History is often skewed by tradition. And three popular traditions and ideas accepted as truisms that some modern histories are diligently trying to correct involve Christmas. The first is the assumption that December 25 was a pagan holiday adopted by Christians, the second is the idea that “Xmas” is modern society’s attempt to remove Christ from Christmas, and the third is the belief that Jesus was born in a stable.
The most difficult of the three myths to explain is the first one, which is why I tackle it first. The arguments are somewhat complex so rather than diving deep I chose to highlight the main points and then direct you to a couple of source articles.
1. Was December 25 a Christianized Pagan Holiday?
The idea that December 25 was a pagan holiday celebrating the birth of the Roman sun god and later adopted by Christians was spurred on by 18th and 19th century scholars and has been used by some as a reason to reject Christmas. But that narrative – which is widely accepted – may not stand up to close historical scrutiny.
The assumption seems to be that since the Roman’s celebrated the birth of a sun god (Sol Invictus) on December 25th, and since later Christian’s celebrated Jesus’ birth on that same day, the early Christians must have borrowed or adopted the pagan festival in an effort to spread Christianity. But is this assumption necessary? Is there historical evidence to back it up?
An article written in Biblical History Daily (from the Biblical Archaeological Society) by Andrew McGowan tells a different story. In surveying early Christendom McGowan points out that for the first two centuries Christians didn’t concern themselves too much with the birth of Christ, focusing rather on his death and resurrection. But after the second century a smattering of ideas about when Jesus was born began to emerge among various Christian groups. Finally by the fourth century the Church had settled on two dates for recognizing Jesus’ birth: December 25 in the Western Church and January 6 in the Eastern Church. Soon December 25th would dominate.
But how did they come to that date? Did they choose December 25 because the Romans were using that date to celebrate the birth of one of their gods?
By surveying ancient Christian documents historians have confirmed that while Christians were aware of the fact that they were celebrating Jesus’ birth on the same day the Romans were celebrating the birth of Sol Invictus, there is no evidence that the date was intentionally taken and used by Christians. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. It seems that Christians viewed the fact as a happy coincidence led by the providence of God. For the early saints, it just so happened that the date they believed Jesus was born coincided with the date the Romans were celebrating the birth of a false god. Alas, God was saying Jesus was the true Sun!
So again, how did the early Christians come to choose December 25th to celebrate Jesus’ birth?
William Tighe, an Associate Professor of History, writes in an article on Touchstone’s website:
The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to celebrate his death and resurrection.
Around 200 A.D. the early Church Father Tertullian calculated Jesus’ death to March 25th. That date the church later declared to be the Feast of the Annunciation, the date Jesus was conceived. It was believed by early Christians that Jesus was conceived and died on the same day (an idea they borrowed from Jewish tradition). Exactly nine months later, of course, Jesus was born. That was December 25th. In the Eastern Church it was believed that Jesus was conceived and died on April 6, and nine months later takes us to January 6. So the dating of Jesus’ birth in the early church is tied up with Good Friday.
It was believed by Jews, and later by Christians, that great prophets of Israel died on the same date as their birth or conception. Since it was believed that Jesus was conceived on March 25, the early Christians reasoned that He was born on December 25th.
(Sources: Read Andrew McGowan’s article at Biblical History Daily and read Tighe’s article at Touchstone)
Now that the heavy lifting is out of the way, let’s look at two Christmas myths that are much easier to debunk.
2. Does “Xmas” Remove Christ from Christmas?
A modern misconception is that the “X” in “Xmas” was invented to remove Christ from Christmas. But as it turns out, “X” in “Xmas” has very early Christian roots.
The name of Christ in biblical Greek is spelt (transliterated) something like this: Christus (Xpistos). The first letter, “X“, is Chi (pronounced something like “he” – spat like a cat while you say it and you’ll be close).
The “X” was used as an abbreviation for “Christ” in early Christian thought. The first obvious example which comes to mind is the “Jesus Fish” acronym, spelt something like I.X.TH.U.S (See this chart). Many people don’t know about the acronym, but that doesn’t stop them from sticking little fish decals on their cars.
The second example is the ancient Christian symbol still in use, mostly in the Orthodox tradition, which combines the “X” with the “P” (rho), to abbreviate “Christ” (again, see chart).
When the ancient abbreviation for Christ, “X“, is married to the ancient Latin Church word “mass“, the end result is “Xmas” or, as we say today, Christmas.
3. Was Jesus Really Born in a Stable?
Finally I leave you with this video I made last year explaining from a biblical and historical perspective that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, but in a house!
If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to share it on Facebook, Twitter or your social media platform of choice.
QOTD: Which of these myths do you find most interesting? You can leave a comment by clicking here.