In Search of Christmas
Imagine a purer, less commercial, more spiritual Christmas. But don't call it history
Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus's birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement, a bishop of Alexandria who died circa A.D. 215, picked November 18. Hippolytus, a Roman theologian in the early third century, figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday--the same day God created the sun. The De Pascha Computus, an anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus's birth on March 28, four days after the first day of spring.
But even if they had known the date, says University of Texas historian Penne Restad, the earliest Christians simply weren't interested in celebrating the Nativity. "They expected the Second Coming any day," writes Restad in her 1995 book, Christmas in America: A History. To celebrate Christ's birth would have seemed to them pointless. Moreover, she says, they "viewed birthday celebrations as heathen." The third-century church father Origen had declared it a sin to even think of keeping Christ's birthday "as though he were a king pharaoh."
Raised from the dead. What interested the early Christians more, historians say, was proclaiming the central message of their faith: that the crucified Christ had been raised from the dead. So important was the Resurrection to church life that the Apostle Paul, writing in about A.D. 56 to the church in Corinth, asserted: If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. ... But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.
The early focus on the Resurrection explains why the Pascha, the Easter festival commemorating the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus during the Jewish Passover, was the only annual celebration known to the early church, says Brian Daley, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. Today, Easter remains the most important event on the Christian calendar, even though 70 percent of Americans--including 62 percent of those who attend church regularly--told U.S. News/Bozell pollsters that they consider Christmas the most significant Christian holiday.
The fact that the earliest gospel--St. Mark's, written about A.D. 50--begins with the baptism of an adult Jesus at the start of his public ministry is yet another indication that the earliest Christians lacked interest in the Nativity, scholars say. Only St. Matthew's and St. Luke's gospels, written two to four decades later, include stories about Christ's birth. By that time, says Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, "Christians, believing in both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, were curious to know how he came to be." Even so, there is no mention in the New Testament of Christians gathering to commemorate the birth of Jesus.
It was conflict that eventually propelled the church toward celebrating the Nativity, some scholars contend, as it attempted to counter heresies growing within its ranks. Among the most contentious of the heresies was Docetism, the belief that Christ was a spirit and did not possess a human body. "This had momentous significance for the Christian view of salvation," says Paula Fredriksen, professor of ancient Christianity at Boston University. "If Christ had no body, then there was no bodily Crucifixion or Resurrection." But by the fourth century, the official stand of the church in Rome was that Christ was raised in both body and spirit and, consequently, both the believer's body and soul are redeemed in salvation. Celebrating the birth of Jesus then, says Fredriksen, "was one way of emphasizing that Christ had a real human body."