In Western Countries, Christmas is the most widely-celebrated holiday of the year. It is not entirely either a religious or secular celebration. In fact, the secular people I know tend to celebrate it with more gusto than most observant Christians. It is a day that commercial activity comes to almost a complete standstill. People spend months saving for gifts that will be opened this day, and parents teach their children that these gifts come from an imaginary man based upon a historical figure, St. Nicholas. Food is purchased and prepared, families get together, and many people attend Church for the only time all year.
What does this celebration have to do with the historical birth of Jesus, the Messiah? Christian and secular scholars alike tend to agree that the timing of this celebration probably has no connection whatsoever to the actual birth of Jesus. The celebration of December 25th as the birth of Jesus was not widely recognized until the 4th Century.
We know that the early followers of Jesus were considered a sect of Judaism and would have celebrated the Biblical feasts such as Passover and Sukkot. The New Testament shows that these were the Holy Days that Jesus himself celebrated. The followers of Jesus were later thrown out of the synagogues and became recognized as a separate religious movement in the Roman Empire. This had many implications for the still-forming faith of the early believers. The books of the New Testament were completed and being circulated before the close of the 1st Century. During the following Century, Christians started worshiping on Sunday instead of Saturday. Most also ceased celebrating the Biblical Holy days.
Why did the birth of Jesus begin to be celebrated on December 25th?
There is evidence that this date can be traced back to the calculations of Church Fathers such as Julius Africanus, who lived around 200 C,E. He is known as the father of Christian chronography. He tried to correlate various Biblical events with actual dates. Unfortunately, his methods were faulty.
Most modern scholars would argue that Jesus was more likely born in the fall, sometime around the feast of Sukkot. One evidence of this in the Biblical text is a reference in Luke 2:8 to shepherds guarding their flocks at night. Sheep were not kept outside during the winter in Judea.We also know that Jesus was crucified during the feast of Passover, during the spring.
Do modern celebrations contain reference to pagan customs?
Unfortunately, yes. December 25th is just after the Winter Solstice. This time where the days are shortest was celebrated in many cultures as a symbolic death of the Sun, with a resurrection symbolized by the days getting longer again. The Romans celebrated a winter Solstice holiday called Saturnalia, where they used greenery to decorate in celebration of longer days and the eventual return of Spring.
So yes, the origins of Christmas a questionable at best. We know that Jesus and the disciples did not celebrate such a holiday.However, this doesn't necessarily mean that early Christians had bad intentions in creating a holiday to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. Since early historiographers had decided that he was born at this time, and it was already a Roman holiday, the celebration of Christmas probably made sense to most of the Christian populace. They could have their own religious holiday at the same time pagan Romans were worshiping Saturn.
I don't have a problem with celebrating the coming of Messiah, even if the date is wrong. I skip the obvious pagan refrences and consumerism, and pray that my honest intentions will bring glory to God.
We can celebrate the coming of Jesus by sharing what we have with others, spending time with loved ones, and praying and worshiping with others.