Christ was born on Christmas Day, or so goes the 14th century hymn translated by John Mason Neale. But December 25th hasn’t always been the date when Christ’s birth was celebrated by the church. The questions surrounding the date of Christmas Day are fascinating and involve a great deal more history, tradition and detective work than you might imagine.
Here are a few of the arguments pro and con a December 25 date for Jesus’ birthday:
The first recorded date for the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 comes from a small book sometimes known as the Chronography of 354. This book lists births and deaths of various bishops and martyrs and as the traditional date for Christmas marked as December 25.
One popular revisionist take on Christmas is that the holiday was based on the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. This was a harvest festival traditionally celebrated for seven days starting on December 17. The celebration involved festive attire, giving small gifts like dolls and candles, and acts of goodwill such as a landowner paying the rent of poor tenants. While all of this does indeed sound pretty Christmas-y, some historians think Saturnalia was a kind of fringe celebration by the time the Church adopted the December date.
Birth of the Sun God
Saturnalia was bumped from the Roman calendar of festival days by the Mithraic celebration of Sol Invictus. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, The Sun God had supplanted the position of Jupiter as the head of the Roman Pantheon. The birth of the Sun God was celebrated on December 25, the date of the winter solstice.
The Roman emperor Constantine was brought up in the Sol traditions and was a worshipper of Sol Invictus . The fact that Constantine eventually became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire provides some circumstantial evidence behind Sol Invictus as the origin of Christmas.
Shepherd and Their Flocks
The Bible itself seems to give us evidence that December 25 was unlikely to be Christ’s true birthday. Some scholars settle on mid-September for the most likely birthday for Jesus. The argument goes like this:
1) Shepherds would not have been tending their flocks in the fields at night any later than October. Cold winter weather would have required them to move the sheep to pens closer to town.
2) Jesus was born six months after his cousin John the Baptist. It can be determined from the biblical text when John’s father Zechariah served as a priest, roughly from May to June. A little middle-school level math gives you a September-ish date for Christ’s birth.
3) Herod wouldn’t have likely put the census during Chanuka. A known hater of the Hasmoneans, Herod was not a big fan of the Feast of Lights. Some scholars think it more likely that he would have chosen September’s celebration of Sukot for the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
Backdating from Jesus Death
There’s an interesting argument that establishes Christ’s birth on December 25 well before the time of Constantine, suggesting that the traditional date was in place before pagan influences put the date on the calendar.
1) Creation of the world. Traditions put the date as March 25, the date of the vernal equinox.
2) Date of Christ’s conception. The traditional date for the Feast of the Annunciation (and thereby the date Christ was conceived) is March 25.
4) Some traditions believe that prophets tend to die on the exact date that they were conceived. Thus they exit the world at the same time they entered it.
So there we have it, early traditions had a number of ways to establish March 25 as the date Jesus was conceived. Nine months later you get…Christmas Day on December 25.
Conspiracy of Meaning
Until we invent a time machine there is no way to know for certain what calendar date marks the true birth date of Jesus of Nazareth. But all of these theories and speculations provide a lot of food for thought. Follow any of these rabbit trails and you start learning a lot of amazing things about early Church history and the depth of thought of early Church founders.