By Andrew McGowan
Originally published in Bible Review, Vol.18:6 (2002) as “How December 25th Became Christmas”
Introduction: Where did Christmas come from? Many have heard the explanation that Christians appropriated a pagan festival, date and customs and all, and simply renamed or reinterpreted it for their own purposes. While there are certainly connections between Christmas customs, ancient and modern, and various other winter holidays with their trappings, the truth seems likely to be more complex. Scholars are inclined to look beyond the links with the solstice or sun holidays for at least part of the explanation for this complex feast.
Christmas as such was probably not celebrated at all in the first couple of centuries after the birth of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel, apparently the earliest written, does not mention Jesus’ birth, nor does Paul, author of the oldest documents of the New Testament. Interest in Jesus’ human origins emerges in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which provide well-known but quite different accounts, and continues in second-century apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James, which claim to elaborate on much of the detail that might have occurred to the curious – everything from Jesus’ grandparents to his education.
This “human interest” angle did not reflect or immediately spur a ritualized observance of the events, however. For the purposes of ordering worship and time, the last climactic events of Jesus’ ministry were far more interesting to the first Christian communities than the poignancy of his beginnings. Jesus’ death and resurrection had been the central issues for the canonical Gospels, and since Jesus’ last great conflict with the Roman authorities and their collaborators had taken place around Passover, his death was from a very early stage interpreted along lines suggested by the great Jewish festival, and his resurrection celebrated annually in relation to it.