Many Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th each year even though some experts claim it was more likely in March and others say June when Jesus was born. Why would we celebrate the 2nd most important Holy day in December instead of March or June? Read on and I will explain it to you.
During the life of Jesus and up until the 15th century, the area of modern Israel was controlled by the Roman and then the Byzantine Empires. Many of the people in the area worshipped Roman deities and Persian deities. The first Christian Roman Emperor was Constantine the Great. He ruled the Roman Empire from 306 AD to 337 AD. He dictated that the birth of Jesus be celebrated on December 25th and the first time it was recorded as being celebrated on that date was in 336 AD.
At that time as in now, there was no clear cut date for the birth of the Christ child. What made Constantine choose this date? There are several books of thought on this. I am going to only explain the one that makes sense to me. Constantine ruled over a lot of people with different beliefs. The vast majority of the people he ruled were either Roman or Persian. There was a pagan festival for Saturn celebrated by the Romans on the 25th and another pagan festival for Mithra celebrated by the Persians. As emperor, Constantine the Great could dictate the official religion of his empire. If he were to pick another time of year and order that his subjects no longer hold these other festivals, it could very well have toppled his reign. However, by setting this celebration at the same time as the pagan festivals would make for a smoother transition away from the pagan holidays to Christianity.
For the last 1678 years, the celebration for the birth of Christ has been held on December 25th. Does it matter that it is more than likely not the actual day of his birth? I would suggest that since we don’t know on what date Jesus was actually born, it does not matter as what is important is that we honor the spirit of the celebration, the birth of our savior.
Now, let’s talk about the tradition of gift giving. When and where did this tradition start? How did Santa Claus get started as the gift giver? When I learned this, I found it quite fascinating as have others I have related the story to.
The Santa Claus we think of today, the one who comes in the night and gives gifts to good little boys and girls got his start around the same time as the start of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th. In the 4th century, during the same time that Constantine the Great ruled Rome, there was a town in the country of Lycia called Myra. Lycia is now part of Turkey and the town of Myra is where the town of Kale now stands. In Myra there was a Greek Bishop by the name of Nikolaos. Nikolaos was renowned for the miracles he performed and was often referred to as Nikolaos the Wonder Worker. Later, after his death, he would be given sainthood for his miracles. He was also part of the first Council of Nicaea which was the council that set the books of the modern day Bible and signed the Nicene Creed.
Anyway, Bishop Nikolaos had a secret side. He had a little habit that he kept secret from his parishioners. At night, he would secretly sneak around town and leave gifts, most commonly in the form of coins in the shoes of his parishioners who left their shoes outside their homes. Thus, Saint Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas) became the basis for the modern day Santa Claus.
But how did his name go from St. Nikolaos to Santa? Over the years and through the various languages his story finally arrived in Holland. The Dutch version of Saint Nikolaos became Sinterklaas, which then became Santa Claus.
What I find most interesting about this historical record is that Constantine the Great lived from 272 AD to 337 AD and ruled Rome from 306 AD to 337 AD. Saint Nikolaos lived from 270 AD to 343 AD and lived in the eastern region of the Roman Empire. Nikolaos was part of the Council of Nicaea which was commissioned by Constantine the Great to standardize the Christian faith. The first Christian Emperor who helped standardize the Christian faith and set the date for our holy celebration is rarely recognized for his accomplishments and one of the bishops that assisted is well known, but more as the jolly secret visitor in the night than for the miracles that he performed.
As Paul Harvey would have said, “And now you know the rest of the story!”