Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Christmas on December 25? Do we know for certain the date of Christ’s birth? Do you know when the customs of gift-giving, lighting of candles and erection of Christmas tree began?

Although the history surrounding the origin of the Christmas festival is still very unclear, there is evidence that the earliest feast of the Nativity was celebrated in the early fourth century. In order to understand how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 in the West and eventually throughout the entire world, we should first take a look at a festival called Epiphany which had developed in the East in the early fourth century. This feast, held on January 6, celebrated both the baptism and birth of Christ. This date is connected with a pagan water festival in Alexandria in relation to the winter solstice, the time of year when the sun is farthest south of the equator, thus marking the time when the days begin to get longer. We also know that some Gnostics in Alexandria kept January 6 as the date of Christ’s baptism as early as the second century. The Gnostics were adoptionists, therefore believing that Christ’s baptism was also the divine birth of the Redeemer. In any case, January 6, was widely observed by the orthodox in the East as the birth and baptism of Jesus.

About the same time in the fourth century, the Nativity festival was celebrated on December 25 in the West. There are two ideas which would account for Christ’s birth being celebrated on December 25. The date was partly determined by the idea that the birth of the world took place on the vernal equinox (March 25). Its new birth in Christ would also be at the same moment. This date (March 25) would correspond to the conception by the Virgin Mary and therefore the actual birth of Christ would be nine months later, on December 25.

A more likely idea is that the date was influenced by a series of heathen festivals kept in Rome in the month of December. These heathen festivals – the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia and Brumalia (or Sol Invictus) commemorated universal freedom and the unconquered sun and were great holidays especially for slaves and children. The Sol Invictus celebrated the victory of light over darkness and the lengthening of the sun’s rays at the winter solstice. For the church, there was symbolical importance in the relation between the feast of the birth of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the world and the festival of the unconquered sun, which on December 25 (after sinter solstice) breaks the growing power of darkness and sheds light anew.

The gift-giving we associate with Christmas has its origin in connection with similar customs practiced at the Roman Saturnalia. Saturnalia was the feast of Saturn, when all labor ceased, prisoners and slaves were freed and all people rejoiced. At the end of the Saturnalia was a feast called Sigillaria, when miniature images of the gods, wax tapers and all sorts of gifts were given to children and relatives, and trees were erected.

The two celebrations of Epiphany and Christmas arose independently of each other, the one in the East, the other in the West, but eventually both parts of the church adopted each others celebration. Christmas became the feast of the Nativity, while Epiphany represented in the East the baptism of Christ and in the West the quest of the Magi.

And now just a thought to contemplate during the coming holiday season: Will knowing that our present-day Christmas is the transformation of heathen festivals and that the gift-giving custom had its origin in the honor of a heathen god, draw our attention away from gifts and trees and toward the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the World, our Savior?

The book of Proverbs was written by King Solomon to his young adult son. Solomon’s purpose in writing Proverbs was “that the generation to come might know them [God’s wonderful works]…that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Ps. 78:6–7). Throughout the book, Solomon […]

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The Christian is placed in many different circumstances while on this earth. Some are characterized by hardships and trials, and others are full of joy and peace. How should the Christian respond? Throughout the Bible there are numerous times where God’s people sang in response to their various circumstances. Singing in response to God’s ordering […]

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The group of churches that John writes to in this trio of epistles had recently experienced a split because of doctrinal controversy. We do not know the exact content of the error that these false teachers were spreading, but it is apparent from John’s writing that their teaching somehow denied the truth of the incarnation—that […]

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Jael: An Example of Christian Warfare

This article was originally presented as a speech at a Protestant Reformed mini convention held at Quaker Haven Camp in August 2021. Jael lived during the era of the judges. Deborah the prophetess was the judge who served Israel at the time of Jael. During this time, the Canaanites under the rule of king Jabin […]

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Indiana Mini Convention Review 2021

One of this year’s “mini conventions” was hosted by Grace and Grandville Protestant Reformed Churches at Quaker Haven Camp. Located just over two hours away in northern Indiana, the camp was a perfect fit for the 120 kids and 15 chaperones who attended. A total of twelve different churches were represented: Byron Center, Faith, First […]

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Editorial, November 2021: Catechism Season

At the point that this edition of Beacon Lights arrives in the homes of our subscribers, most young people in the Protestant Reformed Churches will have been sitting under the catechism instruction of their pastor or elders for more than a month. If our readers are honest, that observation probably comes with a (quiet) sigh […]

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