The First Christmas in Rome and What It Means to Us

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The First Christmas in Rome and What It Means to Us

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First, test yourself with the following question: When did the Christian Church first commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec. 25? Was it during the time of the New Testament apostles? Was it in the second century when Christmas was first celebrated? Was Dec. 25 sanctioned as an official celebration of the church sometime in the third century? If you answered yes to the first, second or third centuries, you answered incorrectly. Surprising as it may seem, the church in Rome didn't sanction a Christmas celebration until well into the fourth century. Notice this verification in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: "Though speculation as to the time of the year of Christ's birth dates from the early 3rd century…., the celebration of the anniversary does not appear to have been general till the later 4th century" (p. 277). The Catholic Encyclopedia adds, "Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church" (Vol. III, p. 724). Why did the church leaders wait over 300 years before instituting a Dec. 25 observance? No biblical authority for Christmas There were two main reasons why the ecclesiastical officials didn't sanction a Dec. 25 festival during the first three centuries. First, the New Testament gave no authority to observe Christ's birth as a religious celebration. "The observance of Christmas is not of divine appointment, nor is it of New Testament origin" (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong, Vol. III, p. 276). Second, Dec. 25 was already spoken for by the non-Christian Roman populace who were celebrating it as the day to the unconquerable sun, dies invicti solis in Latin. The Church identified this as an outright pagan festival and refused to have anything to do with it. For example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, states, "In Britain the 25th of December was a festival long before the conversion to Christianity" (Vol. VI, p. 293). But in the fourth century, in spite of its pagan association, Dec. 25 became acceptable as the date on which to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. And what was the reason for this about-face? Once the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great accepted the Christian religion in the early part of the fourth century, the church was encouraged to bring the Roman masses into the Christian fold. After all, the emperor had accepted Christianity and worshipping the sun god on Dec. 25 had to go. But this was easier said than done. The pagan population didn't want to forgo their celebrations. It was decided to celebrate Christ's birth on the Dec. 25 date and so try to prevent non-Christians from worshipping their pagan sun god on that day. Of course, it didn't really turn out that way. The pagan populace continued in their superstitious ways and licentious behavior and so brought their customs into the church. Many of those customs are still observed in today's celebrations of this dubious festival. "There can be little doubt that the Church was anxious to distract the attention of Christians from the old heathen feast days by celebrating Christian festivals on the same days" (James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. III, p. 607). When God called the children of Israel out of a superstitious and idolatrous nation, Egypt, He realized their proclivity to copy pagan concepts rather than follow His advice. That is why He warned them of that tendency that would lead them away from the Creator and destroy their special relationship with God. The warning is found in Deuteronomy 12:30 Deuteronomy 12:30Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.
American King James Version×
: "Take heed to yourself...that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.'" Two ways to worship God In worshipping God we can follow the instruction that Jesus gave in John 4:24 John 4:24God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
American King James Version×
, "Those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." Or we can follow the traditions that have grown up through the centuries based on using human reasoning to decide how to worship the Almighty. The alternative way of worship is the most popular. But a person who worships God "in spirit and in truth" will allow God to have the final say. Jesus Christ makes it clear that human tradition can result in worshipping God in vain. Notice His admonition: "In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9 Matthew 15:9But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
American King James Version×
). Those who seek to honor Him by observing religious customs that have no biblical basis but are based on human traditions drawn from pagan religions can be worshipping God in vain. God established festivals that help us worship Him in spirit and truth. These days help us learn more about His great plan for mankind. For more details about these biblical Holy Days and what God wants us to do about Christmas and other traditional holidays, see our booklet Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe?