(Post 2 of a series of 4)
With yesterday’s post I began a series on the origins of the traditions of our Christmas holiday. That post explained the winter solstice and the Roman holiday known as Saturnalia. Now, with today’s post, I need to say some things about a Roman emperor named Constantine.
Constantine became one of the emperors of the Roman empire in the year 306. Six years later, in 312, he found himself at a pivotal point in his war against his brother-in-law and co-emperor, Maxentius. According to the historian Eusebius, it was on the day before a crucial battle at Milvian Bridge that Constantine prayed to God and asked for divine assistance.
As the story goes, Constantine then saw in the noonday sky a vision of a cross of light. The cross was superimposed upon the sun and written on the cross were the words in Latin “in this sign you will conquer.” That night Constantine had a dream that reaffirmed his vision. Supposedly, in the dream, God told him to use the sign of the cross in all of his battles. So, the next day Constantine added the sign of the cross to his flags, and his army went on to win the battle at Milvian Bridge.
A short time after that, in 313, emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. That Edict made Christianity legal throughout Constantine’s empire. This meant that Christianity went from being a despised and persecuted religion (which is where the New Testament record leaves it) to being an accepted and even highly favored part of Roman religion.
The fact is, over the years of his reign, Constantine took Christianity even further than that. With the help of the bishops of the church in Rome, he made Christianity nothing less than the state religion of the Roman empire. He lavished gifts upon Christian leaders. He made Sunday a holiday so that people, especially his soldiers, could attend church. He made Christian clergy exempt from government duty. He made churches tax-exempt. He even personally funded the construction of several lavish, ornate church buildings. In Constantine’s view, his Rome and the Christian church should be as close as possible.
All of this, of course, ultimately helped to bring about the financial, political, and religious empire that we know as the Roman Catholic Church. And therein lies the great debate about Constantine. Was he, as some contend, a true Christian who was used by God to greatly serve the cause of Christianity? Or was he, as others contend, a lost man who was deceived by Satan and greatly used by Satan to corrupt Christianity? The answer you get depends upon who you ask.
One of the most serious problems that people have with Constantine’s supposed salvation is in the area of how he handled Rome’s pagan festivals. Rather than outlawing those festivals, Constantine, with the help of the bishops of the church in Rome, “Christianized” them. A prime example of this is what happened with Saturnalia and the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. Rather than forbidding the observance of those days of pagan celebration, Constantine and the bishops simply changed the meaning of the days. The festival of Saturnalia, which ran from December 17th through December 24th, went from being about the birth of the sun to be about the birth of the Son. Likewise, December 25th changed from being the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun to being the birthday of the Son of God.
Please don’t think that December 25th is our best guess for the actual date of Christ’s birth. The Bible doesn’t tell us the exact date of His birth, but we can say with virtual certainty that it wasn’t December 25th. We can say that because the Bible does tell us that those shepherds and their sheep were out in the fields that night. In Israel the month of December is usually cold and rainy. During that month, shepherds normally keep their sheep penned up in sheepfolds. Furthermore, Luke chapter two says that Joseph and Mary made their trip to Bethlehem to register for the purpose of paying taxes to the Roman government. Such registrations weren’t usually decreed during the cold winter months because travel was just too difficult. Nevertheless, despite these Biblical roadblocks, Constantine and the bishops of Rome went ahead and made December 25th the official date that was given to Christ’s birth.
So what am I saying? I’m saying that the very idea of a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus was really just a way to claim Saturnalia and December 25th for Christianity. I’m saying that the idea of the world annually celebrating December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth came from the mind of Constantine and the bishops of Rome. I’m saying that it was Constantine and those bishops who linked the celebration of Christ’s birth up with days off from work, parties, evergreen wreaths, and the exchanging of gifts. And that’s where I’ll leave the story until my next post.