| Welcome to Global Village Space

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Christmas: Faith and festivity Kaleidoscope of history

A prominent journalist and a vocal member of Pakistan’s Christian community looks at Christmas' history and explains the origins of Christmas day festivities.

Jester Hairston’s rapturous 1956 Christmas lyrics, “Mary’s Boy Child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas Day”, was initially sung to calypso by Henry Belafonte. Boney M’s worldwide interpretation and the classic “Jingle Bells” have already started hitting impoverished Christian neighborhoods across the country as millions of Pakistani Christians, who hardly understand these English lyrics, are rocking to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Christmas stockings, colorful lights, wreaths made of evergreen trees, glittering tinsel, Santa Claus, and singing of joyful carols are all part of Christian family and church life. Christmas trees and a decorated manger with three wise men, harping angels, and shepherds are decorated by devout hands in churches, street corners of Christian neighborhoods, and center-pieces in homes.

Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day as was the Jewish custom. As such, for many Christians, the New Year, which falls on the eighth day from Christmas, is also an important religious festival, so celebrations go on until the dawn of New Year. Christmas is central to the Christian liturgical calendar.

Biblical historians Joan Taylor and Helen Bond believe that “Mary was the name of almost a quarter of the female population” when Jesus was born. In this historical setting, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea.

Pakistani Christians heavily borrow celebrations of the festival from the West, they call it Bardha Din (Big Day) in Urdu. Eric Sarwar, a doctoral student of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary, United States, says that the same term is used in Bangladesh as Shubh Borrodin and in Nepal as Badda Dinko Shuvkamnaa.

“Preparations begin in the first week of December. Houses are painted and decorated. New clothes are bought. Families and friends gather. Everybody has a good time singing Christmas carols and watching amazing performances of the Christmas story that the kids perform for their families or in church”, Sarwar tells how Pakistani Christians honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus.

But looking at Christmas from a historical perspective reveals that it was a pre-Christian festival as were some of the rituals attached to it, but these are now respected within the Christian faith. Christians, nonetheless, believe that historical details cannot change the truths of their core beliefs. In any case, everybody has a party!

Truth is unambiguous for believers, but the historical date serves the purpose of ensuring a common, universal celebration for all Christians. Forbes magazine notes that “People have, for thousands of years, celebrated astronomical markers that help them regulate things in their lives, like agriculture”.

Western tradition places Christmas at the winter solstice, December 22, the shortest day of the year. After three days, from December 25 onwards, days start getting longer. Many believe Christmas replaced the ancient Roman festival of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun that dies on December 22 and emerges victorious over death and darkness on December 25.

Jesus: The Promised Messiah Comes

The New Testament informs that Jesus was miraculously born to Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, the Holy Land of Israel. It is stressed that Jesus was the promised Messiah (The Christ or The Anointed One) of the Hebrew Scriptures and the promised King of the Jews, who was to restore the golden Jewish age.

Biblical records show that the first Israelite state was established in Canaan in 1050 B.C. This state was ruled by King David and later succeeded by his son King Solomon. The Star of David also called the Seal of Solomon on the Israeli flag represents this biblical tradition.

Read more: A Meeting on Christmas Night Dacca, 25 Dec 1962

There is archeological evidence available of this Jewish monarchy. In 1993, an excavation team, directed by Israeli archaeologist Avraham Biran, discovered a fragment of a ninth-century B.C. stela, containing the inscription “House of David”. This is considered the first historical evidence of King David’s reign. Biblical scholars believe that the Ancient Near East kings, including those of ancient Israel, were governed by suzerainty treaties.

Britannica Encyclopedia on biblical covenants tells that about “the beginning of the late Bronze Age (c. 1500 BCE), there occurred a major step forward in both the form and the concept of political covenants as is attested by treaties of the Hittite empire of Asia Minor.”


It further notes that the “structure of the Hittite treaties now makes available a historical precedent that enables scholars to understand the structure of early Israelite thought and consequently its functional operation in history.” Political, as well as social treaties (also called covenant or testament) were so important during biblical times in the Ancient Near East, that the major division of Christian Bible is described as the “New Testament” and the “Old Testament”.

The Israelites believed that Yahweh (God) was their sovereign King, and the earthy king was only his vicegerent. The Hittite suzerain-vassal covenant described the relationship between the “greater king” and the “lesser king” as the “Master” and “Servant”, or “Father” and “Son”.

In the case of Israelites, the suzerain king was not any neighboring superpower but Yahweh Himself and the vassal was the king chosen from Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The chief priest from the tribe of Levi distinguished the king by anointing him with holy oil.

The Roman Empire also detested Jesus’ followers because of their belief that Jesus was King and was alive, who ruled the land of Israel. This meant they preferred Jesus over Caesar—a treasonous claim threatening the empire’s stability.

This essential ritual gave him the title of The Anointed One or Messiah (source of the Urdu surname Masih), translated in Greek as Χριστός, (Christós), or the Christ. Hence, the king of Israel was also titled the “Servant of God”, the “Son of God”, the “Son of David” and “the Christ” or the “Messiah”. The Israelite kingdom could not stay united for long and was divided into two states—Israel and Judah.

Over centuries, these states fell into the hands of their neighboring powers, Assyria, Persia, Babylonia, Greeks, and then Romans. The tribe of Benyamin (Benjamin) was united with Judah and was collectively known as Jewish tribe while the other ten tribes lost and got mixed with other nations. The Jews believed that they lost their state because of “disobedience” to their sovereign king, Yahweh.

They referred to several Old Testament scriptures (Torah, Psalms, and the books of the Prophets), which prophesied that the Israelite kingdom would be restored when The Anointed One or Messiah would appear and break the “yoke” of slavery. Jews believed that the promised Messiah would be born to a virgin named “Maryam”.

Biblical historians Joan Taylor and Helen Bond believe that “Mary was the name of almost a quarter of the female population” when Jesus was born. In this historical setting, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea.

Jerusalem: The City of David, the City of Jesus

Soon after birth, the baby Jesus, as the canonical gospels say, was brought to Jerusalem and was presented in the Holy Temple. David Miller Gunn, Professor of Religion at Texas Christian University in his article Next Year in Jerusalem: Bible, Identity and Myth on the Web, that King David captured Jerusalem in 1003 B.C. from the Canaanite people called Jebusites and then made it capital of Israel.

King Solomon then built the first Holy Temple during his reign. The city became central to the Jewish religious life. When Jews were taken into Babylonian captivity (BC 587-BC 538), they were longing to go back to Jerusalem (synonymous with Zion).

Read more: PIA celebrates Christmas mid-flight

Boney M’s other famous performance is “By the River of Babylon”, Psalm 137 expresses this Jewish love for Jerusalem: By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

There is no mention of how Jesus lived his life until he reached the age of 30 and began his mission, except one incident. The gospel according to Luke tells that when Jesus was 12-years old he was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the New Testament, Jesus was thirty years when he began his mission.

Many important works was carried out by Jesus in Jerusalem. He lived for thirty-three years and then was crucified for claiming to be the promised king of Israel, the Son of God. At the time of the crucifixion, the Romans affixed a sign on the cross “King of the Jews” to show his crime. This is often placed on every crucifix as an acronym IRNI, which in Latin is Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum.

According to the New Testament, he was crucified at Golgotha (or Calvary), immediately outside the city wall of Jerusalem. (Hence, an important site for both Jews and Christians. It is in this background the US moved its embassy in May to Jerusalem and declared the city as the capital of Israel)

Origins of Christmas under the Roman Empire

By the early first century, the Holy Land was being ruled by the Romans. The Jews were groaning under the Romans and were yearning for the restoration of King David’s golden era. Christianity started as a Jewish sect with a handful of followers.

Judea was ruled by the Romans but it was still under the influence of Greek or Hellenistic culture. So, rather than in Latin, the language of the Romans, or Aramaic (the language Jesus Christ spoke), the authors of the New Testament chose Greek to record the Good News (Latin gospel, but Greek euángelos from where the word “angel” and Arabic word “Injeel” are derived) of Jesus’ mission.

The BBC section on “Religion and Ethics” notes that two thousand years ago “Io Saturnalia” and not “Merry Christmas” was the seasonal greeting that “chimed out across most of Europe” on December 25.

The Jews resented the Christians because of their belief that prophecies for the Messiah and the King of the Jews had been fulfilled in Jesus. The Roman Empire also detested Jesus’ followers because of their belief that Jesus was King and was alive, who ruled the land of Israel.

This meant they preferred Jesus over Caesar—a treasonous claim threatening the empire’s stability. These Christians even rejected the central Roman ritual of sacrifice and refused to sprinkle frankincense on the altar that honored the emperor. The empire sought a reason to teach these Christians a lesson and blamed them for the famous A.D. 64 Fire of Rome.

After this, the persecution of Christians began. They were arrested, skinned alive, thrown to lions, and were tortured to death in Roman arenas. In A.D. 70, the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple and city of Jerusalem to crush both Jews and Christians. For about two hundred years, Christians lived in the shadows, hiding from state-sponsored persecution because of their beliefs but, at last, the Roman Empire fell in their feet.

In A.D. 312, the Roman emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity and, in the following year, he, along with Emperor Licinius, issued the historic Edict of Milan, which assured complete “religious tolerance” towards Christianity. Britannica Encyclopedia notes that Constantine, titled the Great, openly credited his “political success to the grace of a Christian God.

He played a major role in spreading Christianity by legalizing its practice and fiscally supporting the church’s activities”. Constantine also summoned the Christian Councils of Arles (314) and Nicaea (325), which played the most important role in shaping Christian doctrine, ritual, liturgy, and church polity. All well, but there was one drawback.

Read more: Religious harmony in a time of fear-James M Dorsey

Making Christianity the religion of the state, melded the Greco-Roman culture into the Christian religious tradition and the celebration of birth of Jesus Christ. “Roman mid-winter festival of misrule has heavily influenced many Christmas traditions – including the time of year we celebrate”.

The BBC section on “Religion and Ethics” notes that two thousand years ago “Io Saturnalia” and not “Merry Christmas” was the seasonal greeting that “chimed out across most of Europe” on December 25. This does not mean Christians did not place any importance to the birth of Christ before the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion.

Dr. Elesha J. Coffman, an Assistant Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline says, “To us, Christmas and December are inseparable. But for the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn’t in December—or on the calendar anywhere”.

Around A.D. 200, one of the early great Apostolic Fathers, Clement of Alexandria noted that “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth but also the day, and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] … Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21]”. Writing for Christianity Today, Coffman notes: “If observed at all, the celebration of Christ’s birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church’s earliest established feasts.

Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Origen (c.185-c.254) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan Gods”. Similarly, the Romans believed that evergreen plants were the “ancient symbol of life in the midst of winter”.

Away from this historicity and the ongoing debate in the West about how to greet on Christmas Day or if the Christmas tree could be publicly displayed, the Pakistani Christians celebrate it as a joyous holiday and a solemn religious festival.

Dr. Edwin Woodruff Tait, editor at the Christian History magazine, and his wife Jennifer Tait write in the Christianity Today article that “Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year … The second-century theologian Tertullian condemned those Christians who celebrated the winter festivals, or decorated their houses with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor: Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable.

You are a light of the world, and a tree evergreen. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple”. Tait believed that this practice gained currency by the early Middle Ages, but “this did not mean that the worship of pagan gods themselves was tolerated.


According to one legend, the eighth-century missionary Boniface, after cutting down an oak tree sacred to the pagan god Thor (and used for human sacrifice), pointed to a nearby fir tree instead as a symbol of the love and mercy of God”. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that the modern Christmas tree originated in Germany. “The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a ‘paradise tree’, a fir tree hung with apples, [which] represented the Garden of Eden.

The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve”. But unlike most Christmas traditions, Santa Claus has a Christian connection. Fourth-century Greek bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra, from present-day Turkey, was famous for his generosity towards poor and needy. The tradition of Santa Claus giving gifts to children was developed around St. Nicholas’ generosity.

“Merry Christmas” as Message of Peace in Modern World

The modern colonial era, roughly starting from 1500 and lasting until 1900, spread Christianity to every part of the world and introduced the Christmas festivities around the globe. Today, there are about 2 billion Christians in the world who celebrate Christmas. Consumerism has commercialized Christmas in western capitalistic economies.

Also, the festival has now started gaining currency as a seasonal holiday in the West. There is a growing call for – from some non-Christians – to supplant the Christmas greeting with “happy holidays”, ironically not knowing that even the term holiday comes from “holy day”.

Read more: ‘Why just crackers? Ban Muharram bloodshed too’: Chetan Bhagat

In 2017, a PEW Research Center survey found that “most U.S. adults believe the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less now than in the past … (and) a growing share of Americans say it does not matter to them how they are greeted in stores and businesses during the holiday season”.

During the 2015 presidential campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump told his Iowa voters that “I’m a good Christian. If I become president, we’re gonna be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store. You can leave ‘Happy Holidays’ at the corner”.

Away from this historicity and the ongoing debate in the West about how to greet on Christmas Day or if the Christmas tree could be publicly displayed, the Pakistani Christians celebrate it as a joyous holiday and a solemn religious festival. Eric Sarwar says that December 25 is a joyful day celebrating Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became incarnate. “If possible, Pakistani Christians who live and work in foreign countries come back to celebrate this day with their families”.

Asif Aqeel is a prominent journalist, researcher and writer, and a vocal member of Pakistan’s Christian community. His area of work is “Marginality & Exclusion” with a focus on religious minorities. Apart from Christians, his research includes “Brahmanic Caste System” and its challenges to Pakistan’s poor Hindu minorities. Asif holds degrees in MSc Sociology and MPhil in Public Policy and Governance and his MPhil thesis was “Post-Partition Rural to Urban Mass Migration and Subsequent Illegal Settlements of Punjabi Christians and their Adoption of the Sweeping Occupation in Pakistan.” Asif has worked with the Daily Times and Express24/7 and several non-government organizations. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.