Christmas Facts

Believe it or not

The abbreviation of Xmas for Christmas is not irreligious. The first letter of the word Christ in Greek is chi, which is identical to our X. Xmas was originally an ecclesiastical abbreviation that was used in tables and charts. In the early days of printing, when font sizes were limited and type was set by hand, abbreviations and ditto marks were used liberally. Xmas came into general use from the church!

Here are my crackpot ramblings, which you may hold up to ridicule this Yuletide season. Or perhaps you will discern a deeper wisdom in my sound and fury. In any event, you will be entertained, and possibly informed.

In the beginning

The cross so overshadowed the manger—and the resurrection so overshadowed the incarnation—that neither scripture nor tradition has passed down a firm date for Christmas.

The origin of the date

There is a very widespread theory that Christmas began in Rome as a response to pagan festivities centering around the winter solstice, which was locally considered to be 25 December. The pagan celebration, which was first established by the Roman emperor Aurelian in AD 274, was called The Birth of the Invincible Sun. However, there is evidence that, some years earlier, Christians had made a sincere attempt to calculate the actual date of Jesus’ birthday. People commonly believe that Christmas was instituted on the date of a pagan holiday to supplant it, but it was actually the other way around. Christmas was there first.

In ancient Judaism, there was a common belief, which ancient Christians inherited, that the prophets of Israel died on the on the same date as their birth or conception. This may be behind the long-standing Christian custom of referring to the date of a martyr’s death as their “birthday in heaven.” According to ancient western calculations, Jesus was crucified on 25 March, so they assumed that 25 March was the date of Jesus’ conception. The Annunciation is still commemorated on that date to this day. Nine months after 25 March leads to 25 December, which would be the birthday of Jesus Christ if all those assumptions and calculations were correct. They aren’t correct, but the fact remains that the date has a Christian origin. footnote

In AD 354, Philocalus wrote a Christian martyrology that dates the nativity of Jesus Christ on December 25, and cites an earlier work as backup. From this we can deduce that Christmas was celebrated on the present date at least as early as AD 335 in Rome.

The origin of our present celebration

Christmas failed to gain prominent or even universal recognition among Christians until quite recently. In some protestant-dominated areas, such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the celebration of Christmas was even legally banned, probably as part of their rejection of those parts of the traditional liturgical calendar that have no apparent foundation in Scripture. As late as the last century, Christmas had gained no great importance; it was not even a legal holiday. This explains why nineteenth-century readers found it credible that Scrooge could require Cratchit to come to work on Christmas Day and why in the nineteenth century the US Congress could meet on Christmas Day.

The origins of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, presents, and trees

Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) was the traditional day for giving gifts to children. It is still the day on which children receive gifts from St. Nicholas in the Netherlands. Epiphany (January 6) is, in the western Church, the commemoration of day on which the three kings presented the baby Jesus with gifts.

Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Lycia, which is in modern Turkey, sometime before AD 350. Nothing is known of his life except for the legends that have built up around him, but he was associated with kindness to children. He was a widely admired saint throughout the eastern and western churches. The Dutch custom of giving presents to children on St. Nicholas Day was brought to America by early Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam, which was renamed New York when the British took over the colony. Santa Claus is the American pronunciation of Sinter Klaas, which was colloquial Dutch for Saint Nicholas.

In the US, gifts are now exchanged on Christmas Day in a sort of compromise of Dutch, German, and British gift-giving customs. The Christmas tree is a Christianized pagan custom that originated in Germany. German settlers introduced it in America. It became popular during the nineteenth century, and then later spread to Britain and Japan from the US.

The origin of the retail madness

During World War II it was necessary for Americans to mail Christmas gifts early for the troops in Europe to receive them in time. Merchants joined in the effort to remind the public to shop and mail early and the protracted shopping season was born. Since those days, retail merchants have been hard at work to escalate our retail observances this time of year. Accordingly, we shop longer and buy more than ever before. Retailers have taken the gift motif from Saint Nicholas’ Day and Epiphany and have used the combination to supplant the meaning of Christmas. They have instituted a secular sacrament of shopping, which pays no attention at all to the arrival of the Giver who gave His all. They call it a season for giving, and with that laudable slogan have lured us into a time of great expectations, huge let-downs, and lascivious acquisitiveness. They could not have done this without our full cooperation—for instead of celebrating the arrival of our salvation, we jump with glee and clap our hands at the arrival of the UPS truck!

Truly, we have a form of giving, but not the spirit thereof.

They all rolled over, and one fell out

Today, Advent has become a shopping season, and Christmas is over as soon as the wrapping paper has been set out in the trash. In fact, Santa Claus has out-done Jesus: in Japan, where Christian believers make up a very small percentage of the population, Santa Claus and gift-giving has become big business. One person who read this essay wrote to me to tell about his visit to Tokyo right before Christmas. He said the department store decorations included a manger scene, complete with the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Mickey, and Goofy. Bad taste, you say? But it is our fault for trivializing our own holy day. Only two percent of all Japanese are Christians, so how could they know?

Poor Jesus! For on His birthday we give earrings to Mother and slippers to Dad and a bicycle to Junior, but nothing to Him. We yearn for possessions, and not for Him. We seek out appropriate gifts for all our loved ones except for Him for whom we can shop without money or credit cards or lay-away plan. Some of us no longer even give Him lip service, lest someone think we are too religious.

How you can remedy this lamentable situation

Jesus once spoke of a person taking good things and bad things from a storehouse. At this time of the year, we become that person, taking good things and bad things from our historic Christian heritage. We cannot simply reject or embrace everything that is there: we must discern what is good and reject what is bad. We do not want to end up with ‘bah humbug’ attitude of the Puritans, nor do we wish to tacky up our homes with decorations until truckers stop and ask if Jolene is working this shift. Neither extreme is desirable. Christmas is a jumble of good things and bad things, and we must be discerning.

Think of our nominal birthday boy this year. If anyone can have compassion on people who are plagued with holiday blues, it certainly must be Jesus on His birthday. This year, let Him be the guest of honor at your party.


William J. Tighe, a history professor at Muhlenberg College, explains the date of Christmas in his article “Calculating Christmas,” published in the December 2003 issue of Touchstone Magazine

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