Summary: What is Christmas anyway? Jesus!
What is Christmas? Is it a Christian holiday or a pagan holiday? The answer depends on who you ask. The Bible says nothing about early Christians celebrating Christ’s birth. In fact, it was at least 300 years after Jesus died, rose again and sent the Holy Spirit to initiate the church before there is any historical mention of the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
For centuries, Christian writers accepted that Christmas was the actual date on which Jesus was born. John Chrysostom preached a sermon in Antioch c. 386 which established the date of Christmas as December 25 on the Julian calendar since the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:26) had been announced during the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist (Luke 1:10-13) as dated from the duties Zacharias performed on the Day of Atonement during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar Ethanim or Tishri (Lev. 16:29, 1 Kings 8:2) which falls in September–October.
It wasn’t until the Protestant reformation that all things Catholic were challenged and Christmas was associated with paganism more than with Christ. But it was clearly pointed out that the Bible nowhere tells when Jesus was born, nor that Christians should celebrate his birthday. Many have guessed as to when Jesus was born and several dates have been suggested. Some say Jesus was born on the same day he died. This is pure conjecture.
My favorite guess as to the time of Jesus’ birth is spring. That’s when the lambs are born and that’s a more likely time for when the shepherds would be out in the fields with their flocks by night. The truth is, we don’t know when Jesus was born and the Bible doesn’t tell us to celebrate His birth. It doesn’t tell us to celebrate Mother’s or Father’s day either, but we do.
The early Christians were expecting Jesus return at any day and did not even write the story of his life and teachings for many years. When there was a delay in Christ’s return, it became apparent that there needed to be written accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings which we call the gospels. The early Christians didn’t have a New Testament either. There were some churches that had perhaps letters from Paul, Peter, James, John or Jude, but these were not collected into a New Testament for many years.
As the years passed the churches began to put together an annual remembrance of Jesus’ life and teachings along with readings from the Old Testament and Epistles. This eventually became known as the church calendar and lectionary. The Jews had built a lectionary centuries before the church. These were read during the annual feast days and on Sabbaths. Luke 4 tells of Jesus in the Synagogue reading from Isaiah. This was most likely the lectionary reading of the day. It just so happens that it was from Isaiah and announce the spiritual anointing of God’s Messiah. Jesus said to his audience, “Today this reading is fulfilled in your hearing!” They were shocked. After Jesus continued speaking some even tried to kill him.
The Christian lectionary is a kind of yearly calender of scripture readings which repeats Jesus’ birth, baptism, ministry, death, burial and resurrection every year along with other readings from the Old and New Testaments. As the church grew and new Christians were added this annual repetition assured that all heard the gospel message and were continually reminded of who Jesus is and who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. Paul told Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of the scriptures.