calculating the date of Passover. Probably North African in origin.

The document also lays out a scheme to calculate the birth of Jesus. The calculation fell on March 28 of our calendar.

There were several assumptions made in calculating this date – assumptions from Jewish tradition. Jewish tradition held that the time of the Passover celebration was also the time of the beginning of creation. The sun, moon, and stars were created on the 4th day of creation. Malachi 4:2 refers to the "Sun of Righteousness" (referring to Christ). The reasoning is that is was symbolically fitting for March 28th to be the birth of the light of the world.

Conclusion from this information:

How did December 25th as the date of the birth of Christ spread? The use of December 25th spread from North Africa to Rome to the east.

Syrian documents from 380 – 400 AD uses December 25th as the celebration of the birth.

386 AD – at Antioch – mentioned in the sermons of John Chrysostum

380 AD – at Constantinople – mentioned by Gregory Nanzianson

In Palestine and Egypt (the eastern part of the church) – it was much later that the date took hold. They already had Epiphany as the feast of the Incarnation. December 25th as Nativity did not take hold until the 5th or 6th century.

Why December 25th?: In 274 AD, Aurelius established December 25th (the winter solstice) as the Birth of the Sun Unconquered (Natales Soli Invicti) (This is probably where we get the idea that Christmas is a pagan holiday.)

Note that even as early as the 12th century, it was thought that December 25th was co-opted from the pagans.

EVEN IF it was co-opted, it was infused with new meaning by the best theologians of the time.

But there is good evidence that a date of December 25th is true – it just happened to fall on the winter solstice. Early Christians believed that December 25 was the true day. It is likely that the early Christians would try to identify the birth day of their Saviour.

"De Solstitiis" – a North African document from the 300’s attempts to determine the date of Christ’s birth entirely from the evidence given in Scripture. It assumes a date of March 25th for Christ’s death (Passover).

The reasoning begins from the conception of John the Baptist. The angel made the announcement to Zechariah. Zechariah completes his "time of service" and returns home. (Luke 1:23-24) The time of service is complete in the fall of the year (when the Jewish year changes). When Zechariah returns home, Elizabeth conceives John. This is around the time of the Fall Equinox.

The announcement to Mary comes in Elizabeth’s six month – this would be about the Spring Equinox. This also happens to be Passover – the date of the death of Christ – March 25th (by the Julian calendar)

Birth of John – 9 months after Fall – Summer solstice.

Birth of Jesus – 9 months after Spring Equinox – puts it at the Winter Solstice – on (or about) December 25th (Julian calendar).

This reasoning is based on the presumption of the conception of John the Baptist.

This line of reasoning is adopted by Augustine – he notes that the conception and crucifixion occurred on the same day.

Also accepted by John Chrysostum – in the 380’s, he reproduces this reasoning in the east – using the common eastern calendar – winds up 2 weeks off – January 6 for the birth of Jesus and April 6 for the death of Jesus.

Augustine and Chrysostum promoted the celebration of December 25 because it is believed to be the actual date.

(It does look like some practices were borrowed from pagans – like lighting things (fires, candles, etc.))

There is evidence that Christians in the east were fixing the date of the birth and baptism as early as 200 AD.

Clement of Alexandria – did calculations of all kinds of dates. Gives date and day of month of birth of Jesus. That day was kept as a festival of the baptism of Jesus by some.

Since Clement of Alexandria was in the "east," we can assume that he used the eastern, or Egyptian, calendar in his calculations. He arrived at a date of January 6th (according to our calendar). This is the reason for the eastern church using Jan 6 and resisting December 25.

Also, Epiphanius (died 403 AD) in Palestine does the same calculation as in De Solstitiis, using the eastern calendar for dates, and also winds up two weeks later than December 25.

All these calculations have nothing to do with pagan festivals or equinoxes and solstices. (Jan 6th is two weeks after the winter solstice.)

Some comments on Christmas and the Reformation In the immediate post-Reformation era, the Lutherans kept the church holidays and feasts. The Reformed largely rejected the church year (liturgical calendar).

Geneva (before Calvin arrived) had all holy days abolished. On the other hand, Berne kept the feasts.

Calvin expressed a desire to keep Christmas as a holy day. He did break his sermon series to preach on the subject of Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday at the appropriate times.

In general, Reformed liturgies make no provision for the church year.

Eventually, five major Christological feasts were accepted – Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. These were accepted by the Continental church.

On the other hand, the English and Scottish Reformed churches (from which we get our Presbyterian churches) rejected all the feasts and only kept the Lord’s day.


a) There is nothing in the New Testament which commands it. The source of keeping the feasts was entirely the tradition of the church.

b) Such feasts were so closely associated with the Roman church, that it seemed best to cut off the ties to that church.

c) There was concern that too much emphasis on the yearly feasts would detract from the weekly Lord’s Day celebration

So, there seems to be a continuum of those who wish to embrace as much as possible to as little as possible of the historic feasts of the church.

This difference (between Continental and English/Scottish) existed as late as 1790.

What happened (in America especially) to change this?

The 1800’s saw the emergence of revivals, where different traditions worked together. This continued until 1900 or so – with Billy Sunday, Moody, etc.

Thus, other churches influenced the Presbyterian churches.

In the late 1800’s, there was the First Liturgical Renewal movement.

By the first part of the 20th century, the Presbyterians were starting to celebrate Christmas and Easter and sometimes Pentecost.

Christmas in our context The question could be asked: "Does the church have the authority to establish a day other than the Lord’s Day as a holy day?" Keeping the Lord’s Day is commanded by Scripture, so the church is correct in establishing and keeping this. But, does the church have the authority to set other days as days of obligation? Some say yes (Roman church), some say no (early Presbyterians).

But, in these current times, Christmas is a holiday not a holy day, so that argument for not keeping Christmas doesn’t really fit anymore.

Calvin said concerning the celebrating of these feasts, essentially "it doesn’t matter."

Now, is it worth making something out of Christmas? and preparing for Christmas?

Yes. But limited and thoughtful.

1) It is a great way for us to identify with other Christians, and to be public witness to a historical fact.

2) The annual observance provides opportunity to focus on passages of Scripture that we may tend to forget, but which are the core events which constitute the Gospel. Historically, there has not been sufficient focus on the incarnation (what it means that God became man).

3) Keeping of all these feasts (Christmas / Epiphany / Transfiguration / Good Friday / Easter / Ascension / Pentecost) – there is great value in a structure that forces focus on the events in Jesus life. We oftimes focus on the method of salvation and forget the message.

4) Provides a good occasion for evangelism – when we sing the carols (the Christ centered ones), we are singing Christ and the gospel.

(Notes taken by Byron Frank, December 5, 1998. Typed up December 13, 2000)