Why is Christmas Eve on December 24th?
The Bible does not clearly answer this question. Evidently, the first Christians didn’t make a point of celebrating the birth of Christ. If they knew the precise date of his birth, they didn’t make an issue of it. One writer notes that various leaders in the early church suggested the following dates for Jesus’ birth: January 2, January 6, March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17. All we can take from this is that the precise date was hidden and unknown to them even though they were much closer to the historical event than we are.
The traditional date of December 25 goes back as far as A.D. 273. Two pagan festivals honoring the sun were also celebrated on that day and it is possible that December 25 was chosen to counteract the influence of paganism. To this day some people feel uncomfortable with Christmas because they think it is somehow tainted by the pagan festivals held on that day. But Christians have long believed that the gospel not only transcends culture, it also transforms it. In A.D. 320 one theologian answered this criticism by noting, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”
Having said that, you may ask, “Does it really matter?” In one sense, of course, the answer is no. No doctrine of the Christian faith rests upon knowing the exact day and year of Christ’s birth. And no stress is put upon the date of his birth in the New Testament. No one is ever told to celebrate Christmas. The emphasis always rests on the fact of his birth, not the date. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Christianity is a faith based on certain historical facts. Let us on this Christmas Eve rejoice in this great truth:
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). Pictured below: A portrait of the birth of Christ
Origins of Christmas Eve
For centuries, Christmas was celebrated not as a single day, but as a whole season in parts of the world, beginning with this day, December 24, Christmas Eve. Perhaps the practice of celebrating the evening before the big day is an echo from ancient Jewish reckoning. Among earlier Jews, a day began at six in the evening and ran until six the following evening. Had not Moses written: "An evening and a morning were the first day"?
Christmas means "Christ-mass." Although the date is a guess, the tradition of observing it goes back to at least the fourth century. Under the influence of the church, Christian traditions replaced pagan solstice festivals throughout Europe. Often the more innocent pagan practices (such as bringing in a Yule log, decorating with holly and the like) were carried over into the Christmas observance, transfigured with new meaning.
Celebrations of Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve (the evening before Christmas day) was then celebrated with roaring fires, story-telling, feasting, drinking, dancing, and sometimes clowning. Sir Walter Scott described its festive air in a poem:
On Christmas Eve, the bells were rung;
On Christmas Eve, the mass was sung.
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen,
the hall was dressed with holly green;
All hail'd with uncontroll'd delight,
And general voice the happy night
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.
Things weren't always so pleasant, however. On Christmas Eve, 1521, with the Reformation gaining steam in Germany, crowds rioted in Wittenberg. Against the orders of Elector Frederick, Andreas Carlstadt had given them both the bread and wine at mass. Zealous for more "reformation," the mob smashed church lamps, sang ridiculous songs to drown out the choir and intimidated the priests.
Luther is supposed to have cut the first Christmas tree. The story may be apocryphal, but we know that on Christmas Eve, 1538, he was in a jolly mood, singing and talking about the incarnation. Then he sighed, saying, "Oh, we poor men, that we should be so cold and indifferent to this great joy which has been given us."
Despite Luther's lament, others would make warm memories on Christmas Eve. In his memoirs, Sir John Reresby told how he invited his poor tenants for a feast on Christmas Eve, 1682. During World War I, the famous Christmas Truce began for many troops on Christmas Eve, 1914, demonstrating the power for good that is inherent in the season.
- Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand; a life of Martin Luther. New York: Mentor, 1962.
- Dawson, W. F. Christmas; its origin and associations. London: Elliot Stock, 1902.
- Hutchinson, Ruth and Adams, Ruth. Every Day's a Holiday. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951.
- James, Francis G. and Hill, Miriam G. Joy to the World; two thousand years of Christmas. Portland, Oregon: Four Courts Press, 2000.
- Miles, Clement A. "Christmas Eve." http://www.abcog.org/xmas2.htm
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated July, 2007