Rolan Monje, Dec 2002
every year my family goes up to Ilocos Norte to celebrate
Christmas with the rest of our clan. One time while
still in grade school, I felt that I just had to ask
my mom why we needed to go. With the kindest smile,
she said "Kasi Christmas, and that's how Christmas
is." After many years, I decided to learn more
about the origins of Christmas, and why it is the way
it is today. I hope this article will give you some
grasp of its obscure origins.
Most of the practices and beliefs associated with
Christmas had very non-Christian origins and some
traditions were there long before the birth of Christ.
You may be surprised with some of the stories. In
the end however, we shall also have to make a mature
conclusion about what God desires for the disciple
of the 21st century. And before we go on perhaps some
reminders from God's word are in order:
1. God richly provides things for our enjoyment (1
2. Paul's example to us was to relate to others, "becoming
all things to all men" (1 Cor 9:19-22).
3. Jesus taught his disciple to wisely relate with
the world even as people of the light (Lk16:8-9).
The name "Christmas"
It seems the word "Christmas" did not appear
until the 4th century. The word Christmas apparently
comes from the Old English word - Cristes Maesse or
Christ's Mass - essentially of Roman church origin
and Latin influence. Today, numerous peoples have
coined terms for the different elements of Christmas
in their native languages. The greeting "Merry
Christmas" is heard in different versions around
most of the globe.
The date of Jesus' birth
We do know that the birth of Christ is a historical
event. Luke's purpose in writing his gospel was clearly
to provide people with documentary evidence of Jesus.
His birth did indeed happen, though no one is really
sure about the exact date. Early Christian writers
(up until the 3rd century) purport different dates.
Furthermore, the traditional December date is unlikely
because December in Israel is chilly and rainy (and
thus shepherds would not be out with their sheep).
Now about December 25th - the date probably originated
with the ancient "birthday" of the son-god,
Sol Invictus, a pagan deity whose religious influence
became widespread in the Roman Empire during the first
few centuries A.D. A similar Semitic sun-god, Shamash,
was widely worshipped as well. Rome was quite known
for absorbing the pagan practices of its widespread
empire. Since Rome also had its celebrations in the
winter solstice period (honoring the god Saturnus)
the winter holiday became known as Saturnalia and
started about a week prior to December 25th and ended
in January. The festival was characterized by gift-giving,
merrymaking and singing. Soon, the practice spread
to surrounding countries including Egypt, England
and Scandinavia within a few centuries.
Three Wise Men?
The Bible says nothing about how many wise men came
from the East. The Bible doesn't mention their names,
and doesn't give details about how they made their
journey. Some have assumed that the wise men (or magi)
were three in number because Matthew 2:11 makes mention
of three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh."
But then the number of magi (and note: magi, not kings)
is not specified in Scripture , and some Eastern religions
have claimed up to ten or twelve of them made the
journey to see Christ. The supposed names of the wise
men, Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar, are not in the
Bible and did not appear in Christian writing until
over some centuries after the birth of Jesus. Besides,
the Bible says the magi visited "the house"
(Matt 2:11) and not the manger as many think.
Angels, Star & Christmas Tree
Angels are attested to in Luke's account, and the
whole Bible is replete with angelic appearances. The
'star of Bethlehem' is mentioned in Matthew's account.
It led the magi to the place "where the child
was". While the star does hold some inspirational
value, I don't think it holds any deep symbolic or
The Christmas Tree has come a long way in history.
Today, the green tree has significant meaning almost
all over the world. It appears historically that Romans
used green twigs for good luck talismans. In British
and Celtic traditions, the Yule (or solstice season)
log fire and the greenery used to decorate homes were
believed to bring back its warmth at the time of the
solstice. Most of other Teutonic customs were well
established even before the actual birth of Jesus!
An important part of holiday celebrations is Santa
Claus, and he has an interesting story behind him.
The custom of Santa Claus signifies the life of Saint
Nicholas, who was known for his charity to the poor.
He was a bishop (leader or overseer of the early church),
who lived during the 4th-century in Asia Minor.
There is a story that Saint Nicholas once helped a
man's daughter with by anonymously dropping a bag
of gold down the chimney. Later on, the practice of
dropping gifts down the chimney was established. With
the passing of time, St. Nicholas became Santa Claus.
Santa has many other aliases all over the world.
Misa de Gallo
As Pinoys we know that we were a colony of Spain
for more than three centuries. The early mass probably
originated in Mexico the late 1500's. It consists
of outdoor Masses before Christmas to accommodate
large numbers of people attending. Today, this spiritual
preparation for Christmas continues with Masses held
early in the morning.
After the service, traditional food is served, such
bumbong, salabat and tsokolate. The prayers end on
Christmas Eve with Midnight Mass known as Misa de
Gallo because of the early hour.
So what now?
Seeing the nature of these traditions, should we
turn off the Christmas lights, throw away the ham
and puto, and not accept any gifts? I don't think
so. There is no harm in commemorating Jesus' entrance
into the world. Remember that what we are celebrating
is fact, not a myth!
Ultimately, how you celebrate your Pasko depends
on culture. But Christians can live in any culture
and still be sold-out for God. Read Mark 7 and you
will see that nothing "outside" a man can
make him unclean. Read Matt 15 and you will see that
tradition is concerning only when it nullifies the
word of God. Also, what matters to the Christian is
that we consistently commemorate Jesus' death (1 Cor
11:23-26 and 2 Cor 4:10).
Finally, the goal for the disciple would be to keep
the "Christ' in Christmas and let our light shine
during the holidays. Let's be spiritual and relatable!
In this way, disciples can be "in the world"
but not "of the world". We can use Christmas
to make an impact just as we do in all the Philippine
Yes, it may be true that Jesus was not born in December,
and yes the Christmas holiday is basically just a
reconstituted Roman, pagan holiday, but this is still
the time when the religious world celebrates the coming
into the world of the Savior, the Redeemer of mankind,
the Christ-child, Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than throw
water on the whole thing, we ought instead to do our
best to keep the Christ in Christmas.
Because Jesus is Lord always, we can let our light
shine! Let's be disciples this Christmas and every
day of the year.
1 While some critics disregard the Bible as a historical
book, they are on the losing side simply by the lack
of evidence against the Bible. Science and archeology
now tends to support the Bible rather than invalidate
it. The Bible's historicity cannot be discussed in
this article, but the proofs pointing to the Bible's
accuracy and trustworthiness are overwhelming.
2 In 354 AD, Liberius of Rome gave the order to
3 The Greek root has "magos", plural "magoi."
Herodotus the historian refers to them originally
as astronomers-astrologers. There is no evidence to
conclude that there were three or that they were "kings."
For Pinoys, I guess there's nothing really wrong with
singing "May tatlong haring nagsidaaa-law",
just know that it's not accurate. Ok?
4 Matt 2:9