Those of us around here can’t imagine celebrating Christmas anytime but December 25. We want a Christmas with snow, and love the festive mood generated by a Christmas Eve snowfall. Our Christmas carols reflect it. One carol says Jesus was born in the bleak midwinter when it was snow on snow on snow. Another says good King Wenceslas went on his goodwill mission to deliver food and fuel to a poor peasant when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. America’s most famous secular Christmas song says, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” For many years Christmas cards have portrayed a New England countryside with snow-covered fields, evergreen woods, young people on skates on frozen ponds, people out on horse-drawn sleighs, and houses showing fireplace chimneys.
So what decided that we should celebrate the birth of Jesus December 25, seeing the New Testament Nativity stories don’t mention any date? And are we actually celebrating the birth of Jesus or our northern latitude winter?
Historians tell us the earliest Christians hadn’t settled on any particular date. Some, in fact, were opposed to any celebration of Jesus’ birth, because celebrations of the birth of gods were a pagan practice in the Greco-Roman world. When Christians of the patristic era did begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus they at first settled on January 6, Epiphany, one of the church’s earliest established feasts, because the birth of Jesus was a manifestation of God’s salvation. In Eastern churches January 6 is still a celebration of the visit of the wise men.
According to the magazine “Christianity Today,” it wasn’t long before some early church leaders did look for other dates. Clement of Alexandria favored May 20 but noted that others picked dates in April. Hippolytus preferred January 2. Others picked a date in November or March. Eventually the appeal of the winter solstice won out. The Roman world already had a celebration of the winter solstice, seen as a kind of rebirth of the sun.
What ultimately clinched it was the rule of Emperor Constantine. When Christianity became the state religion the church now had the power to Christianize pagan beliefs and practices. And so the church took over December 25, not to worship the sun but to worship the Son of righteousness.
Because the Christian celebration of Christmas got fixed on December 25, northern hemisphere countries, where Christianity first spread and became established, developed Christmas customs and practices reflecting central and northern Europe’s climate. Besides snow, the Christmas tree, formerly a Central European pagan symbol, got connected with Christmas. Some claim that Martin Luther himself began the custom of adding candle lights to an evergreen tree. The Christmas tree came to England with the marriage of Queen Victoria to the German Prince Albert, and English influence brought the Christmas tree to America.
Christmas falls in winter only for those of us in the northern hemisphere, but today the majority of the world’s Christians live in the southern hemisphere where December is summer. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” is only dreaming in the tropics. I’ve seen the incongruity of connecting Christmas with snow after one Christmas in Southern California and one in Hawaii. So I’m sure Christians in the southern hemisphere develop their own customs for Christmas without reference to snow.
Interesting how what began as a strictly religious observance got colored by the climate of the people who celebrated that observance, until we sometimes don’t seem to be sure whether we are celebrating the birth of Jesus or our northern latitude winter.
Marlin Jeschke is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.