Friday, December 8, 2023

How Did the Early Church Do Christmas?

 How did early Christians go about celebrating Christmas? Was it anything like the way we do it? In fact, can we learn anything from what they considered important and what they did or what they emphasized to enhance our worship of the Great-God-Among-Us: Jesus Christ?

Saint Nicolas wasn’t going to be born to become Bishop of Myra until the fourth century, when he would give away bags of gold to dowry-less girls and do all those other sweet things that would get him enshrined as the legendary quintessential Gift Giver, so there was no St. Nick, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus yet or Saint Co-Laus (corruption of the Dutch for Nicolas).[1]

So, with no Santa Claus in the picture, the first thing the early Christians did was get Jesus’s identity straight.

As early as around the year AD 90, a man named John, one of Jesus’s own chosen messengers, was pastoring in and around the city of Ephesus, a huge and thriving seaport of some 200,000 people on the Aegean Sea—in what is the coastal region of the country of Turkey today. Christian churches were in homes in those days, sort of like underground Chinese house churches today, since, as in mainland China, Christianity was not strictly legal, and was subjected to sporadic persecution. Tradition tells us John built a small hut on a hill near the Temple of Artemis. It was an austere place with no fresh water. Here he wrote his memoirs of Jesus and lived on, some say, until the age of 120. He was continually in communion with the Holy Spirit, who guided his writing.[2] What he wrote about Jesus inspired the way the churches under his care approached the advent of Jesus.

In the gospel of John 1:1, right there in the beginning of his account of Jesus’s life, he starts with the words: “in the beginning.” Now this is a reference to Genesis 1:1 in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. He’s intentionally echoing the start of Genesis to tell us directly that the story of Jesus begins before the world began. So, when we read this, we should understand it to say, “in the beginning of creation” or “when God began to create”—what? That active Word that went forth from God was already existing. So, the word wasn’t created. The force of the verb John uses means that The Word went back indefinitely forever in time. So, this Word always existed (eimi).

Then John tells us: “and the Word was face to face with God.” This shows a distinctness—this Word was communing face to face with God the Father (pros) in a position of equality with God and in sweet communion. How can this be? John explains it clearly for us, when he finishes the sentence with these words: “and the Word was God.” That is the mystery we call the Trinity. How the one God can have three faces or is comprised of three co-equal, co-eternal Persons: God the Father, God the Word, God the Holy Spirit.[3] But, one not three gods. God is not like us!

For the next several verses, John tells us about the Word’s role in creating human beings, giving us light and life, and then John sums it all up for us in verse 14: “and the Word became flesh.” That’s what Christmas, or what we call Advent, is all about, that, at one point in time, God’s powerful creating Word, active in creation and sustaining creation, became clothed in human flesh by being born among the humanity he created, literally, “pitched his tent among humans.” That’s what John says in the Greek word he chose (skēnoō).

The tent imagery is a reference to the great moveable tent that led the children of Israel in the wilderness after the exodus, what they called “the tabernacle.” That special tent or tabernacle is where God met the people. They would pitch this tent in the midst of their camp. Then suddenly a cloud would overshadow it, fire would come forth, and God would meet with people in this tent of meeting. So, this is the language John uses to describe Jesus. He pitches the tent of his human body in the midst of people, and, in meeting Jesus, they meet God.

As an eyewitness, John himself reports that he and the other fishermen and homemakers and small farmers and tax agents and everybody else scrutinized Jesus empirically with their five senses (hearing his words, seeing his miracles, touching him) and what they saw in Jesus was the same glory that Old Testament Israel saw when God was present at the tabernacle: the shekinah glory of God. That glory, John explains, was unique. It was like the only child of the heavenly Father, filled to the brim with the two characteristics that Moses beheld, when God passed before him on Mount Sinai and wrote once again for Israel the Ten Commandments of God’s law (Exodus 34:6) and those are: grace and truth (John 1:14). And those two categorical characteristics were the same ones the people who examined Jesus saw in Jesus Christ—grace—that is, God’s persevering love for humanity, and truth—the righteousness and justice of a holy and sovereign God.

In this book that we call the gospel—or good news—of John, John shared that experience and discovery some sixty or so years later with the people under his pastoral care: it was an indelible experience for him, still fresh and new and as exciting as back in the days when it occurred. We can see the ineluctable impression that it left on him—he had met the great God walking about among us mere humans.

The second thing the early Christians did was to try to set a date to celebrate the Nativity.

Aida was complaining the other day about the post office’s Christmas stamps: how come the only time we see Jesus on a United States stamp is with Mary when he was a babe in arms? What about a resurrection stamp? Or a crucifixion stamp? Or even the feeding of the 5000 stamp? After all, as a baby, basically Jesus was born, but he couldn’t do a whole lot yet. Well, apparently, the early Christians felt exactly like she does. For them, the interesting part about Jesus’s life began with his baptism that launched his ministry—that’s when things really got going.[4] Therefore, it should come as no surprise to discover that the very earliest Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’s birth—only his ministry, death, and resurrection—because those were the important points for them. In fact, when they did think about Jesus’s birth, they decided to group it onto January 6, the day Jesus was baptized. That day they held a feast—called the Epiphany or appearance, because that’s the day Jesus’s public ministry got underway.[5] So, on the evening of January 5, they would have a feast to celebrate Jesus’s birth and the next day they would celebrate his baptism. It was a good, efficient way to do it.

In AD 200, Clement of Alexandria refers to just such a celebration of the feast of Jesus’s birth in Egypt on January 5, but apparently not everybody picked that date. Some Christian communities had their own dates.[6] After all, nobody could remember for certain exactly when Jesus was born. It was sometime probably between March and mid-November. How do we know? Because, that’s when the shepherds were in the fields. You remember that stirring account in Luke 2:8-14 that appears in so many Christmas specials and pageants and on so many Christmas cards: “And shepherds were in the countryside, the same living out of doors and taking turns keeping night watching of their sheep. And, an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with a great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Do not continue being afraid, for, behold, I bring you good news of great joy, which will be for all the people, since a Savior was born today, who is Christ the Lord in the city of David and this will be a sign to you, you will find a baby wrapped up and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly came with the angel a crowd of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, ‘Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace among humans of good will.’” That event took place sometime in the spring, summer, or fall. How do we know the approximate time of the year this must have taken place? After mid-November the rains began and the cold was piercing in Israel so the sheep were kept indoors. They were not brought out to the fields again until mid-March at the earliest, so the range must be from mid-March to mid-November.[7] But, where, in this eight month range of possible dates, the exact month of Jesus’s birth actually was, we simply do not know for sure, since the disciples and their disciples apparently did not emphasize the date or, perhaps, even bother to pass it on. Some Bible students do estimate it was September because of the New Testament information on Elizabeth and Zechariah.[8]

Meanwhile, on January 6, the pagan world was having its own feast dedicated to Dionysus, the fertility god of wine and debauchery, to acknowledge the fact that the days were getting longer. So, it appears that, just as today where we have our own Christian music and our own Christian activities and celebrations, the early church set up an alternative feast to compete with the pagan one.

After Emperor Constantine came into sole power (AD 312) and became a Christian, he later moved the celebration of Jesus’s birth a week or so earlier to December 25 to combat a pagan feast to the Sun. Sun worship was a particularly popular celebration among the army and its former general and now emperor.[9] Constantine wanted his soldiers to convert to his new faith, so he snapped an order and changed the content of their holiday. They went from worshiping the sun god to worshiping God’s Son.

The soldiers reportedly had been butchering bulls and standing under their dripping blood to honor the Zoroastrian Persian (that is, Iranian) god Mithras, who as the Mighty Sun’s ally was a champion of light against darkness, having himself slain the mythic bull of darkness, evil, and death.[10] Since Jesus’s blood was already shed to bring life and light to people (as John points out in 1:4), Constantine decreed that nothing else needed to be sacrificed, so he had his soldiers ease off on the Tauros population.

Moving the date from January 5 to December 25 also pointed people away from celebrating the pagan winter solstice festival. Now they could replace that nature worship with celebrating nature’s Creator, Jesus, instead. Some Christians, however, grumbled, so John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, two very popular preachers (“Chrysostom” means the golden-mouthed orator) promoted the new date all over the capital city of Constantinople. Still, those in the outlying districts weren’t happy with the change. Egyptian Christians didn’t convert over to the new date for a hundred years until 431 and the church of Armenia still has not accepted it some 1500 or so years later.

Now, how did the celebration of Jesus’s birth get to be called “Christmas” or Christ’s mass or service? That didn’t come until the eleventh century, around the year 1000, when the celebration was called “Cristes maesse” in Olde English. During the Reformation, the new protest-ants went back to the earliest church’s practice and didn’t bother to celebrate Christmas at all. In fact, in England between 1642-52, they prohibited Christmas church services and festivities by law. So, when the Puritans arrived here in America, they didn’t bring Christmas with them! That came in the 1800s with the Irish and German immigrants having such a joyful time that soon everybody joined in and even those who weren’t Christians began celebrating Christmas—the day of Jesus Christ’s birth—right on into today.[11] In fact, our neighbors across the street, who were stringing Christmas lights across their house, fence, bushes on Thanksgiving are directly descended from Irish immigrants. And, by the way, they were Irish cops, too, before their retirement. They’ve brought both joy and safety to our neighborhood—being the best neighbors anyone could hope for! We thank God for the privilege to live across from them.

So, in summary, how did the early church celebrate Christmas? When they got around to it, they held a big meal and thanked the Godhead for sending Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Triune God, to earth. And they thanked Jesus for emptying himself of all his heavenly glory and humbly becoming like each of us—but without sin—so he could do for us what we could not do for ourselves: die on the cross for our sins in order to reunite us to fellowship with God. So, if you want to celebrate Christ’s coming to earth in the grand old manner, do what the early Christians did.

First, relax. Don’t let Christmas become so big and pressured that you find the main thing you’re thankful about is that it’s over.

Instead, dwell on the simple things—after all, it’s all about a baby! Have a celebratory feast. And, include in your gifts, gifts that promote Jesus’s ministries today.

Dwell on who Jesus really is, by rereading the beautiful true reports in the gospels. Make sure you worship God’s Son, not God’s creations.

Then, you’ll be worshiping as the early Christians did, rediscovering the true, affirming joy of Christmas. Each Christmas season should remind us once again that the Greatest Gift God has given us is Godself in Jesus Christ: God-Among-Us. And, for that we should all be eternally thankful.



[1] “Nicholas, St.,” Collier’s Encyclopedia 17 (1986): 527. See also the children’s book, The True Story of Saint Nicholas, by Rebecca Benson Haskell, illustrated by Elizabeth Durham Goodhue (Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood, 1997) and “What Does Santa Claus Think about Jesus?”  by Aída Besançon Spencer (Dec. 11, 2015)

Although iconic today as the symbol of Christmas, even the earliest estimate of the use of Christmas trees is well over 1000 years after the early church (first 300s vs. 1300s and after).

[2] See Fatih Cimok, A Guide to the Seven Churches (Istanbul, Turkey: A Turizm Yayinlari, 1998), 47; Eusebius, Church History 3.31; F. W. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1883), 393-404; Kim Ju-Chan, Biblical Routes of Turkey (Seoul, Korea: Chung Dam, 1998).

[3] See also Matt. 28:19. All New Testament translations are by the author. See further my book, Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022).

[4] Notice that Mark, who followed Peter’s preaching in Rome, began his gospel at Jesus’s baptism (where Peter began his ministry too).

[5] Epiphany has also referred to when the incarnate Jesus was revealed to various groups of people at his birth, the coming of the magi, his baptism, and the wedding of Cana (first miracle), as well as when he will be revealed at his second coming. “Epiphany,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 381.

[6] Some dates suggested were January 6, April 18 or 19, May 20, and December 25. “Christmas,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 238-39.

[7] Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1961), 229-31.

[9] See for example, 2 Kings 23:11.

[10] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 2d ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 6-7; “Christmas,” F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 280.

[11] “Christmas,” Collier’s Encyclopedia vol. 6: 403-4.