Cullmann’s Origin of Christmas
In 1947, renowned German church historian Oscar Cullmann, published his essay Weihnachten in der alten Kirche (Christmas in the old Church). The essay was translated into English and published in 1956 in a collection of his essays entitled The Early Church (SCM Press, London). This essay is a brief summary of Cullman’s already brief essay.
The Christmas we celebrate each year on December 25 was unknown to the Christians of the first three centuries. In fact, we have no evidence that, during the century that followed the crucifixion, the date of Christ’s birth was so much as mentioned among the faithful.
Only priests and academics concern themselves with theology. Regular people, whatever their faith, experience religion in three main ways: liturgy, sacraments, and festivals. Liturgy and sacraments are developed “in-house” if you will, by believers teaching believers. Festivals, on the other hand, are public. There is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance involved in observing the public festivals of foreign religions. This cognitive dissonance is at the heart of the origin of the Christian festival known as Christmas.
After the first Easter, the most important Christian festival was Pentecost, when Christians celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit, which allowed them to preach their new faith in salvation through Jesus, now proclaimed as the Messiah. Pentecost was (and is) celebrated by the Jews as Shavout, the Festival of Weeks, a harvest festival dedicated to the renewal of the Noahic covenant. The first Christians were Christian Jews, who celebrated the Festival of Weeks in the normal Jewish manner, appending to it their celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
As the first generation of Christian Jews passed on, the second and third generations were more Christian than Jewish, becoming what we now call Jewish Christians. The church’s unique missionary effort was surprisingly successful. The new religion expanded across the Roman empire, from Antioch, to Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, and countless other small cities and villages. The expansion brought in increasingly higher proportions of Gentiles — many local churches had no Jews at all. Over time, this among other factors led to a parting of the ways with Judaism.
Because Christianity retained Judaism’s prohibition against idolatry, Gentile Christians were in danger of persecution. Gentile Christians refusing to worship the Greek and Roman gods could be charged with atheism, and martyred. There was no penalty as such for refusing to participate in the Greek and Roman festivals (refusing to do so, one was considered anti-social), but by the end of the first century, Christians likely thought it well to have festivals of their own, beyond Easter and Pentecost.
Many religions in classical antiquity celebrated the birth of their gods. Hindus celebrated the birth of the Lord Rama on Ram Navami (March 5), Ancient Persians celebrated the birth of Mithra to his virgin mother (December 22), and of course, Romans celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun (December 25).
In Hellenist Egypt, the feast of Dionysus was held on January 6. The birth of Greek god Aeon to the maiden Koré, as well as the day of Osiris, were likely also commemorated on that day.
Third generation Christians were at a loss when it came to even guessing at the date of Christ’s birth. Their only evidence, the emerging gospel tradition, told of the presence of shepherds in the nativity narrative. That would indicate a spring or summertime birth for Jesus, because in Palestine, shepherds were in the fields from roughly March until November. Using this and other theological grounds, some early Christians postulated several nativity dates: March 28, April 2, April 11, May 20. Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–215), as Cullmann puts it, “poured ridicule” upon those who claimed to establish the date of Christ’s birth by such methods.
Theology, as it turns out, did have something to do with the first Christmas, but it was a theology that was later deemed to be heretical.
The first recorded Christian celebration of the birth of Christ was on January 6, around the year 130, by followers of Basilides. This was over a century after the actual event of Jesus’s birth.
Basilides was a Gnostic, who taught that the divine Christ (as opposed to the human Jesus) entered this world when God’s Voice uttered the words: “You are my Son, the Beloved” (Mark 1:11). Using this theology, Basilides’ sect combined the celebration of Christ’s baptism and his birth, because that is when Christ “appeared.”
Accordingly, the Basilidians’ festival of the birth and baptism of Christ was called Εμφανίζεται (emfanízetai) — the Greek word for “appearing.” The English translation was Epiphany.
For the Egyptian Greeks, on the night before the festival of Dionysus, the waters of the Nile were said to possess special miraculous powers. This sheds light on why the Basilidians chose this date for the festival of the Epiphany: it was in order to proclaim that the true divine being who had appeared, emerging from the water, was the Christ.
“They of Basilides,” said Clement, “celebrate the day of His Baptism by a preliminary night-service of [Scripture] readings.” One ancient manuscript stated that the Basilidians celebrated singing and flute-playing in a heathen temple at Alexandria: so their rite was probably an adaptation of an older local custom.
The date of Basilides’ Epiphany festival was likely deliberately chosen to compete with the festival of Dionysus. In fact though, the association of Epiphany with a definite day could not have been of fundamental significance to the nature of the festival itself, for the simple reason that the Church of the first three centuries had accepted the fact that we are quite ignorant of the actual date of Jesus’s birth. As Cullmann put it: “The question whether Christ was born on January 6 was entirely secondary. It would hardly have occurred to anyone to ask whether the events which were being commemorated simultaneously at this festival all took place on January 6.”
Regardless, it is an established fact that by the first half of the fourth century, the Church was observing Epiphany on January 6, and in so doing, they conjoined the baptism and the birth of Christ. Not that anything was removed from the original baptism festival, but rather that festival was in two parts. The night of January 5 (Epiphany “Eve”) was devoted to the festival of Christ’s birth, and the day of January 6 to that of his baptism.
One result of this was that the pagan festival of Dionysus eventually fell into desuetude. It is a study in how religious festivals are co-opted.
Sometime around the year 380, Aetheria, a noblewoman pilgrim, probably from Gaul, traveled to and spent three years in Palestine. In a letter home, preserved in part as the Peregrinatio, she expressed that she could not find words adequate to describe the magnificence of the Epiphany festival. She told how on January 5, a multitude, led by the bishop, gathered (probably outside of Bethlehem), singing glorious hymns and psalms. Then, as night fell, they repaired in solemn procession into Bethlehem, in order to hold a service in the cave where, by local legend, Jesus had been born. Before daybreak, the procession turned to Jerusalem singing hymns in honor of Christ who had come to the world. As January 6 dawned, they would reach Jerusalem (roughly 6 miles away), and enter the Church of the Resurrection, whose interior was brilliantly illuminated by the light of thousands of candles. There they sang psalms and the bishops and presbyters offered prayers.
So, for roughly two centuries, Christ’s birth was celebrated on January 6. That would change with the ascension of Flavius Valerius Constantinus — Constantine the Great, to the throne of the Roman emperor.
Constantine’s uncertain conversion to Christianity is not the subject of this essay, but the results of his vision at the Milvian bridge are well-known: he set Christianity on its way to becoming Rome’s state religion. As Cullmann puts it: “Constantine was not so much a Christian as a conscious syncretist: he strove after a synthesis of Christianity and the valuable elements of paganism.”
Syncretism was already taking place between Christianity and the Greek and Roman religions. From the middle of the second century, Christians had stopped referring to the day after the sabbath as the “Lord’s Day,” referring to it instead as “Sunday,” as it was known in Roman culture.
By the beginning of the fourth century, doctrinal differences between Christian sees were intensifying. Constantine brought them to a head at the Council of Nicaea in 325. One of the questions addressed was a variant of the Basilides problem: the timing of Jesus’s divinity. At Nicaea, the Church expressly condemned the doctrine that God himself did not become incarnate in Jesus at his birth. This involved the rejection of all other interpretations, including the one that Jesus was adopted by God, or as Basilides put it, “appeared” at baptism.
The Church in Rome played an important part in the Council of Nicaea. While all episcopal sees were theoretically equal, because of its great wealth, and its location at the seat of power, the Church in Rome was fast becoming “first among equals.”
The Roman Church though had a problem. New converts were still drawn to the ancient Mithratic festival of Sol Invictus, held on December 25, approximately the day of the winter solstice. Splendid festive games were held on that day, in honor of the conquering rising sun. Great bonfires were lit, whose purpose was to help the sun to climb above the horizon. The celebration of Christ’s birth on Epiphany on January 6 probably paled in comparison.
The first attested celebration of Christmas on December 25 was in the year 336. According to Cullmann, this attestation is recorded in the Chronography of Philocalus of the year 354, although the dates of this source are disputed. No one knows how it came about that December 25 was selected, still, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to infer that Constantine himself may have had something to do with the new festival.
Having Christmas, a nativity festival, separate from the baptism festival of Epiphany, would solve uncomfortable theological problems raised by the adoptionists and Basilidians, who after the Council of Nicaea, were now anathema. An added benefit would be to introduce a Christian festival that could compete with the festival of Sol Invictus. For all of these problems, Christmas presented a neatly syncretic solution.
As we know, Christmas did compete, and eventually co-opted the festival of Sol Invictus, which like the festival of Dionysus, also fell into desuetude.
From the beginning, though, Rome sought to get the Churches of the east also to accept this Christmas festival thus separated from Epiphany — a difficult endeavor, as many eastern Churches firmly adhered to the practice of observing the festival of Christ’s birth on Epiphany.
Rome made its case with theologians. Ambrose, bishop of Milan said in a sermon, which expressly contrasted the pagan and Christian festivals: “Christ is our new sun!” Augustine inveighed against Christians worshipping the sun, like the pagans, inviting them instead to worship “him who created the sun.” The fact of this propaganda shows that the fixing of the festival of Christ’s birth on December 25 was not done in ignorance of the pagan significance of the day.
Opposition to the Christmas festival was particularly stubborn in Syria. Rome tried in vain, probably for a decade from 375, to establish the observance of December 25 at Antioch. Success was first achieved by the great preacher Chrysostom. In his Christmas sermon of December 20, 386, Chrysostom inspired his congregation to present themselves on the 25th, five days later, in order to celebrate Christ’s birth.
He called it “that mother of all festivals.” Let everyone, he said, “leave his home, that we may behold our Lord lying in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, a wonderful and awe-inspiring sight!”
By most accounts, a throng of people obeyed his summons. Chrysostom used the occasion to convince the members of his Church that Christ’s birth must be celebrated on December 25. Chrysostom went further, claiming that Christ was actually born on that day. As evidence, he appealed to supposed Roman records, and employed certain “complicated calculations,” which Cullmann described as being “worthless as the rest.”
It was probably not until the middle of the sixth century that the Palestinian Church finally abandoned its opposition to December 25. Only one Church, that of the Armenians, refused to submit. Their attitude earned them the reproach of being “men with hardened heads and stiff necks.” To this day, the Armenians celebrate Christ’s birth on January 6.
POSTSCRIPT: A traditional part of the Roman Saturnalia festival was electing a “King of Saturnalia” who would issue orders, and generally preside over the celebration. Later English tradition included a “Lord of Misrule” who had a similar role. The modern equivalent of the King of Saturnalia and the Lord of Misrule is likely Saint Nicholas — Santa Claus.