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Abdu’l-Baha’s First Christmas

David Langness | Dec 25, 2023

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Dec 25, 2023

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Let me tell you about the magic of Abdu’l-Baha’s first Christmas in England — but before I do, let’s set the stage by exploring the history of the holiday, which few people know or understand.

Have you ever heard of Sextus Julius Africanus?

Abdu’l-Baha
Abdu’l-Baha

A Pagan Soldier Becomes a Christian – and Determines the Date of Christmas

First a pagan soldier in the Roman legions in the late 2nd Century A.D., Sextus Julius Africanus later converted to Christianity and became a widely-traveled Christian historian, teacher, and author. As his last name suggests, he was probably African — likely from the area we now call Libya — although he spoke several languages and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East. 

Sextus Julius Africanus wrote a five-volume history of the world called Chronographiai. As far as anyone knows, no copy has survived — but some of his writing did, through subsequent historians like Eusebius, and they’ve had a major impact on those of us who live in the modern era in at least two ways.

First, he determined the supposed age of the world.

After that, he also determined the exact date of Christmas.

Why Is Christmas on December 25th?

Here’s how he did it: in his five-volume work, Sextus Julius Africanus wrote out the world’s presumptive timeline from the Biblical Genesis story of creation up to the year 221 AD. That time period — painstakingly assembled and calculated from a close reading of all of the genealogical history and the various “begats” in the Torah, the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), and the New Testament — made up exactly 5,723 years, by Africanus’ count. His calculations measured precisely 5500 years between creation and the incarnation (or Annunciation) of Jesus Christ, which placed the immaculate conception of Jesus on March 25th in the year 1 BC. Adding the standard human gestation period of nine months to that conception date gave Africanus December 25th – the day the world now celebrates as Christmas.

Even as far back as the second century AD, no one knew the precise date when the birth of Christ actually took place. Long before the widespread use of calendars, birth certificates, or the observance of regular birthdays, that great distance of time makes exact historical dates impossible to verify. For that reason, Sextus Julius Africanus made his computations. Despite his evidence, some later historians and scientists, including Isaac Newton, believed that the Christian world selected December 25th because the Romans celebrated the Southern winter Solstice on that day, which they called the bruma or the Sol Invictus

But Africanus, who first measured the date with his carefully-calculated Biblical timeline, has now held sway in popular opinion, and on the Gregorian calendar, for eighteen hundred years. His original calculations are the reason we observe the birth of Christ when we do. With the exception of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which usually celebrates Christmas on January 7th in most places, December 25th has become Christmas for the masses — which brings us back to Abdu’l-Baha’s first Christmas.

Electric Avenue, Brixton, London 1911 during the Christmas season
Electric Avenue, Brixton, London 1911 during the Christmas season

How Abdu’l-Baha Celebrated Christmas

Not until 1911, when Abdu’l-Baha initially traveled to the West, did he encounter a modern Western celebration of Christmas. Released from forty years in Ottoman-era exile and imprisonment for being a Baha’i, he came to England from the Middle East, where few celebrated Christmas. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, wrote in his book God Passes By that among his hectic schedule of speeches and meetings and public addresses, Abdu’l-Baha:

…witnessed a performance of “Eager Heart,” a Christmas mystery play at the Church House, Westminster, the first dramatic performance He had ever beheld, and which in its graphic depiction of the life and sufferings of Jesus Christ moved Him to tears.Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By

The drama, written by the English poet and playwright Alice Mary Buckton, who later received Abdu’l-Baha at her home in Byfleet Surrey, tells the tragic story of a woman who fervently prepares for the Christmas visit of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but then vacillates when a homeless refugee family shows up at her door. You can read the play in its original form here.

This description of Abdu’l-Baha’s deeply emotional reaction to Eager Heart, written by Lady Blomfield (one of the co-founders, along with a large contribution from Abdu’l-Baha, of the charitable organization Save the Children) in her book The Chosen Highway, describes a remarkable occurrence:

[Abdu’l-Baha] wept during the scene in which the Holy Child and His parents, overcome with fatigue, and suffering from hunger and thirst, were met with the hesitation of Eager Heart to admit them to the haven of rest which she had prepared, she, of course, failing to recognize the sacred visitors. [Abdu’l-Baha], afterwards, joined the group of players.

It was an arresting scene. In the eastern setting. The Messenger in his eastern robes, speaking to them, in the beautiful eastern words, of the Divine significance of the events which had been portrayed.The Baha’i World, Volume 4, p. 379.

Of course, Abdu’l-Baha was not a messenger of God, not a prophet or a manifestation – in the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, its founder and prophet, occupies that exalted station. However, many people who met Abdu’l-Baha, and experienced his regal humility and his devotion to serving humanity, thought of him that way.

So try to envision that actual Christmas vision, if you can. After the applause ended and the crowd had gone home, on the stage among the play’s backdrops, the son of the world’s newest prophet from the Middle East, dressed in flowing robes, tells the play’s actors about the true travails of Jesus Christ, so much alike and akin to the travails of Baha’u’llah and his own family. 

Just released from four decades of exile and imprisonment, Abdu’l-Baha gathered a group of actors around him and explained the real meaning of Christmas. It’s hard to imagine the conversation they had, but it may have gone something like this passage from Abdu’l-Baha’s writings:

For a single purpose were the Prophets, each and all, sent down to earth; for this was Christ made manifest, for this did Baha’u’llah raise up the call of the Lord: that the world of man should become the world of God, this nether realm the Kingdom, this darkness light, this satanic wickedness all the virtues of heaven – and unity, fellowship and love be won for the whole human race, that the organic unity should reappear and the bases of discord be destroyed and life everlasting and grace everlasting become the harvest of mankind.

Since Baha’is believe that all the prophets of God are one – including Christ – those fortunate actors, rather than relying on the all-too-human interpretations of the meaning and timing of Christmas, literally got to hear it from the source.

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Comments

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  • Ashiyan Ian Rahmani
    Dec 23, 2021
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    Maybe a slightly technical question - but did Abdulbaha have a translator to translate the play as he was watching it? Thanks
  • Charles Boyle
    Dec 20, 2020
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    The traditional story of shepherds watching their flocks by night and lambs scampering suggest more likely a spring date for the birth of Jesus, rather than "In the deep mid-winter".
  • Rochan Mavaddat
    Dec 28, 2019
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    Before the birth of Christianity, one of the mythological religions which had spread in the Roman Empire was Mithraism, Mithras being an important Persian divinity.
    In the Persian Calendar, the birth of Mithras was celebrated on the winter solstice, that is, on 21 December.
    In the year 284, the Roman Emperor chose Mithraism as the official religion of the Empire. It was then that Mithras was named "Sol Invictus Mithras".
    It was with Emperor Constantine, in the year 336, that Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The date of birth of Christ being unknown, the ...date of a feast already celebrated by the people (the birth of Mithras), around December 21, was chosen.
    Read more...
  • Rochan Mavaddat
    Dec 28, 2019
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    If, at the beginning of Christianity, the Christians chose to celebrate the 25 December as the date of birth of Jesus, it is because this date, the Southern winter Solstice, was roughly the date of the birthday of Mithra, an important Persian divinity, Mithraism being very widespread in all the Roman Empire.
  • rodney Richards
    Dec 27, 2019
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    There may be more explanations but appreciated this one by Sextus Julius of the age of the world and Jesus' birth date. A recent survey printed in our local newspaper wrote that 92% of Americans celebrate Christmas, 52% for religious reasons, 40% for secular ones. Whatever the reason, Christ has had a big impact here in America (and elsewhere).
  • Mark David Vinzens
    Dec 25, 2019
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    Christmas is the sign and symbol of universal love. Christmas isn't just for Christians. Christmas is God's embrace of all humanity. The Birth of Christ within us is the deeper meaning. „Were Christ born a thousand times in Bethlehem, and not in thee, thou art lost eternally“, said Angelus Silesius. Wherever there is love, there is Christmas.
  • Glarih Morgan
    Dec 15, 2018
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    Thank you for these inspiring articles!? I truly enjoy reading them. One subtle clarification though is that AbdulBaha lived 40 years in Palestine (the birthplace of Jesus with a huge Christian population then and now). I’m sure this was not his first Christmas:) Christianity is a middle eastern religion and Christmas too.
  • jean-marie nau
    Dec 25, 2017
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    How inspiring that Abdu'l-Baha should have assisted in 1911 at a performance of 'Eager Heart', a Christmas mystery play at the Church House, Westminster. Would he have heard the melody from the carol, now known as 'God rest ye merry gentlemen', found at the beginning of the play, but certainly not this version: https://youtu.be/ku7ohU1IGls, maybe more like this: https://youtu.be/FlfHyb397VY
    Let's see if we can find out more about this event.
    • jean-marie nau
      Dec 25, 2017
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      It seeems to have been on 21 or 22 dec 1912: https://bahai-library.com/location/Westminster
  • Lorine Dolin-James
    Dec 26, 2015
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    I generally enjoy these articles. This one left me a little unsettled. Especially, I enjoyed the story about Abdu'l-Baha and his Christmas in England. Though there are so many stories about the origin of Christmas, i found this one, that was new to me, very interesting, but nt convincing... It is my understanding is that the Immaculate Conception is that of Mary, being free of original sin. Here in Nicaragua, it is a National holiday on Dec 8.
    • Jan 22, 2016
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      A Catholic friend pointed out I was using "Immaculate Conception" and "virgin birth" interchangeably. Lorine points out the correct definition.
      Immaculate Conception is the birth of Mary without original sin, so she can give birth to the sinless Jesus.
      The virgin birth describes the birth of Jesus without a human father.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immaculate_Conception
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