It is that time of year again. Inevitably, we Christians endure ad nauseum that old myth of Christmas being a co-opting of “Saturnalia”. In response, some Traditionalist priests are probably going to preach that counter-myth of Dr. Taylor Marshall’s that the apostles asked Mary when little baby Jesus’ birthday was and that’s where Christmas came from.
Dr. Marshall’s hilarious and polemic piece can be found here:
I will delve briefly into the origins of Christmas, but I want to dispel Marshall’s myth first. Allow me to begin by saying that Dr. Marshall is – without a doubt – a well-intentioned man who wishes to protect the Church as he sees it. However, his propensity to use the “I support the ‘traditional’ belief” card, the numerous holes in his research, and his attachment to strange ideas (like the apocryphal and near-blasphemous 19th century idea of St. Joseph as an immaculately conceived young – and probably sexy – virgin) have a tendency to undermine his credibility. Indeed, Dr. Marshall, the Christological origin of Christmas is without a shadow of a doubt to any scholar, but it has nothing to do with the Apostles anachronistically wanting to know the birthday of Christ (the idea of the Holy Family in party hats and eating a birthday cake notwithstanding).
Frankly, the early Christians had little use for birthdays, especially the birthdays of gods.
“Of all the holy people in the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below” – Origen
“You worship with couches, altars, temples, and other service, and by celebrating their games and birthdays, those whom it was fitting that you should assail with keenest hatred.” – Arnobius
The answer to an ignorant idea is not another ignorant idea.
The Origin of the Feast
In the ancient days the only three feasts universally held by all Christians regardless of origin were Pascha, Pentecost and the Epiphany (as a tangent, it is why I find the idea of the Epiphany to not be a ‘Day of Obligation’ an absurdity). The first ever accounts of the Nativity on December 25 come from the Roman writers like St. Hippolytus, St. Justin Martyr, or Tertullian. The latter two also give us the very explicable means of how this was discovered: the Imperial Census of Caesar Augustus.
This sheds light on an important point of the feast’s adoption. Had it truly originated with the Apostles, then surely the Christians of Syria, the Levant, Egypt, and Palestine would have celebrated it, would they have not? Indeed, the farthest west the Apostle John (the Apostle most intimate to these things) ever went was the Isle of Patmos (between Greece and modern Turkey). Only Peter – who wasn’t the brightest apple of the bunch – and Paul – who never met Christ when he was alive – ever made it to Rome where the feast originated. The presence of the census records and a Roman Christian somehow getting their hands on it (unfortunately, this potentially fascinating story is lost to history) is quite believable and explains the feast’s Roman origin.
Until sometime in the 4th Century, there was no Nativity Feast outside of Rome and the immediate vicinity. The Alexandrians – who had the most advanced theologians before the Council of Chalcedon – endeavored ceaselessly to calculate the birthday of Christ, coming up with drastically different dates. Origen was very fed up with this trend and chided his colleagues for their obsession with the physical birthday of Christ and not the spiritual (to which he basically adds, “By the way, THAT date is March 25”).
In the churches of Antioch, Cappadocia, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Armenia there was little thought put towards the birthday of Christ until the late 4th Century when the freedom of the Church allowed for more free communication amongst the disparate communities spread throughout the Roman Empire. St. John Chrysostom in his Christmas sermon to Antioch exhorts them to adopt the feast as his church (that of Constantinople) had done less than ten years prior. It appears that in Constantinople the feast had been adopted with ease while the Antiochians had some conservative holdouts who were skeptical of this strange new feast. Eventually, the Antiochians complied as the ecclesial bodies in Jerusalem, Egypt, East Syria and most everywhere else accepted the feast. The only Christians that never adopted the date were the Armenians, who do not celebrate it to this day (instead, it is part of their Epiphany and given greater emphasis than in the Roman, Byzantine, or other Oriental traditions).
The history quite clearly proves that Christ was indeed born on December 25 (technically, of the Julian calendar which would be January 7 to us, but that is just semantics). Armed thus with the knowledge to brush aside the ignorant and oft-repeated attacks on the feast by the secular world, let us cry out with one voice,
Glory to God in the Highest! Peace on earth to men of good will! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!