The Feast of Light
The first recorded celebration of Christmas on December 25th was in the fourth century A.D. At this time the feast was known as the Feast of Light rather than Christmas, a name that was not applied to the feast until the eleventh century. Why was Christmas, the birth of Jesus, initially associated with light?
In the first centuries of the church, it was not the custom to celebrate the physical birthday of a person. The day of death was far more important, for this day marked the person’s “birth” into eternal life. Many of the feasts in the early church were developed to replace the festival days established by the pagan culture of Rome. Since the actual date of the birth of Jesus was not known, this is how the date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus was chosen.
December 25th marked one of the most important feasts in the Roman Empire, the feast of the Deus Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun God). This festival followed right after the winter solstice that occurs on December 21-22. This is the day of least daylight and the longest night of year. This gave the ancient Romans the idea that the sun was being conquered by the forces of darkness. Since the days following the winter solstice gradually become longer, the Romans believed that the sun god had proved itself victorious over the power of darkness. They celebrated this event on December 25th which was known as the feast of Saturnalia. The celebration eventually became a weeklong celebration of eating and drinking.
While the Romans celebrated the life-giving warmth and light of the sun, the early Christians saw Jesus as the true light that gives life to the world. This was substantiated by the gospels: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:3-5) The Hebrew Scriptures also pointed to Jesus as the light of the world: “But you fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays…” (Malachi 3:20) Therefore, as the Romans celebrated the rebirth of the sun god at Saturnalia, the Christians came to celebrate the birth of the true light of the world, Jesus the Christ. In this Christmas season, as you gaze at all the festive lights around the city and you admire the dazzling light of your own Christmas tree, keep in mind the true light of the world – Jesus, our Lord.