Christmas Down Through The Centuries

“The great church adopted Christmas much later than Epiphany; and before the fifth century there was no general consensus of opinion as to when it should come on the calendar, whether on the 6th of January, of the 25th of March, or the 25th of December.


“The earliest identification of the 25th of December with the birthday of Christ is in a passage, otherwise unknown and probably spurious, of Theophilus of Antioch (A.D. 171-183), preserved in Latin by the Magdeburg Centuriators (i. 3, 118), to the effect that the Gauls contended that as they celebrated the birth of the Lord on the 25th of December, whatever day of the week it might be, so they ought to celebrate the Pascha on the 25th of March when the resurrection befell.


“The next mention of the 25th of December is in Hippolytus’ (c. 202) commentary on Daniel 4:23. Jesus, he says, was born at Bethlehem on the 25th of December, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of Augustus. This passage also is almost certainly interpolated. In any case he mentions no feast, nor was such a feast congruous with the orthodox ideas of that age. As late as 245, Origen, in his eighth homily on Leviticus, repu- diates as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Christ ‘as if he were a king Pharaoh.’ The first certain mention of December 25 is in a Latin chronographer of A.D. 354, first published entire by Mommsen. It runs thus in English: ‘Year 1 after Christ, in the consulate of Caesar and Paulus, the Lord Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December, a Friday and 15th day of the new moon.’ Here again no festival celebration of the day is attested.


“There were, however, many speculations in the sec- ond century about the date of Christ’s birth. Clement of Alexandria, toward its close, mentions several such, and condemns them as superstitions. Some chronologists, he says, alleged the birth to have occurred in the twenty- eighth year of Augustus, on the 25th of Pachon, the Egyp- tian month, i.e., the 20th of May. These were probably the Basilidian Gnostics. Others set it on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi, i.e., the 19th or 20th of April. Clement himself sets it on the 17th of November, 3 B.C. The author of a Latin tract, called the De Pascha computus, written in Africa in 243, sets it by private revelation, ab ispo deo inspirsti, on the 28th of March. He argues that the world was created perfect, flowers in bloom, and trees in leaf, therefore in spring; also at the equinox, and when the moon just created was full. Now the moon and sun were created on a Wednesday. The 28th of March suits all these considerations. Christ, therefore, being the Sun of Righteousness, was born on the 28th of March. The same symbolic reasoning led Polycarp (be- fore 160) to set his birth on Sunday, when the world’s creation began, but his baptism on Wednesday, for it was the analogue of the sun’s creation. On such grounds certain Latins as early as 354 may have transferred the human birthday from the 6th of January to the 25th of December, which was then a Mithraic feast and is by the chronographer above referred to, but in another part of his compilation, termed Natalis invicti solis, or birthday of the unconquered Sun. Cyprian (de orat. dom. 35) calls Christ Sol verous. Ambrose calls Him Sol novus noster (Sermo vii. 13), and such rhetoric was wide-spread. The Syrians and Armenians, who clung to the 6th of January, accused the Romans of sun worship and idolatry, contending with great probability that the feast of the 25th of December had been invented by disciples of Cerinthus and its lections by Artemon to commemorate the natural birth of Jesus . .


“In Britain the 25th of December was a festival long before the conversion to Christianity, for Bede (De temp. rat., ch. 13) relates that ‘the ancient peoples of the Angli began the year on the 25th of December when we now celebrate the birthday of the Lord; and the very night which is now so holy to us, they called in their tongue modranecht (modra niht), that is, the mothers’ night, by reason we suspect of the ceremonies which in that night-long vigil they performed.’ With his usual reticence about pagan or orthodox matters, Bede abstains from recording who the mothers were and what the ceremo- nies. In 1644 the English Puritans forbade any merriment or religious services by act of Parliament, on the ground that it was a heathen festival, and ordered it to be kept as a fast. Charles II revived the feast, but the Scots adhered to the Puritan view.”—The Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. VI, “Christmas,” 293, 294, 11th edition.



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by Vance Ferrell

 


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