What is Christmas?

Ellet J. Waggoner

The Present Truth : December 28, 1893 

Possibly ninety-nine out of every hundred people who give the matter any thought at all, would answer that it is the anniversary of the birth of Christ. So general has this idea become, that many people regard Christmas as a sacred day, and think that labor thereon is a sin. In the Catholic Church it is regarded as far more holy than Sunday.
As a matter of fact, nobody knows the month or the day of the month on which Jesus of Nazareth was born. The only place where we could hope to find any definite information on the subject, namely, the Bible, is utterly silent regarding the matter. The fact that the Bible gives no sanction whatever to the celebration of the birth of Christ, not even mentioning when it occurred, is sufficient evidence that the Lord did not wish to have it celebrated. Whatever the Bible does not mention is forbidden.
There is only one thing that we can know with any certainty about the birth of Christ, and that is that it did not take place on the twenty-fifth of December, nor in the month of December. Read the record: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:8-11
Winter in Palestine is the season of rain. Snow falls, and there are sharp frosts. While it is a subtropical country, it is certain that in the winter season sheep are not kept in the field, and shepherds do not in winter, watch their flocks by night “all seated on the ground,” as the hymn has it. Christ was undoubtedly born in the spring or summer, although at what day nobody knows, for no record has been kept. No one thought of celebrating any day as the birthday of Christ until about three hundred years after His ascension. Dr. Schaff tells us that we first find Christmas in Rome, “in the time of the Bishop Liberius, who on the twenty-fifth of December, 360, consecrated Marcella, the sister of St. Ambrose, nun or bride of Christ, and addressed her with the words, ‘Thou seest what multitudes are come to the birth festival of thy bridegroom.’ This passage implies that the festival was already existing, and familiar. Christmas was introduced in Antioch about the year 380; in Alexandria, where the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated as the nativity of Christ, not till about 430.”
Dr. Schaff also tells us something about the origin of the Christmas festival. He says: —
“The Christmas festival was probably the Christian transformation or regeneration of a series of kindred festivals—the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia, and Brumalia—which were kept in Rome in the month of December, in commemoration of the golden age of unbridled freedom and equality, and in honor of the unconquered sun, and which were great holidays especially for slaves and children. This connection accounts for many customs of the Christmas season, like the giving of presents to children and to the poor, the lighting of wax tapers, perhaps also the erection of Christmas trees. . . . Had the Christmas festival arisen in the period of the persecution, its derivation from these pagan festivals would be refuted by the reigning abhorrence of everything heathen; but in the Nicene age this rigidness of opposition between the church and the world was in a great measure softened by the general conversion of the heathen.” 
When we recall the fact, stated by Mosheim, that in consequence of the introduction of pagan philosophy into the church, the heathen came into the church in great numbers, without thinking it necessary to materially change any of their former practices, we can understand how the opposition between the church and the world came to be softened by the general “conversion” of the heathen. As Dr. Schaff says, Christmas was adopted after the close of persecution, when abhorrence of everything heathen had ceased. There is not the slightest question but that Christmas is of purely heathen origin, and is one of the things, which marked the progress of the transformation of Paganism into Roman Catholicism.
In the paragraph quoted above, Dr. Schaff says that the heathen festival which later became Christmas, was “in honor of the unconquered sun.” In heathen times, when sun-worship was universal, there was a festival in the latter part of December, to hail what the heathen termed the birth of the sun, when the sun began to rise higher and higher, after its decline. The professed Christian bishops, who were willing to make almost any compromise to enlarge “the church” numerically, adopted this festival, identifying the sun with Christ, “the Sun of righteousness,” so that the heathen could keep their old customs and still be called Christians. They continued to worship the sun, but were told that in doing so they were worshipping Christ.
Mosheim tells us that even in the second century, a large part of the Christian observances and institutions had the aspect of the pagan mysteries. This was because “the Christian bishops purposely multiplied sacred rites” for the purpose of conciliating the pagans. As illustrating the spirit of compromise he quotes the following from Gregory Nyssen’s life of Gregory Thaumaturgus: “When Gregory perceived that the ignorant and simple multitude persisted in their idolatry, on account of the sensitive pleasures and delights it afforded, he allowed them in celebrating the memory of the holy martyrs, to indulge themselves, and give a loose to pleasure (i.e., as the thing itself, and both what precedes and follows, placed beyond all controversy, he allowed them at the sepulchers of the martyrs on their feast days, to dance, use sports, to indulge conviviality, and to do all things that the worshippers of idols were accustomed to do in their temples on their festival days), hoping that in process of time they would spontaneously come over to a more becoming and more correct manner of life.”—Ecclesiastical History, Cent. 2, part 2, chap. 4, section 2, note 3.
When “Christian” bishops would allow that, it would be but a light thing to them to adopt the very days themselves that the heathen celebrated. Dean Milman shows this very fully in the following: —
“The festivals in honor of the martyrs were avowedly instituted, or, at least, conducted on a sumptuous scale, in rivalry of the banquets which performed so important and attractive a part of the pagan ceremonial. . . . Panegyrical operations were delivered by the best preachers. The day closed with an open banquet, in which all the worshippers were invited to partake. The wealthy heathens had been accustomed to propitiate the Manes of their departed friends by these costly festivals; the banquet was almost an integral part of the heathen religious ceremony. The custom passed into the church; and with the pagan feeling, the festival assumed a pagan character of gaiety and joyous excitement, and even of luxury. . . . As the evening drew on, the solemn and religious thoughts gave way to other emotions; the wine flowed freely, and the health of the martyrs were pledged, not unfrequently, to complete inebriety. All the luxuries of the Roman banquet were imperceptibly introduced. Dances were admitted, pantomimic spectacles were exhibited, the festivals were prolonged till late in the evening, or to midnight, so that other criminal irregularities profaned, if not the sacred edifice, its immediate neighborhood.
The bishops had some time sanctioned these pious hilarities with their presence; they had freely partaken of the banquets, and their attendants were accused of plundering the remains of the feast, which ought to have been preserved for the use of the poor.”—History of Latin Christianity, Book 4, chap. 2.
The Dean says, “The heathen calendar still regulated the amusements of the people.” These amusements, be it remembered, where the festival days of the church; so that the “church year” is but little else than the old heathen round of festivals. The heathen had a festival on the day that the sun was longest seen in the heavens, —the midsummer holiday. This was, of course, just six months before the winter festival, which afterwards became Christmas, and so it was very conveniently adopted as the birthday of John the Baptist, and is known as St. John’s day. Most of the other church festivals had a similar origin and connection with sun worship.
Thus much for the compromising spirit in general, which adopted heathen customs, so that the heathen could be brought into the church. Now for one more statement, bringing the matter home. In “The Story of Religion in England,” by Brooke Herefore, D. D., we find the following in connection with the history of Saxon times: —
Gradually Christianity became the general religion of the whole people. The change was made easier by its not destroying all their old associations, but rather turning them to account. Augustine had found that at various times in the year there were great religious festivals kept up all over the land, and he knew that it would be very difficult to put these down, for they have been so kept up for centuries, yet he did not like them because they were associated with the old heathenism, and helped to keep it alive. So he sent to Rome to ask what he must do. The Pope wisely replied that he had better let the people keep them as before, and indeed keep their old customs generally, but that he must teach them new meanings for them, and turn them into festivals and customs of Christianity. Thus there was a great religious festival kept by the Saxons in honor of their goddess Eostre, in the spring, about the time when the Christians kept the festival of the resurrection, so it was changed into the Christian festival, but the old name, Eostre—our Easter—remained for it among the people, and still remains. Then in the winter the Saxons, like all the northern people, kept the great Yule feast, so this was turned into a festival of the birth of Christ, and by-and-by people forgot that Christmas had ever been anything else.
The wisdom of the Pope in giving the advice he did to Augustine was worldly wisdom, and not the wisdom of Christ. The Apostolic injunction was, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness”; but “the church,” in its desire to become “Catholic,” went into full fellowship with those unfruitful works, and thus brought the darkness into the professed church of Christ.
“But is not Christmas a Christian festival now, since it is associated only with the birth of Christ?” It is just as much a Christian institution as a statue of the Emperor Nero would be a true image of Jesus, if people associated it with thoughts of Christ, and called it His statue. Thinking so, and calling it so, could not make it so. Calling the twenty-fifth of December Christmas does not the least take away the fact that it is a purely heathen affair.
The existence of such festival days in the professed Protestant Church today, only shows how incomplete was the work of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. That was only a beginning, and much yet remains to be done; for when Christ appears the second time He will find a church as free from Paganism as it was when He left it. The finishing of the work of the Reformation will not be brought about en masse, nor by any general or formal action, but by individuals taking the Bible alone as their guide, and daring to be counted peculiar for the sake of Christ. Who will be among the number?