Rockin’ around the Saturnalia tree? Christmas in the Early Church.

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Wednesday is Christmas day. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been buying presents, going along to carol services, and decorating your tree. The prospect of a week off of work looms large and joyful, and time spent with family and friends fills you with joy/despair (delete as appropriate).

The Early Church celebrated many things together. They ate meals as church families regularly (far more than we do today), they celebrated the resurrection as the sure foundation of their faith. But for the first three hundred years of Church History, it doesn’t seem that they celebrated Christmas.

Indeed, it’s only in 356 that we find the words “25th Dec, natus Christus in Betleem Judae.” Quite literally, 25th December, Christ is born in Bethlehem, Judea. So for three hundred years, we have no record of the Church or any other Christian group celebrating Christmas. The death of Christ and of notable saints or historic Christian figures received much more attention than their birth, and at Epiphany celebrations on the 6th January the Church was more concerned with reflecting on Christ’s baptism than His birth. It seems that Christ’s birth was not something reflected with a special day of celebration.

Why December 25th?

Quite why we celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December then remains a mystery. Some have posited that it super-ceded the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, others suggest that as the Catholic Church began to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25th, his birth naturally falls nine months later.

The former seems more likely, and the 25th of December reflects not only the Roman festival in honour of Saturn but also the Persian festival to Mithra. These major festivals may naturally have become usurped by a growing Christian population in the Roman world, keen to encourage pagans to comfortably assimilate to the new religion.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Christ was born on the 25th December, and the Bible certainly gives no date or time. Regardless of quite why the 25th was picked as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most important thing to not was that it was. And for hundreds of years, Christians have taken time to celebrate this birth, of a baby boy to a humble carpenter in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago.

Why Celebrate at all?

Christians celebrate because this baby is special. When Mary became pregnant, the Lord said to her husband Joseph:

“She will give birth to a Son, and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He has come to save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NIV).

Jesus came to save. Jesus, this baby in a Manger, was born to save men and women across the world and throughout history, from themselves.

Because we all need it. Look at the world around us, look at our own hearts. So often the biggest problem we deal with is ourselves. We cause trouble for ourselves, we make foolish and unkind decisions. Our actions, words and thoughts can be dirty, cruel and selfish. And the Bible says that’s wrong. And we know in our hearts that it is.

The Bible also says that this wrongdoing, what the Bible calls sin, is punishable by death. That’s why death is the certainty we all face. But on Christmas day two thousand years ago, a baby was born to challenge that. A baby was born to die. When the wise men visited, they brought gifts fit for a king (gold) a god (frankincense) and a corpse (myrrh). Myrrh, an embalming oil for bodies in the tomb. Christ was born to face death. Not in the way we are, as an inevitable end to our lives, but to face it head on.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, by taking upon His perfect and divine shoulders, the punishment of death our sins deserve. And in its place, He gives us His goodness, His right standing with God, and we walk free. Not just in this life, but for all eternity. The baby in the manger came to bring hope to a world that seems so hopeless.

That’s why we celebrate Him. A baby born to die. A King born to save.

Maybe this Christmas you could meet this King for the first time? The links below are just to help you explore who He is, and think about why it is we celebrate Christmas quite so enthusiastically, every year.

https://www.ligonier.org/blog/real-meaning-christmas/

http://speaklife.org.uk/HeCameDown/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1&version=NIV

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