The early church believed that Jesus’ birth and His baptism by John the Baptist took place on the same calendar date. Traditionally, therefore, the church celebrated a special day that commemorated both His birth and His baptism. A number of days were proposed for the celebration by the early church, including January 2, January 6, April 16, April 18, April 19, May 20, and December 25. While the churches in Egypt and the East tended to support a January 6 date, the Western church tended to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, as this date coincided with the already existing pagan holidays celebrating Saturnalia
1 and the winter solstice. When Roman Emperor Aurelian declared December 25 a festival to celebrate the “birthday of the invincible sun” in AD 274, Jesus was presented by the church as the “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg describes the influence this festival had in determining the date Christmas was celebrated:
In post-New Testament times, Mithraism (originally from Persia) amalgamated with the Roman worship of Sol Invictus (the unconquerable sun), and a festival to Sol was celebrated every December 25. Christians took advantage of this “day off” to protest against Mithraism by worshiping the birth of Jesus instead. After the Roman empire became officially Christian (fourth century), this date turned into the legal holiday we know today as Christmas. The celebration of the annual death and rebirth of the nature gods finds parallels and contrasts, too, with Christian teaching about the death and resurrection of Christ (Jesus and the Gospels p.33; Craig L. Blomberg).
The consensus for a December 25 date soon spread throughout the Christian world.
R. K. Bishop notes: “The early development of the celebration of Easter2 and the attendant calendar disputes were largely a result of Christianity’s attempt to emancipate itself from Judaism. Sunday had already replaced the Jewish Sabbath early in the second century and, despite efforts in Asia Minor to maintain the Jewish Passover date of 14 Nisan for Easter, the Council of Nicaea adopted the annual Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox (March 21)” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology).
Easter was celebrated in a nighttime ceremony that included the lighting of a candle, prayer, Scripture reading, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Many baptisms also took place at this time because of the symbolism associated with the event.
Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, some elements from the wider culture were gradually absorbed into the celebration of these important Christian holidays.3Today, some Christians believe that because some of the cultural aspects of Christmas and Easter are drawn from paganism, it would be best for believers to disassociate themselves from all of the traditional activities of these two holiday seasons.
Most Christians, however, view these cultural extensions of the Christian holidays as well within the boundaries of Christian liberty.4 In fact, most consider some of the cultural features of these two holidays delightful and beautiful.
Still others agree that it’s appropriate to emphasize the redemptive meaning of Christmas and Easter, while questioning the wisdom of making children obsess on the sinister, if not satanic, meanings that lurk behind every joyous cultural event.
The Bible contains no endorsement for, or prohibition against, the observance of the birth or resurrection of Jesus Christ. Where the Bible gives no specific command, each person should be “fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). We at RBC Ministries respect the right of Christians to disassociate themselves from the celebration of Christmas and Easter, yet we believe that the effects of such a decision should be evaluated carefully in respect to its impact on children and lost opportunity for witness.
- Saturnalia, a Roman festival that involved merry-making and gift-giving took place during the same part of the year in which Christmas was celebrated. Eventually, gift-giving and other milder aspects of the Roman festival were added to the strictly religious celebration Christmas.
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- The origin of the word Easter is Germanic and may refer either to the name of a Germanic goddess of Spring or to the old German word for the East or place of dawn. Back To Article
- The term holiday is derived from the Old English word for holy day.
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- Many aspects of language and culture have pagan origins. In the Western world, even a number of days of the week and months of the year are named after pagan deities or pagan seasons of worship. Back To Article