The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition offers these insights:
Christmas [Christ's Mass], in the Christian calendar, feast of the nativity of Jesus, celebrated in Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches on Dec. 25.
Roman Catholicism goes all the way back to the fourth century. Let's see what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to offer on the topic of Christmas:
The word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038, and Cristes-messe, in 1131.
So we know the English term "Christmas" dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries. How far back does the event itself go?
Christmas- celebrated by early believers?
The Catholic Encyclopedia also provides the following:
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.
"Birthdays of the gods"... hmmm. What does Scripture have to say about birthday celebrations? There are only 3 references to birthday celebrations found in Scripture:
Genesis 40:20 This verse refers to Pharaoh's birthday. We find in this passage of Scripture that the Pharaoh's baker dies as a consequence of the events of Pharaoh's birthday. It is the only mention of a birthday celebration in the Torah.
Matthew 14:6 and Mark 6:21 These parallel verses refer to Herod's birthday. The related passages record the dancing of the daughter of Herodias and the subsequent death of Yochanan the Immerser [John the Baptist].
Interesting. There are only two birthday celebration events recorded in Scripture and both involve death. Food for thought. Back to the topic at hand...
The earliest recorded evidence
The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.21) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron., II, 397, n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.]
The Catholic Encyclopedia here states that Messiah was born in the ninth month. Catholicism implemented the Gregorian calendar now used by most of the world. The ninth month in the Gregorian calendar is September during which the Biblical festival of Sukkot occurs. Some have suggested that Yeshua was born during Sukkot and here we possibly find additional support for such a claim.
Additional notes from the Catholic Encyclopedia reveal that the tradition was shifted to a December date in the 5th century:
John Cassian records in his "Collations" (X, 2 in P.L., XLIX, 820), written 418-427, that the Egyptian monasteries still observe the "ancient custom"; but on 29 Choiak (25 December) and 1 January, 433, Paul of Emesa preached before Cyril of Alexandria, and his sermons (see Mansi, IV, 293; appendix to Act. Conc. Eph.) show that the December celebration was then firmly established there, and calendars prove its permanence. The December feast therefore reached Egypt between 427 and 433.
The Columbia Encyclopedia concurs and provides some additional notes:
The observance probably does not date earlier than AD 200 and did not become widespread until the 4th cent. The date was undoubtedly chosen for its nearness to Epiphany, which, in the East, originally included a commemoration of the nativity. The date of Christmas coincides closely with the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere, a time of rejoicing among many ancient cultures.
In England after the Reformation the observance became a point of contention between Anglicans and other Protestants, and the celebration of Christmas was suppressed in Scotland and in much of New England until the 19th cent.
1) Christmas and its traditional trappings are not mentioned in Scripture. 2) The origins of its name are related to a specific Roman Catholic mass. 3) The tradition of Christmas did not begin until the second or third century. 4) One of the original dates observed in Egypt was in May rather than in December.