Hello My Friend and Welcome.
Ask a dozen people, “Why is Christmas on December 25th?” and you’re likely to end up with a variety of answers none of which is, “Well, because that’s the day Jesus was born.”
Any skeptics in the group will argue that Christ was definitely NOT born on December 25th. You’ve heard their justifications. After all, everyone knows religion is nothing but myth and superstition. A single story told and retold around the world according to mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The Myth of the Church Adopting and Assimilating
As the Church grew and came into its own, according to the prevailing consensus, it began adopting and assimilating left and right. No matter where these early Church Fathers went, the first thing they did was incorporate the local pagan beliefs and holidays into Christianity. After all, how else could they make their message appeal to the masses? Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus. It was derived from the solstice traditions of the ancient Babylonians…or was it the Assyrians? No, maybe it was the Persians or the Medes, the Greeks…the Romans, the Egyptians, the Norse, the Celts, the Druids, the…the… On and on it goes. It seems the only ones who haven’t been credited with originating Christmas are the Mayans and the Aztecs. And, given enough time, they may still make it into the big leagues.
Calculating the Solstices and Equinoxes
There’s one thing that needs to be understood. Nearly all early cultures had strong traditions built around the Solstices and Equinoxes. They had to. There was no such thing as Greenwich Mean Time for them and calendars were ephemeral things. Day length varied from long to short and back again. Driven by the moon, months, and the festivals associated with them, started moving around if not carefully watched.
Meanwhile, critical factors such as the correct time to plant had to be known with certainty. Without phone, fax, or email and saddled with a calendar that demanded constant tinkering, the only dependable measure of time lay in the heavens. Even the American Indians carefully tracked the solstices. It allowed them to predict the migration patterns of game animals, attend pre-arranged councils, and meet at specific times and places to trade with other tribes.
Should anyone be surprised that most ancient cultures had winter festivals of one sort or another? No, the greater surprise would be if they didn’t. But if the early Christians didn’t piggyback their Feast Days onto someone else’s, how in the world did they arrive at a suitable date?
Turning to the Bible
The Bible offers few clues. Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or in Acts and the date of his birth is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season. Yet we have to be cautious when extracting precise meanings from what is generally a theological narrative.
This is also a good place to point out that references to cold and snow in Christmas Carols such as The First Noel, “On a cold winter’s night that was so deep…” or Still, Still, Still, “One can hear the falling snow…” are the result of moving an event which occurred in the Middle East to the less temperate climes of Northern Europe.
Christmas Wasn't a Big Deal
In reality, the first Christians cared little about when Jesus was born. There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of the Christian Fathers such as Irenaeus or Tertullian. Origen of Alexandria even mocks the Roman celebration of birthdays, calling them pagan practices. Everything seems to indicate that Jesus’ birth was not even celebrated by the Early Christian believers; their focus remained squarely on, as Paul said, “Christ crucified.”
The earliest writings, Paul and Mark, make no mention of Jesus’ birth. Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide accounts of the event although, unlike the Passion narrative, neither attempts to anchor it in time. Further details of Jesus’ childhood don’t appear until the Second Century in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James. And, though they provide the names of Jesus’ grandparents and details of his education, they ignore the issue of his birth date.
The Truth of the Matter
Perhaps there is a different, and better, way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25th — the Jewish tradition that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early Second Century rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date. Rabbi Eliezer states, “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born...and in Nisan they (the Patriarchs) will be redeemed in time to come.” The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.
Could it be that the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies? Could Jesus have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later?
Turning to the Church Fathers
Around the mid-3rd Century,Tertullian reported his calculation that the 14th of Nisan, the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John, equated to March 25th in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25th, which comes nine months before December 25th, was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation, the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. If the ancient Christians believed that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year, then the logical thing to do would be to establish his day of birth exactly nine months later…on December 25th.
This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. It states, “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March (March 25th), which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived and on the same he suffered.”
Augustine, too, was familiar with this idea. In On the Trinity he wrote, “For he is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”
The Bottom Line or East meets West
If you remain skeptical, consider one final point. The Eastern Church also links the dates of Jesus’ conception and his death. However, instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, Orthodox scholars used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar, which corresponds to April 6th. April 6th is, of course, precisely nine months before January 6th, the date on which the Eastern Church celebrates Christmas.
There is evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion in the East. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6th, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.” Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, rather than the 6th) and Christmas on January 6th.
Multiple Dates Same Process
Here we have Christians in two parts of the world both calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25th or April 6th) and coming up with two close but different results for his birth (December 25th and January 6th). Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way may seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects the ancient belief of the whole of salvation being bound up together.
Where do the Stories Come From?
This begs the question, what about all those stories of Christmas being adapted from pagan holidays? In cases such as this it’s sometimes helpful to ask yourself, “Who benefits from such a theory?” Clearly such ideas bolster those who seek to disprove Christianity’s claims about Jesus and the saving grace He offers to mankind. One might even go so far as to say that the ultimate beneficiary of such a claim would be the Evil One, the Father of Lies, the Prince of Darkness, in short, the Devil.
I want to emphasize that the purpose of this treatise, or is it a rant, is not to insist that Jesus was absolutely, positively, definitely born on December 25th. In all likelihood, he wasn’t. Not because the early Church appropriated pagan holidays, but because the cycle of lambing, and therefore the time when shepherds might be out in the fields, moves the estimated birth date into very early spring. So let’s recap. Jesus may not have been born on December 25th, but the selection of that date by the Early Church Fathers was grounded in logic and tradition that was independent of pagan rites and rituals and is entirely defensible on that basis.
Interestingly enough, the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set to coincide with the time of pagan feasts didn’t surface until the 12th Century. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6th to December 25th so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars developed the study of comparative religions and picked up on this idea. They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.
Now you know better.
Next time, we'll take a look at the second gift the Wise Men brought, Frankincense.
Until then, I wish you Peace and Blessings
If you reached this post via a link, click HOME to see other posts and our archives.
If you reached this post via a link, click HOME to see other posts and our archives.