The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

A History of Christmas & Epiphany

A History of Christmas & Epiphany

by G. Sujin Pak
Congregation at Duke Chapel Adult Forum
January 8, 2012
Magi, star, Christ, Mary

Christ’s Infancy & Childhood

manger scene

Gospel accounts of Christ’s infancy and childhood

Context: early church’s belief of Christ’s imminent 2nd coming

By the late 2nd century: significant lessening of apocalyptic expectation; turn to interest in Jesus’ life and history


Canonical vs Apocryphal Gospels

book on apocryphal gospels

2nd century Christians begin to discern the canonical Christian texts (New Testament)

By late 2nd century they had decided upon the 4 Gospels

The other gospels that did not make the canon were called the New Testament Apocrypha


New Testament Apocrypha

book on apocryphal literature

Though the apocryphal texts were not deemed to have the authority of “Scripture” they were still used and consulted in the early church.

Indeed, several of the details of the Christmas story accepted today come from information in these apocryphal texts.


Protoevangelium of James

mary riding

Tells the story of Mary, mother of Jesus

Text comes from Syria in the mid 2nd century CE

Teaches that Joseph was a widower when he married Mary

Teaches the perpetual virginity of Mary; thus Jesus’ brothers are his step brothers from Joseph’s earlier marriage


Protoevangelium of James

Holy family

Teaches of a virginal birth (Mary’s virginity remains intact after giving birth)

Emphasizes the magnificent brightness of the star that signaled Jesus’ birth


Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew

Written by an anonymous author around 800 CE

Accumulated a number of ancient traditions about Jesus’ birth and life

Emphasized the prophecy that Jesus would be born between 2 beasts: ox and donkey carving of animals

Isaiah 1:2-3

another carving of animals

“I reared the children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”


Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew

Holy family in Egypt

Fills in details about what happened during Jesus’ time in Egypt as a child

Stories about Jesus as a child having power over beasts, performing miracles, and power over pagan gods

E.g., when Jesus comes to a town all the pagan gods fall on the ground and break to pieces


Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew

angels bending fruit tree limbs

Origins of the English hymn “The Cherry Tree Carol”

Story of Mary exhausted by the hot Egyptian sun

The infant Jesus orders a fruit tree to bend so that Mary can have some fruit.


The Date of Christmas

stained glass window of Holy family

By the end of the 2nd century CE, the Nativity was part of Christian tradition

But there is no record of a celebration or feast in honor of Christ’s birth during the first 2 centuries of the church


The Date of Christmas

nativity scene

Objections to celebrating Jesus’ birthday:

At that time only pagans celebrated birthdays

Have no knowledge of the exact date—not even the year, let alone the month and day


The Year of Christ’s Birth

Roman carvings

Most scholars estimate Jesus was born between 4 and 6 BCE.

Why BCE?

Based on the Matthew account of King Herod; we know King Herod died in 4 BCE; so Jesus must have been born before then

stained glass windows


baptism of Jesus

“Epiphany” is the Greek word for “manifestation”; it is the celebration of the time in which Jesus made himself manifest to the world

Debate over whether “Epiphany” applies to Jesus’ birth or baptism


Dates for Jesus’ Birth or Baptism


Clement of Alexandria writes that some have argued that Jesus’ birth was May 20 and others say it was April 19 or 20

Clement also writes of another Egyptian group that celebrated the day of Jesus’ baptism on January 6


Date of Christmas

stained glass window

Egyptian Christians’ celebration of Christ’s baptism on Jan 6 = first celebration of a festival on a date related to Christmas

Possible dates debated in early church for Christmas: Jan 6, March 25 (spring equinox and symbol of new birth), and Dec 25


Why December 25?

Holy family

Julianus Africanus (3rd Cent Christian leader) argued that Jesus became incarnate not on the day of his birth but on the day he was conceived.

Thus if Jesus was conceived on March 25, then he was born on December 25.

December 25 then became the church’s choice of Jesus’ birth day.


Why December 25?


Other reasons for Dec 25:

Replace popular pagan festivals: Dec 25 was the birth day of the sun god (a major feast day in the Roman Empire)

Replace the Feast of Saturnalia, celebrated from Dec 17-23 – a festival with a gift exchange, feasting, games, and often lewd behavior


Dec 25 & Jan 6

Most of the church settled on Dec 25 as the date of celebration

Some of the Eastern churches, though, continued to celebrate Christmas on Jan 6

Jan 6 still had popularity and tradition: in the 4th cent Ephraem suggested a new definition of Epiphany: the arrival of the Magi carving of magi

Epiphany & the Magi

Jan 6 became the feast day to commemorate the coming of the Magi

By early Middle Ages Dec 25 and Jan 6 were the traditional feast days of Christmas Balthassar, Melchior, Caspar

Christmas & Christian Liturgy: Advent Season

At the end of the 6th cent, Pope Gregory I instituted the tradition of masses on the 4 Sundays before Christmas (Advent)

Soon the feast of Mary’s birth was set for Jan 1 (to replace the pagan New Year’s feast)

Feast of Christ’s circumcision (8 days after birth) was also added to the sequence

Epiphany on Jan 6—evolved into the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Dec 25 to Jan 6

St. Nicolas

St. Nicholas

Historical St. Nicholas was born in the late 3rd cent and was a bishop of Myra (SW Asia Minor seaport on the Mediterranean)

Earliest evidence shows that St. Nicholas was designated the patron saint of safe sea voyages.

St. Nicolas

St. Nicholas

Tales of St. Nicholas’s miracles spread and broadened so that he began to be viewed as one who provided aid to those in desperate need

The Medieval ‘cult’ of St. Nicholas grew in popularity

Medieval images of St. Nicholas were much different from modern: ascetic bishop


St. Nicholas to Santa Claus

Washington Irving

American writer Washington Irving (1783-1850) portrayed St. Nicholas as the patron saint of the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (i.e., New York) and a giver of gifts to children

Irving created the Santa Claus who left his horse and wagon and went down chimneys


Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863) created the Santa Claus with a sleigh and 8 reindeer in his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or better known as “The Night Before Christmas”

Clement Moore
cover of Night Before ...

Santa Claus received his most well known image from a Coca-cola advertisement in 1931

selling it
selling it again

Reformation Debates over Christmas

Protestant emphasis on Scripture alone as authoritative led to questioning of several beliefs and practices based upon church traditions, legends and folklore (e.g., NT Apocrypha)

E.g., Catholic information about Mary’s mother, Joseph as a widower, Mary’s perpetual virginity etc., all came from non-biblical sources

Martin Luther

Protestants questioned the following of the cult of St. Nicholas (i.e., against saint feast days and revering saints in general)

Martin Luther advocated a more biblically based Christmas, but ultimately favored keeping much of the traditional celebrations

Puritans in England advocated a much more strict biblicist approach; they objected to the heavy eating and drinking that accompanied the celebrations


Reformation Debates over Christmas

When Puritans gained control of Parliament in 1647, they managed to legally abolish the feast of Christmas. (arrests)

The English public, though, was very upset. When Charles II gained power in 1660, Christmas was once again legalized in England.

Puritan colonies in New England (Plymouth and Massachusetts) had also temporarily outlawed Christmas in 1659. (fines)

Christmas Past & Present


Christmas has a long history as a family holiday and a time of feasting and celebration of Christ’s birth

Big difference between past and present = consumerism

American consumerism (and advertising) especially emphasized the gift-giving aspect, which was not prominent in pre-modern celebrations of Christmas.



G. Sujin Pak, The History of Christmas, Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2011.

Joseph F. Kelley, The Origins of Christmas, Liturgical Press, 2004.

Joseph F. Kelley, The Feast of Christmas, Liturgical Press, 2010.