First Recorded Celebration of Christmas

Dan Graves, MSL

Today is Christmas day (Christ’s mass). But for the first 300 years of Christianity, it wasn’t so. When was Christmas first celebrated? In an old list of Roman bishops, compiled in A. D. 354 these words appear for A.D. 336: “25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae.”

December 25th, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea. This day, December 25, 336, is the first recorded celebration of Christmas.
For the first three hundred years of the church’s existence, birthdays were not given much emphasis–not even the birth of Christ. The day on which a saint died was considered more significant than his or her birth, as it ushered him or her into the kingdom of heaven. Christ’s baptism received more attention than his birthday in the January 6th feast of Epiphany.

No one knows for sure on what day Christ was born. Dionysus Exiguus, a sixth century monk, who was the first to date all of history from December 25th, the year of our Lord 1. Other traditions gave dates as early as mid-November or as late as March. How did Christmas come to be celebrated on December 25th? Cultures around the Mediterranean and across Europe observed feasts on or around December 25th, marking the winter solstice. The Jews had a festival of lights. Germans had a yule festival. Celtic legends connected the solstice with Balder, the Scandinavian sun god who was struck down by a mistletoe arrow. At the pagan festival of Saturnalia, Romans feasted and gave gifts to the poor. Drinking was closely connected with these pagan feasts. At some point, a Christian bishop may have adopted the day to keep his people from indulging in the old pagan festival.

Historian William J. Tighe offers a different view, however. When a consensus arose in the church to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25th, it was reasonable to celebrate his birth nine months later.

Many of the pagan customs became associated with Christmas.
Christian stories replaced the heathen tales, but the practices hung on. Candles continued to be lit. Kissing under the mistletoe remained common in Scandinavian countries. But over the years, gift exchanges became connected with the name of St. Nicholas, a real but legendary figure of 4th century Lycia (a province of Asia). A charitable man, he threw gifts into homes.

Around the thirteenth century, Christians added one of the most pleasant touches of all to Christmas celebration when they began to sing Christmas carols.

No one is sure just when the Christmas tree came into the picture. It originated in Germany. The 8th century English missionary, St. Boniface, Apostle to Germany, is supposed to have held up the evergreen as a symbol of the everlasting Christ. By the end of the sixteenth century, Christmas trees were common in Germany. Some say Luther cut the first, took it home, and decked it with candles to represent the stars. When the German court came to England, the Christmas tree came with them.

Puritans forbade Christmas, considering it too pagan. Governor Bradford actually threatened New Englanders with work, jail or fines if they were caught observing Christmas.

In 1843, in Victorian England, Charles Dickens published his novelette “A Christmas Carol.” It became one of the most popular short works of fiction ever penned. Although the book is more a work of sentiment than of Christianity, it captures something of the Christmas spirit. The tightfisted grump, Ebenezer Scrooge, who exclaimed “humbug!” at the mention of Christmas, is contrasted with generous merry-makers such as his nephew, Fred and with the struggling poor, symbolized by Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. The book’s appeal to good works and charitable contributions virtually defines Christmas in English-speaking lands.

Whatever the ins and outs of Christmas, we are still unwrapping the gift of God’s Son–and what an incentive to generosity and joy that gift is!

Christmas and Martin Luther


Here is one of my more  recent essays on Christmas. I wrote this for the Institute of Lutheran Theology’s Word at Work magazine:

 The Gift at Christmas: Christ and the Gospel in Luther’s Church Postils

Now it is evident that the Gospel teaches nothing but the foregoing two things, Christ and his example and two kinds of good works, the one belonging to Christ by which we are saved through faith, the other belonging to us by which our neighbor receives help. Whosoever therefore teaches any thing different from the Gospel leads people astray; and whosoever does not teach the Gospel in these two parts leads people all the more astray and is worse than the former who teaches without the Gospel, because he abuses and corrupts God’s Word. –Martin Luther, Church Postil for Christmas Day, Luke 2:1-14

“For unto you this day is born a Savior” has to be just about the most wonderful words in the world with the possible exception of “Christ is risen!” and “I love you.” Christmas is for many people the best day of the year, even more popular than Easter. Rather than get theologically correct and tell people Christmas would not be a big deal without Easter’s “Christ is risen” let us take the time to make an evangelical point people can remember this year, and that is “For unto you.” Let me explain.

In 1521 Martin Luther received an assignment from Frederick the Elector to write a collection of sermons on the Sundays of the church year, especially the Easter Sundays. The necessity was that many of the pastors of the new evangelische church had never written a sermon and did not know how. In the past they were content to read the Epistle and Gospel and a sermon by someone like John Tauler. Many of those sermons were admirable but at times not evangelical. It was hoped Luther would provide good examples of what an evangelical sermon should be.

This was a significant year for evangelical history. Luther began these sermons after he had received a death warrant from the Pope and in another year he would come under the double ban with the Emperor’s condemnation. However, after that Luther would be whisked away to Wartburg where he would add some more sermons to the Postils while he was translating the New Testament into German.

In a way the Church Postils was a Christmas gift from the Elector to Christian posterity. Luther began the series with Advent and wrote some wonderful sermons where he laid out his understanding of the Gospel in most simple terms. Have you ever wondered if your sermons or the sermons you are hearing are true to Luther’s ideal? Just go to Google and read some of Luther’s Postils, then decide. One thing I noticed right away is that Luther thought the Gospel was a very specific thing concerning the gift Christ is for each of us and how each of us is to go out and be a gift to our neighbor.

There is a sermon for each Sunday in the season of Advent and six sermons for the various services connected with the observance of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as well as the special days that follow. I commend them to you to read for devotion at your leisure. Below find some excerpts to whet your appetite.

The text for the 1st Sunday in Advent was Matthew 21:1-9. In reference to Zechariah, Luther says the Church (“O Daughter Zion”) received a twofold gift from Christ. The first is faith and the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer’s heart and the second gift being Christ himself. We hear echoes of the spirituality found in his famous treatise “On Christian Liberty” which was written at the same time. Luther tells us that because of the gift of Christ himself the Church “may glory in the blessings given by Christ, as though everything Christ is and has were her own. This is getting close to what we can share with others as the “real meaning of Christmas.”

In his first sermon on Christmas Day (Titus 2:11-15) we have another tip on what we can tell people why Christmas is such a wonderful thing, “The people are to be taught who Christ is, why he came and what blessings his coming brought us… Christ did not come to dwell on earth for his own advantage, but for our good. Therefore he did not retain his goodness and grace within himself. After his ascension he caused this to be proclaimed in public preaching throughout the world.”

In the next Postil (Luke 2:1-14) Luther continues to stress what makes the Gospel good news, explaining again that it contains the gift of faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit so that we might truly believe and that it is necessary that we understand that Christ is a gift. The example of Christ giving Himself for us is a gift and our being a gift by following the example of Christ is part of the Gospel. All of this is to be understood clearly first before the subject of good works is addressed.

 This is the principal thing and the principal treasure in every Gospel, before any doctrine of good works can be taken out of it. Christ must above all things become our own and we become his, before we can do good works. But this cannot occur except through the faith that teaches us rightly to understand the Gospel and properly to lay hold of it. This is the only way in which Christ can be rightly known so that the conscience is satisfied and made to rejoice. Out of this grow love and praise to God who in Christ has bestowed upon us such unspeakable gifts. This gives courage to do or leave undone, and living or dying, to suffer every thing that is well pleasing to God. This is what is meant by Isaiah 9: 6, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,”: to us, to us is born, and to us is given this child. Therefore see to it that you do not find pleasure in the Gospel only as a history, for that is only transient; neither regard it only as an example, for it is of no value without faith; but see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you.

So here is what I find to be the principle point and one that people can easily remember: the same way that Luther taught what is so essential for us to lay hold of concerning the meaning of Holy Communion, that each individual must believe it is also for him or her, this is how we are to understand the Gift at Christmas: “He does not simply say, Christ is born, but to you he is born, neither does he say, I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy.”

Christ is born “for you.” This is the meaning of Christmas. Share it as the shepherds did.

We might also want to meditate on the following words from the Postil on Luke 2:1-14, and perhaps share it with those we gather with at Christmas. They are wise words on why it is we can come before the manger in true awe. We leave you to take this Good News into your heart deeply and tuck it away as it were, away in the manger of your heart, tucked away in safety to bring out and share at the right time:

This Gospel is so clear that it requires very little explanation, but it should be well considered and taken deeply to heart; and no one will receive more benefit from it than those who, with a calm, quiet heart, banish everything else from their mind, and diligently look into it. It is just as the sun which is reflected in calm water and gives out vigorous warmth, but which cannot be so readily seen nor can it give out such warmth in water that is in roaring and rapid motion. Therefore, if you would be enlightened and warmed, if you would see the wonders of divine grace and have your heart aglow and enlightened, devout and joyful, go where you can silently meditate and lay hold of this picture deep in your heart, and you will see miracle upon miracle.

From Heaven High I Come to Earth


From heaven high I come to earth;
I bring good tidings of great mirth;
this mirth is such a wondrous thing
that I must tell you all and sing.

A little child for you this morn
has from a chosen maid been born,
a little child so tender, sweet,
that you should skip upon your feet.

How glad we’ll be that this is so!
With all the shepherds let us go
to see what God for us has done
in sending us his own dear Son.

Look, look, my heart, and let me peek.
Whom in the manger do you seek?
Who is that lovely little one?
The baby Jesus, God’s own Son.

Be welcome, Lord; be now our guest.
By you poor sinners have been blessed.
In nakedness and cold you lie.
How can I thank you; how can I?

You wanted so to make me know
that you had let all great things go.
You had a palace in the sky;
you left it there for such as I.

And if the world were twice as wide,
with gold and precious jewels inside,
still such a cradle would not do
to hold a babe as great as you.

To God who sent his only Son
be glory, laud, and honor done.
Let all the choir of heav’n rejoice,
the new ring in with heart and voice.


This is Roland Bainton’s translation of Martin Luther’s Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her

Wondrous Are Your Ways, O God


And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
-Revelation 15:3-4


Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.
For all is hushed,
The world is sleeping,
Holy Star its vigil keeping.
Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.

Sleep, sleep, sleep,
‘Tis the eve of our Saviour’s birth.
The night is peaceful all around you,
Close your eyes,
Let sleep surround you.
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
‘Tis the eve of our Saviour’s birth.

Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.
While guardian angels without number,
Watch you as you sweetly slumber.
Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.