Why do people celebrate Christmas? A straightforward answer to this question is that Christmas is the birthday of Christ. Does this mean that Jesus was born on the 25th of December? No, it does not mean that He was born on December 25th. The truth is that nobody knows the day on which Jesus was born. Then one may ask the reason for celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December every year. This is a complex and complicated story, which needs to be investigated to have a sound understanding of Christmas.
It is clear that the early Christians did not celebrate the birthday of Christ. In the New Testament of the Bible, apart from the records of the birth of Christ, we do not find any record of these early followers of Jesus Christ celebrating the birthday of their leader and master. This is not something surprising as Jesus was a Jew and most of the early followers of Jesus were Jewish people. For Jews birthdays were not very important as for the Romans or Greeks. In this background, the only clear birthday recorded in the New Testament is the birthday celebration of King Herod, after which event John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, was beheaded.
According to the generally accepted history of the Christian Church Christmas has been celebrated on 25th December since 354CE. Before this time, and after the New Testament period, this festival was celebrated on 6th January. It is necessary to understand the context of January 6th to comprehend the festival that was celebrated on this date. In pagan antiquity, the 6th of January was the feast of Dionysus the Greek vegetarian god of wine. It was the belief of the followers of this god that by transforming water into wine this god revealed his divine power. Very probably, when the early Christians gradually initiated the celebration of the incarnation of God in Jesus the established legend of Dionysus would have created a significant ground to make the nativity of Jesus effective and meaningful. This is clear in the way in which they celebrated the Epiphany on the 6th of January by commemorating the feast of the power of the revelation of their God in a way by displacing the feast of the epiphany of Dionysus.
On the other hand, the gradual development of 25th December as the nativity of Christ from the mid-4th century cannot be understood without a sound understanding of the mid-winter festivals of the ancient world. These festivals were especially prominent in ancient Babylon and Egypt. At the same time, Germanic fertility festivals were also held during this winter season. Along with the winter festivals, the birth of the sun god was particularly associated with the 25th of December. For instance, the births of the ancient sun god Attis in Phrygia and the Persian sun god Mithras were celebrated on December 25th. The Roman festival of Saturn (Saturnalia), the god of peace and plenty, was from the 17th to the 24th of December. These festivals were held with great festivity along with public gatherings, exchange of gifts and candles, etc.
Apart from these origins, there are many other customs and traditions from other cultures which are embedded with Christmas. For instance, the custom of decorating homes and altars with evergreen leaves of holly and mistletoe during the Christmas season came from the ancient Celtic culture of the British Isles where they revered all green plants as important symbols of fertility. The tradition of calling Christmas Yule tide in many countries is derived from an ancient ritual of burning Yule logs as part of a pagan ceremony associated with vegetation and fire. This community act was performed with the expectation of magical and spiritual powers. It is believed that the widely venerated Saint Francis of Assisi introduced the practice of making cribs by making a model of the scenes of the nativity to re-enact the birth of Christ in order to bring spiritual revival to the laity. As is common knowledge, singing is part and parcel of almost all cultures of the world. In the background of this “cultural universal” singing of the carols for Christmas appeared in the Middle Ages and by the 14th century, this custom became an integral part of the religious observances of the birth of Christ. Apart from these customs, rituals and ceremonies, there are many other traditions such as the Christmas tree and the observance of saint days that are intertwined with the celebration of Christmas.
When Christmas began to be celebrated on the 25th of December this festival became meaningful to people as it was able to enrich the birth of Christ by absorbing the meaningful festivals already celebrated in society. This is the core factor that has made Christmas so important for people all over the world. In this particular context, it is clear that Christmas is not a mere birthday party for Jesus Christ. It is a festival of light and life. This is clear in the following Bible verses taken from the traditional Bible passage read for Christmas from St. John’s Gospel (St. John 1.1-14),
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…..
Christmas has the power to bring many cultures, traditions and symbols together to uplift humanity to divinity and bring down the divine to humanity. It is the responsibility of Christians and others concerned to make this festival meaningful by adsorbing all life-affirming and light-generating festivals and activities to this festival. We can see that already this has happened commercially. It is our responsibility to make this happen ethically, morally, culturally and spiritually.
The necessity for this responsibility springs up in the context of many countries as there are people who still exist in bleak life-threatening situations. Here the message of Christmas is not to look into their caste, code, class, ethnicity or religion, but to accept and honour them by respecting them and making them understand that their liberation and redemption are tied up with the salvation of whole humanity.