With this post we are fully into the advent season. The day many of us celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is fast approaching. And yet, have you ever wondered why we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th? Do we really know the exact day? Perhaps even in the darker corners of your mind you may be thinking, “If we don’t know, and if the Bible doesn’t say anything about the early church honoring this event, should we even be celebrating Christmas?”
Historians present two possible theories as to why early Christendom celebrated Jesus’ birth on December 25th: the Christianizing of the pagan festival of Saturnalia, or the linking of Christ’s death on the 14th day of Nisan to his conception on the same day, an exact number of years earlier.
The most loudly touted theory was that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated. (1)
The trouble with this theory is that early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. 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 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. (2)
There are problems with this popular theory. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E. (1)
The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion. The second theory proposes the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25 (1)
Of course, this dating assumes an exact 9-month gestation period, which we know can vary from 36 – 40 weeks for a healthy birth. It also assumes Jesus lived a complete number of years (no fraction of a year) with the virgin conception on the same day as Jesus’ death. Not impossible, but not probable, and certainly nothing in early historical writing that proves it.
So, in the final analysis, we really don’t know the day Jesus Christ was born.
But what of the Bible? Surely the celebration of Jesus’ birth is mentioned as part of its accounting of the early church, in Acts or the epistles.
Actually, it’s not.
The celebration of Jesus’ birth is not specifically mentioned as something we should or must do. Nor does the Bible specifically mention that it is something we are prohibited from doing. So which is it? Actually, there’s a third category: those things that we are permitted to do.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor…. So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. 1 Cor 10:23-24, 31-33 (ESV)
The key is our motivation. Are we celebrating Christmas to build up ourselves? Or to build up others and to glorify God? Are you giving gifts to get some in return? Or are you giving gifts to show the appreciation you have for others that God has placed in your life AND to point toward Jesus, the greatest gift God could ever bestow on His children? Are you hosting a party to improve your standing among a group of people? Or are you hosting an event to bless those around you, perhaps even those less fortunate, AND to point to Jesus, our Bread and Water of Life, a life that he gives in abundance?
So celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, as when most do, but with the right motivation. Just because we don’t know the exact day of Jesus’ physical birth does not change the fact that he was born. There’s plenty in the Old and New Testament that attest to this fact. Not only this, we know He lived a sinless life, died, was buried, and rose again, not only to pay our sin debt, but to impart righteousness. What a wonderful time of the year, in your giving and in your hospitality, to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ!
(1) McGowan, Andrew (2014-08-12). How December 25 Became Christmas. Bible History Daily – Biblical Archaeology Society. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/ Accessed 17 December 2014
(2) A gloss on a manuscript of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Talley, Origins, pp. 101–102.