Christmas – A festival of Jewish Origin? by the Rev Dr. Alfred Edersheim

Originally published in The Leisure Hour, London, England, No. 1147, December 20, 1873, pp. 810-812.


Of the various questions debated in church history, scarcely one has been discussed with more partisan keenness, or ended in more decidedly unsatisfactory results, than that concerning the origin of our present Christmas date. Certain facts connected with it are, of course, universally admitted. We all know what is the meaning of Christmas; and, similarly, that at first the festival was celebrated in the East at a different from the present date, the latter being introduced from the West into the East, in the second half of the fourth century. But there our agreement ends. Why the change of the date was made, does not appear from the writings of that period, and has never since been satisfactorily settled. Coming from the West, the suggestion lay near, that it originated in a desire to utilise for the most solemn Christian purposes a series of Pagan Roman festivals, which took place in the month of December. But the latest, most learned, and most philosophical of church historians, Neander, has, after seemingly adopting this view, shown its inherent improbability. Not to speak of the incongruousness of adapting, say, the Roman Saturnalia to a feast of the Nativity of Christ, not a trace of such a suggestion can be found even in those writings of sectaries which controvert kindred points in church practice. Besides, as Neander remarks, “the prevailing mode of procedure in the Western Church was by no means to connect the celebration of Christian festivals with Pagan, but rather to set over against the Pagan festivals days of fasting and penitence.” And so the historian concludes by giving up as hopeless the search for the outward causes which led to the change of the date and the adoption of the 25th December. The admission invites and encourages fresh investigations. We propose, therefore, to reconsider the arguments first propounded by Dr. Cassel, of Germany, who connects Christmas with the Jewish festivity of the Dedication of the Temple. And even if the reader should not be prepared to adopt his conclusions, we may offer them as a new contribution towards the solution of this question, and as one possessing, at any rate, the merit of differing from all those commonly suggested.

At the outset, let us be clearly understood. It may be almost needless, and yet from another point of view it seems necessary, to say that our object is neither apologetic nor controversial. It does not fall within its range to plead either for or against the religious observance of Christmas. We assume the latter as a fact, and simply account for its occurrence on the 25th December, and for the various customs which we see associated with it. And in so doing we hope to meet the case of all, whatever their special views. For, mostly the whole of Christendom is agreed in bearing on that day a remembrance of the birth of our blessed Lord; and even they who from conscientious scruples abstain from the religious observance, are not proof against the special customs, the good cheer, and the joyousness which the season brings.

Somehow these customs are chiefly characteristic of the Teutonic race. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the season with a Christmas Midnight Mass–the only time in the year when mass is celebrated at night. The Southern churches are plentifully bedizened with tawdry tinsel, and in Italy they introduce, besides the manger-cradle, a live ox and a donkey, partly to symbolise the supposed scene in Bethlehem, while a grotesque imitation of shepherds completes the representation. But the Christmas joy and the Christmas presents are transferred to New Year’s Day. It is not so among the Teutonic races. With them Christmas joy has, so to speak, become indigenous–it is not imported. Even our countrymen who sojourn in other lands can only long for an English Christmas. For here or in Germany all seem in accordance–the country, the season, the surroundings. When the white covering of snow lies deep on field and road, the merry tinkle of the sledge-bells is heard, where a sparser population has not yet secured the advantages of modern progress. Among ourselves the snorting of the great iron horse, as it slowly drags up its heavy Christmas load, performs the same service. So far as at all practicable, the long-broken ranks will now be serried again, and the long-severed members of families gathered once more around the Christmas board. With a sort of joyous sound the Christmas bells have clashed it out together, as if their very ringing were to carry the gladsomeness of Christmas tidings far into the winter scene. It is all dead around; but within it is warm and cheery. The Yule-log burns on the hearth, and the prickly holly and the evergreen decorate the home. In Germany, already the eve before, the children have hung up their stockings on their beds, that at night when they lie asleep “Sanct’ Claus” (St. Nicolaus) may come with noiseless footsteps and leave the unknown gift. Quite in the North the same object of a sudden gift, the hand of the giver being untraced, is served by the so-called Yule-klapp. A knock at the door (a klapp at Yule), and some hand unknown flings in the gift. This specially for children and the poor- for they are the fittest recipients of Christmas gifts. Then we have the Christmas board with its plentiful spread. Even such an ascetic as St. Francis of Assissi would say, “I wish it were possible that the very walls could eat meat.”1 Scanderberg would not hurt even a Turk on that day. Theodoric the Great wished the poor, the sick, and the sorrowing attended to, while the warrior Emperor Charlemagne ordered indulgence to be extended to his captives. Then in the evening the Christmas tree is brilliantly lit up, and hung with gilded apples, and around it the Christmas gifts are spread for young and old. There are some who imagine that this Christmas tree is, so to speak, characteristically Protestant, and the manager-representation Popish. It is not so. These customs are neither Popish nor Protestant. The Christmas tree, with its golden apples, is much older than the Reformation, and indeed was objected to by some of the Reformers. And so far from the cradle-manager being exclusively Popish, till within the last fifty years they were church steeple every Christmas night at twelve o’clock, and to rock it for an hour, while the choir below sang the “Gloria in excelsis.” But if these customs are neither Popish nor Protestant, far less are they heathen, be it Teutonic, Eastern, or Roman. I do not know what amount of assent the statement will obtain, but the object of this paper is to bring before the reader some arguments in support of the views advanced by Dr. Cassel, that Christmas with its date carries us back not to any heathen but to a Jewish festivity, and that its customs are significantly in accordance therewith. To speak plainly, Christmas on this showing is the Christian counterpart of an old Jewish Temple festival, and though its customs are in their form necessarily the outcome of our habits, views, and even of our climate, yet they are quite in agreement with the spirit of the festival itself.

It is not pleasant to deal in controversy, and yet for argument it is necessary to try and put aside certain preconceived opinions, to which frequent repetition has given a show of authority, and which are supposed by an appearance of learning. The most common and superficial of these is, that our Christmas has an old Teutonic origin, and that because we speak of burning the Yule-log, we are on the track of some ancient Pagan Yule-festival. This would scarcely accord with the spread of the observance southwards, in a direction the opposite from that in which ecclesiastical customs have been wont to flow. Far less would it account for the undoubted fact of the universal prevalence of the feast, and that on the 25th December, so early as the close of the fourth century. Another and more pretentious opinion is that which discovered in it the remnant of the old Persian Sun-Worship of Mithra. Unfortunately for the theory, there never was a feast of Mithra at that date, the Sun-festivals being in spring and in autumn. The story arose in this wise. Last century an old Roman Calendar was discovered, in which against the date of our present Christmas (viii. Cal. Jan.) were the words N. Invicti. The question who this “unconquered” was, led to the hypothesis that it was the Sun. The suggestion of Dr. Cassel, however, is much more likely to be true, that it referred not to the Sun, but to the Emperor Constantius, in whose reign the 25th December, 351, was a decisive day. It is quite true that that day marked the Astronomical Calendar the Equinox. But that could scarcely have led to a popular church festival; though, once appointed, the significance of the coincidence might be commented on by church teachers. There remains only one more theory to notice, which would make the date of our Christmas identical with the ancient Roman Saturnalia–though on what historical ground it is difficult to say, since their principal days were the 17th to the 19th December. And now, these preliminary objections removed, we can address ourselves the more freely to our special inquiry.

Christmas, as we all know, is the festival of the nativity of our blessed Lord–of His appearance in the flesh. But Scripture says nothing as to its precise date, and the circumstance of shepherds tending their flocks all night in the plains of Bethlehem, though certainly not decisive, speaks rather against that for its occurrence on the night of the 25th December. Even tradition, usually so loquacious, is silent on this occasion. In point of fact, we know that in the early church Christmas Day was observed, not on the 25th December, but on the 6th January, our present Epiphany. Indeed, the Epiphany, or “appearing” of our blessed Lord (Tit. ii. 11; iii. 4), was regarded as referring to the day of Christ’s birth. This custom of keeping the Epiphany originated in the eastern branch of the church, where it had been introduced by Jewish Christians. The symbolical reason for fixing on the 6th of January as the day of Christ’s birth is very clear, and distinctly mentioned in early writings. The first Adam had been created on a Friday, that is, on the sixth day of the first year; and the second Adam, the Lord Jesus, had suffered on a Friday, the sixth of the week. It would therefore naturally suggest itself, that as the first Adam had appeared on the sixth day of the new year, so the second Adam also, who had died on the sixth day, should have “appeared” on the sixth day of the new year, that is, on the 6th January. Accordingly, ancient Christian calendars, even in the fourth century, mention Friday as alike the day of our Lord’s birth and of His death.2 Origen was the first to connect the “appearing” of Christ rather with His baptism than with His birth. But this was afterwards violently controverted by some, as tending to foster the heretical opinion that only at his baptism had the Divine Personality joined itself to the human nature of Jesus. Nevertheless the view continued to be held, though it gradually went into the background in favour of another opinion, that the “Epiphany” meant His first appearing to the Gentiles, and referred to the adoration of the Magi. Still later, the date was also regarded as that of the first “appearing” of His miraculous power at Cana in Galilee (John ii. 11), and (for some unknown reason) as that also of His miraculous feeding of the multitude.

About the same time that the observance of Epiphany in its new signification as the day of the adoration of the Magi, as Christ’s baptismal day, and as the Epiphany of His miracles, passed from the Eastern into the Western branch of the church, the observance of Christmas as a separate festival on the 25th December spread from the West into the East. In his Christmas Homily, delivered at Antioch on the 25th December, 386, St. Chrysostom distinctly says that this observance, which had been long kept all throughout the West “from Thracia to Cadiz,” had only been introduced in the East ten years previously, but had already been universally adopted. The only exception was that of the Armenian Church, which continued the observance of the 6th January as the birthday of Jesus. St. Chrysostom further insists that the Christmas festival of the 25th December rested on a very ancient tradition. With this statement so far agree the words of the so-called “Apostolical Constitutions,” the first seven books of which belong, by universal consent, to a period prior to the Council of Nice, say, the end of the third century: “Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate on the 25th of the ninth month” (Book V., sect. iii., 13). Which was meant by the ninth month we can have no difficulty in deciding. Reckoning after the Jewish and Roman Calendar we find that Nisan, the first Jewish month, corresponded to April, and hence the ninth month to December.

We have now verified this additional historical fact, that Christmas was henceforth celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month in the Jewish Calendar, which corresponded to our December. But why was this special date fixed upon? The objection to the former date, and to the Epiphany, was, that it represented the “appearing” of Christ in the sense of His manifestation, rather than of His human birth. But the main object of Christmas was to exhibit that the Son of God had taken to Himself a true body. What was there in the old economy which had symbolised the body of Christ? Undoubtedly a most notable symbol of it existed, and our Lord Himself had indicated it in express language. “Destroy this Temple,” said Jesus unto the Jews, “and in three days I will raise it up.” “But He spake of the Temple of His body.” And a most significant emblem it was. For as in the Temple all sacrifices were offered and reconciliation was made, and through it alone access could be had unto the Father, so it is to us in and through the body of Christ, in and through His taking unto Himself our human nature, that we can approach God, and offer unto Him acceptable sacrifice. Accordingly, it was in this sense also most significant, that when He yielded up the ghost, the Temple-veil “was rent in twain from the top to the bottom” (Matt. xxvii. 51), and that even the bodies of Christians are designated by the apostle as “the temple of God” (1 Cor. iii. 16, 17; vi. 19; 2 Cor. vi. 16). But if the body with which the divinity of Christ was united was like “the Temple,” then the birth of Jesus Christ was like the Dedication of the Temple, and Christmas Day the feast of the true Dedication of the Temple.

We have now two things to guide us further: the date of the festival of the Dedication of the Temple, and even the name, as recording ancient traditions. We begin with the latter, as the simplest of the two. Our English word “Christmas,” or Christ’s mass, gives us no clue; neither does the French “Noel,” and its cognate terms in Italian and Spanish, which are simply a contraction of dies natalis, “the birthday.” It is otherwise with the German Weihnachten, which, without tracing it up through the ancient high Dutch, takes you straight to the meaning: “Night of the Dedication.” Now as for this Dedication of the Temple, we know that our blessed Lord was at Jerusalem at “the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the Temple in Solomon’s porch” (John x. 22,23). It is very remarkable, that on that very occasion Christ for the first time told them “plainly” that His human nature was the Temple of the Divine, and finally in His own words, “that the Father is in Me, and I in Him” (v. 38). Indeed, this “lesson,” spoken by the Lord on Christmas Day in the Temple, ought to form part of our Christmas reading. But to continue. We further know as a historical fact, that the feast of the Dedication of the Temple (hanukah), or “of candles,” in remembrance of the restoration of the Temple, after the victory gained by Judas Maccabaeus in 148 B.C. over the Syrians, took place on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month, or Kislev. Nor had this date been accidentally chosen. It had been fixed from of old, when Haggai spoke (ii. 18): “Consider now from this day and upward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, even from the day that the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid, consider it…. From this day will I bless you.” Alike the name, then (Weihnachten), as perpetuating a very ancient tradition; the date of the corresponding Temple-festival, as fixed in prophecy and in history; but, above all, the meaning and import of the Incarnation of Christ–His taking unto Himself a true body–all point to one conclusion.

We have thus stated the ground on which the arguments rests that Christmas Day was celebrated on the 25th December, because it was the fulfilment of what had been symbolised in the feast of the Dedication of the Temple, which took place on the 25th of the ninth month, corresponding to our December. It is not necessary for our present purpose to maintain that this reference was understood even in the latter half of the fourth century, when the Christmas observance of the 25th December became general. Suffice that already at that time it rested “on a very ancient tradition.” The tradition may have been known, even while its origin had been forgotten. And yet it is singular how our Christmas customs are so thoroughly in accordance with it. Those tall, straight fir-trees, with their branches stretched out like arms, are like the candlestick in the Temple, and, as among Israel during that feast every home was lighted up, so the Christmas trees also are lighted to symbolise the same truth of light shining out into the darkness. The “gilded apples” with which they are hung were intended to convey a kindred meaning. According to Christian legend, the fruit of the tree which had caused our parents’ fall was of the apple kind (malum a malo). But now the apple is gilded, and it hangs on the Christmas tree, which is lit up in joy for the Dedication of the true Temple, which is the body of the second Adam. As for the superstitious practice of introducing the manager-cradle, we cannot find too strong words to condemn its silliness and profanity. But it is a curious illustration alike of how, in the providence of God, whatever is false avenges itself, and of the origin of superstition, that the practice of placing an ox and an ass by the side of the manger-cradle arose from a false translation3 of Hab. iii.2: “Revive thy work in the midst of the years.” The Septuagint renders it, “in the midst of two beasts shall he be known,” and this, with further reference to Isaiah i. 3, led to the custom which now so shocks our sense of reverence!

But to us all, whatever our special views or conclusions may be, Christ is the true Temple, and His Incarnation the real Dedication of the Temple. God grant that from our homes the true Light of Christ, “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” may shine forth into the wintry darkness of the heathen world, and also “so shine before men, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven.”


1 See these references in Paulus Cassel, “Weihnachten,” etc., Berlin, L. Rank; also his article in Herzog’s Encycl., vol. xvii. Dr. Cassel, a learned Jewish convert, whose name is far too little known in this country, was the first to suggest a Jewish origin of Christmas, and to his writings we are deeply indebted in the present article.

2 The quotations are given by Cassel at length.

3 See Cassel, u.s.

Background: Alfred Edersheim (March 7, 1825 – March 16, 1889) was born in Vienna; a Jewish convert to Christianity and a Biblical scholar. He was ordained to ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Scotland in 1846; to ministry in the Church of England in 1875; and became a faculty member at Oxford in 1882.

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