This Christmas, while you listen to the familiar music of Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, listen to the words a little closer. You will hear tales of the birth of Jesus, talk of angels, and a holy night. While some of the carols speak of a true story, others don’t paint a completely accurate picture. We’re here to deliver an authentic Christmas story, straight from the source, and then talk about the historical contexts surrounding the birth of Jesus, or as we call it “Christ”mas.

Let’s first look at the first record we have of the Christmas story, found in the scriptures:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ”The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”– which means, “God with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”

Now let’s examine three parts of this event: The name “Jesus,” the time of His birth, and the origin of the holiday, “Christmas.” 

1. Jesus’ Name:

First and foremost it is important to understand the deeper meaning of this name. In Greek, “Christos,” or Jesus the Christ, means “anointed.” In Hebrew, Jesus literally means “God is salvation.” So the angel’s message to Joseph was “You shall call His name ‘God is salvation,’ for He will save His people from their sins.” That name tells us of Jesus’ purpose in God’s plan, that through Him God saves humanity. In the Bible, we see many references  to Jesus as the “Son of Man” and the “Son of God.” In Biblical times, people did not have last names. A person was identified by their Father: they were sons of (fill in the blank). So this means that  since Jesus was born of a virgin, he would be both fully human and fully God in His being. In Bible times a person might be identified by where they were born as well. Jesus is often referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth,” which was where He grew up. Lastly, you will find in many carols Jesus is called “Immanuel,” meaning: God with us. These are all names which he would be called over the course of his life. (for more information about surnames click here)

2. Jesus’ Birth:

Was Jesus born on December 25, or in December at all? Although it’s not impossible, it is unlikely. I know, you’re shocked, what about all the snow and cheer of winter? Although different theologians have many different opinions of this, a popular view is that Jesus was born in September, the time of the annual Feast of Tabernacles, when such travel was commonly accepted.

One problem with the December claim is that it would be unusual for shepherds to be in the fields at this cold time of year when fields were unproductive. The normal practice was to keep the flocks in the fields from Spring to Autumn. Also, winter would likely be an especially difficult time for pregnant Mary to travel the long distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem (70 miles). The conception of Christ may have taken place in late December of the previous year.

Our Christmas celebration may well be recognized as an honored observation of the “incarnation” of Jesus, meaning that He was God come in the flesh. On an interesting ending note, a monk by the name of Dionysius in the sixth century decided to start counting years based partly on the year of Jesus birth.

3. The Origins of “Christmas:” 

Interestingly enough, neither the celebration of Christ’s birth nor the word “mass” existed in the Early Church. There was actually no celebration of Christmas for the first three centuries after the church was formed. This was due to the early Christians rejecting the celebration of Christ’s birth, mainly because only pagan figures in the Bible, such as Pharaoh, celebrated birthdays—they wanted to be separate from these practices, and also not confuse Christ with other “worldly” leaders. [1]

Etymologically, the word “Christmas” derives from an Old English term that dates all the way back to 1038, called “Cristes Maesse.” With Catholic roots, this term means “the mass of Christ.” “Mass” refers to the service of the Lord’s Supper. [2]

As a combination of the practices of the Jerusalem Church and Roman tradition, the celebration of Chrismas grew in popularity. A Midnight mass, (remembering the apprearance of the angels), a Mass at Dawn, (commemorating the arrival of the shepherds), and a Day Mass (looking forward to Christ’s return) were created over time. Additionally, Christians developed a fourth Mass to be held on Christmas Eve—which was developed out of the practice of vigils, usually done on the evening before important celebratory feasts. As these liturgical pratices grew, the practice of Christmas Mass became a central fixture in the church calendar which is why, by the eleventh century, the day became known by its liturgical emphasis: Christ’s Mass. [3]

Today, the word “Christmas” is used by Protestants and Catholics alike, regardless of liturgical practice and Eucharistic belief. The Catholic origins were a stumbling block for many Christians, who considered the celebration “unbiblical” for various reasons. However, over time these controversies have died down and most Christians now see “Christmas” as a time to celebrate the coming of Christ to earth. Though a small and seemingly innocent word, it is the “product of politics, religion, controversy and jubilation, forged over centuries of liturgical growth.” [4]

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Various facts taken from www.whatsinthebible.com:

[1] Fahlisbusch, Erwin, and Lukas Vischer, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 1. , 454

[2] Martindale, C.C. (1908). Christmas. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 26, 2011 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm

[3] John, J., A Christmas Compendium. Continuum, 2006, 34

[4] www.whatsinthebible.com