History of Christian Holidays



What is the Origin of Christian Holidays?

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Holidays appear to have been a part of Christianity from the beginning, with the Lord's Day and Easter being the oldest holidays. The earliest Christians encouraged the observance of holidays as a way to be reminded of important spiritual things.

Origen of Alexandria verified the observance of several holidays, and explained them as being especially useful to the simple believer:

We ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days. For example, there is the Lord's Day, the Preparation, Easter, and Pentecost....The majority of those who are accounted believers... require some sensible memorials to prevent spiritual things from passing completely away from their minds. For they are either unable or unwilling to keep every day in this manner. {1}

The early church fathers were also careful to emphasize that Christian holidays should be very unlike pagan holidays. They were to be characterized by solemnity and decorum, in sharp contrast to the riotousness of pagan celebrations. Origen pointed out in defense of Christianity:

Compare the festivals that are observed among us... with the public feasts of Celsus and the pagans. Would you not say that ours are much more sacred observances than those feasts in which the lust of the flesh runs riot and leads to drunkenness and debauchery? {2}





Pagan Celebrations

Even more important to these early writers was that Christians stay away from pagan celebrations themselves, disobedience of which seems to have been a rather common occurance. Tertullian, writing circa 200 AD, complains:

The Saturnalia and New Year's and Midwinter's festivals and Matronalia are frequented - presents come and go - New Year's gifts - games join their noise - banquets join their din! Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect.... Not the Lord's Day, not Pentecost, even if they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians. Yet we are not apprehensive lest we seem to be heathens! {3}

Despite this early concern about paganism infiltrating Christianity, it seems that Christians began to develop a different perspective on the matter of pagan holidays. Rather than seen as a threat to Christianity, pagan holidays and customs came to be viewed as a way to encourage and ease conversion to Christianity.

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References
  1. Against Celsus 22, 23, Ante-Nicene Fathers 4.647-48 (c. 248 AD).
  2. Against Celsus 23, Ante-Nicene Fathers 4.648 (c. 248 AD).
  3. On Idolatry, Ante-Nicene Fathers 3.70.