Christmas is celebrated to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God.
The name ‘Christmas’ comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service (which is sometimes called Communion or Eucharist) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The ‘Christ-Mass’ service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at Midnight! So we get the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas.
Christmas is now celebrated by people around the world. whether they are Christians or not. It’s a time when family and friends come together and remember the good things they have. People, and especially children, also like Christmas as it’s a time for a gift, giving and receiving!
No one knows the real birthday of Jesus! No date is given in the Bible, so why do we celebrate it on the 25th December? The early Christians certainly had many arguments as to when it should be celebrated! Also, the birth of Jesus probably didn’t happen in the year 1 but slightly earlier, somewhere between 2 BCE/BC and 7 BCE/BC, possibly in 4 BCE/BC (there isn’t a 0 – the years go from 1 BC/BCE to 1!).
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). But it was not an official Roman state festival at this time.
However, there are many different traditions and theories as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th.
A very early Christian tradition said that the day when maty was told that she would have an exceptional baby, Jesus (called the Annunciation) was on March 25th – and it’s still celebrated today on the 25th March. Nine months after the 25th March is the 25th of December! March 25th was also the day some early Christians thought the world had been made, and also the day that Jesus died on when he was an adult. The date of March 25th was chosen because people had calculated that was the day on which Jesus died as an adult (Nisan 14 in the Jewish calendar) and they thought that Jesus was conceived and had died on the same day of the year.
The Winter Solstice is the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It happens on December 21st or 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere. (In the Southern Hemisphere, this time is the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice happens in late June.)
To pagans, this meant that they knew that the days would start getting lighter and longer and the nights would become shorter – marking a change in the seasons. To celebrate people had a mid-winter festival to celebrate the sun ‘winning’ over the darkness of winter. At this time, animals which had been kept for food were also often killed to save having to feed them all through the winter and some drinks which had been brewing since the autumn/harvest would also be ready to drink. So it was a good time to have a celebration with things to eat and drink before the rest of the winter happened. (We still have New Year celebrations near this time now!)
In Scandinavia, and some other parts of northern Europe, the time around the Winter Solstice is known as Yule (although the word Yule only seems to date to about the year 300). In Eastern Europe, the mid-winter festival is called Koleda.
Christians believe that Jesus is the light of the world, so the early Christians thought that this was the right time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They also took over some of the customs from the Winter Solstice and gave them Christian meanings, like Holly, mistletoe and even Christmas carols.
St Augustine of Canterbury was the person who probably started the widespread celebration of Christmas in large parts of England by introducing Christianity to the regions run by the Anglo-Saxons in the 6th century (other Celtic parts of Britain were already Christian but there aren’t many documents about if or how they celebrated the birth of Jesus). St Augustine of Canterbury was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in Rome and that church used the Roman Calendar, so western countries celebrate Christmas on the 25th December. Then people from Britain and Western Europe took Christmas on the 25th December all over the world!
when was Jesus Born?
There’s a strong and practical reason why Jesus might not have been born in the winter but in the spring or the autumn! It can get freezing in the winter and it’s unlikely that the shepherds would have been keeping sheep out in the hills (as those hills can get quite a lot of snow sometimes!).
During the spring (in March or April) there’s a Jewish festival called ‘Passover’. This festival remembers when the Jews had escaped from slavery in Egypt about 1500 years before Jesus was born. Lots of lambs would have been needed during the Passover Festival, to be sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews from all over the Roman Empire travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, so it would have been a good time for the Romans to take a census.
Mary and joseph went to Bethlehem for the census (Bethlehem is about six miles from Jerusalem).
In the autumn (in September or October) there’s the Jewish festival of ‘Sukkot’ or ‘The Feast of Tabernacles’. It’s the festival that’s mentioned the most times in the Bible! It is when Jewish people remember that they depended on God for all they had after they had escaped from Egypt and spent 40 years in the desert. It also celebrates the end of the harvest. During the festival, Jews live outside in temporary shelters (the word ‘tabernacle’ come from a Latin word meaning ‘booth’ or ‘hut’).
Many people who have studied the Bible, think that Sukkot would be a likely time for the birth of Jesus as it might fit with the description of there being ‘no room in the inn’. It also would have been a good time to take the Roman Census as many Jews went to Jerusalem for the festival and they would have brought their own tents/shelters with them! (It wouldn’t have been practical for Joseph and Mary to carry their own shelter as Mary was pregnant.)
The possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem seems to point either spring or autumn.