Volume. XXXVI, No. 24
Sunday, 12 December 2021

History of Christmas

1. Pre-Christian Festivals

Many mid-winter festivals existed in many cultures prior to the time Jesus was incarnated and walked on earth. Winter is a dreary time, so it is understandable that people would develop some sort of mid-winter celebration to distract themselves. The time for this celebration would most likely be the time when the days start to get longer, at winter solstice, during late December.


Roman Saturnalia

A Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn that ran for seven days from 17 to 23 December. Ordinary rules were temporarily turned upside down during the festival. It was characterised by role reversals where slaves were treated like the masters, they were given the Saturnalian license to be disrespectful to their master without threat of punishment. Gambling, which was normally prohibited, was permitted for all. Festivities included processions, decorating the houses with greenery, lighting of candles and giving of presents.


Celtic Yule

A festival connected to the Norse god, Odin. King Haakon I (934 to 961 AD) of Norway was credited with the Christianisation of Norway and the reformulation of Yuletide which resulted in the term Christmastide. To date Yuletide is still used in Nordic countries to refer to the Christmas season. The lighting of big bon fires, storytelling, drinking of sweet ale and feasting were part of the celebrations. Traditionally, druids also gave out mistletoes as a blessing to symbolise life.


Jewish Hanukkah

In the Jewish calendar, the festival of the “Dedication” or “Festival of Lights” starts on 25 Kislev and lasts for eight days. It can fall anywhere from the end of November to the end of December. This festival was recorded by Josephus to have been ordered by Judas Maccabeus after rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem (which had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes). The lighting of the Menorah is an important part of the celebration.

These festivals were some that had strong connections to the Christmas that we now know and/or had been incorporated into Christmas celebrations.



2. Date of Christmas

Early Christians commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus. There was likely no thought about remembering His birth which was likely one of the reasons that His actual birthdate was forgotten. The New Testament did not give us any date or year of Jesus’ birth.


The earliest known account could be traced to Irenaeus (130-202 AD) who connected Mary’s conception of Jesus with the Passion Week and using Mar 25 as his Passion Week, working forward 9 months to the birthdate of Jesus on Dec 25. Some claimed that the 3rd century Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus was responsible for computing the date of Jesus’ birth as 25 December. Others claimed that Pope Julius I (337-352 AD) in 350 AD declared that 25 Dec was the date of Jesus’ birth.


Cyril of Jerusalem (348-486 AD) as a writer with access to official Roman birth census records, documented the birth of Jesus on Dec 25. This is the date that was accepted on the Western church calendar. Eastern churches selected Jan 6 with other churches selecting various dates in between.


A study of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Prof Shemarjahu Talmon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1958 found that the 25th Dec date could be considered 50% historical. The priestly class were divided into 24 courses (cf. 1 Chr 24:7-19) that served in the temple. Each course would serve one week in the temple, twice a year, in the order prescribed. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Jose ben Halafta (150 AD) wrote that the course of Jehoiarib was serving in the temple when the destruction of the temple occurred. It was deduced that the course of Abia (Zechariah was in this course, Luke 1:5) was on duty approximately the week of Elul 28 to Tishri 5 (Sep 8-14) in the year 3 BC (assuming this was the year John was conceived). If Elizabeth conceived the second week after Zechariah returned home, this would place the conception in the week of Tishri 13-19 (Sept. 22-28). With a 38-week pregnancy and Luke’s account (Luke 1:36) that John is 6 months older that Jesus, it worked out that the birth of Jesus would be in the week of Dec 22-28. These computations had their assumptions thus, the claim that it could only be considered 50% historical. 



3. Should we celebrate Christmas?

Whether or not Jesus was born on the 25 Dec is up for debate and it is seems unlikely that it was the actual date of His birth. The name itself, “Christmas”, literally comes from “Christ’s Mass” which indicates its roots in the Roman Catholic Church. Should we then celebrate a festival that is not sanctioned by Scripture and that had obvious links to pagan festivals?


In fact, during the Reformation, Christmas almost did not survive. In Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich, he taught that only Sundays were to be observed as days of worship. All other feast and saints’ days ordained by Rome were abolished. John Calvin’s approach was more moderate and he still held Christmas meetings. His main concern was that Christians would come to see Christmas as a day more important than Sundays. On Christmas Day 1551, he noticed more people than usual in his congregation and warned them against turning Christmas day into an idol. In England, the Anglican Church kept most of the traditions ordained by Rome, including observance of Christmas. It was only in 1647 that the English Parliament, dominated by Puritans, banned the festival which caused riots to break out in several cities. In America Anglican colonies celebrated the festival while Boston which was dominated by Puritans banned it (it was revoked some years later). Martin Luther loved Christmas and embraced it fully, writing Christmas carols, allowing Germany (which is predominantly Catholic) and its neighbour Austria to greatly enrich Christmas musical traditions. It was only in the 18th century when the conflict between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism had cooled somewhat that Christmas became more acceptable even though today there are still voices that oppose its observance.


It is important for us to remember the reason why we celebrate Christmas. As Christians we celebrate Christmas to remember the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The account of His birth is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (2:1-21). We celebrate because even the angels celebrated His birth (Luke 2:9-14) with praises and “good tidings” brought by the angels to man. We celebrate because this is God’s act of love toward us, to descend from Heaven to dwell among us, to bring us the Gospel and to be the propitiation of our sins. We celebrate because we want to honour and glorify the work of Jesus for our redemption.


We want to remember His work on the cross because that was the main purpose for His incarnation. In Phil 2:8, Paul linked Jesus’ incarnation with His death on the cross, “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. At His incarnation, Jesus shed His glory and clothed Himself in human flesh, making Himself low, and stooped down to our level to show His love for us. God, who would never experience death, willingly died the most humiliating death on the cross to save us from eternal damnation. This is what we should remember when we celebrate Christmas, not the feasts, not the lights, not the gifts and definitely not the commercialism of Christmas today. We remember the condescension of God, born into this world for one purpose, to die on the cross to save us.



Dn Kevin Low


More Lively Hope



  • Ham & Lettuce wraps will be served today by the Kitchen committee following the service. Light refreshments will resume on 8 Jan 2022.
  • If you would like to open your house as part of Scattered Churches, please contact Dn Kevin Low or Bro Edy Lok.
  • All Hopefuls are invited to watch Pastor David Weng’s ordination service via Facebook on 19th Dec 2021 at 3pm. Due to Covid restrictions, attending the service in-person is by invitation only.
  • Please observe physical distancing & mask/ hygiene rules, especially whilst indoors.
  • Tithes & offerings - please see the Lively Hope for bank details.


Praise & Thanksgiving

  • God’s daily guidance, providence & protection.
  • Current COVID-19 situation in South Australia.



  • Journey Mercies: all those who are travelling.
  • Pastor David Weng’s ordination on 19th Dec 2021.
  • God’s guidance & protection with borders open.
  • Healing: Rev Pong Sen Yiew and all others who are unwell.




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14 Bedford Square, Colonel Light Gardens, South Australia 5041