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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Why December 25th?

Skeptics and purists alike are quick to point out that December 25th is not Jesus's birthday. Indeed, the singularly most common answer given from all sides as to why Christians celebrate the birth of our Savior on December 25th is that the early church was simply redeeming a pagan holiday. That answer is everywhere. It is true ... right? Maybe not.

The truth is that the Bible tells us nothing at all about what time of year Jesus was born. Oh, there are hints. There were, for instance, shepherds in the field. That is not a year-round occurrence. Some suggest it was lambing season, then, but we can't even be sure of that. That sort of thing. But, while we know quite certainly that Jesus died during the Passover celebration and, thus, have a good idea when that happened, we have very little to go on for His birth.

And the truth is that the first three centuries of the church saw nothing of celebrations of Jesus's birth. Oh, that's not because they didn't know. I mean, we don't know if they knew when. It's just that cultures in those days didn't celebrate birth days. Origen even mocked Roman birthday celebrations as pagan practices. They recognized death days. So Jesus's death and resurrection were recognized annually (and, in fact, every Lord's Day), but not His birth.

Around 200 AD, some started to guess at a birthdate. May 20th was one choice, March 21st another, followed by a couple in April (15th and 21st). No one was sure. But by 400 AD two dates took center stage. In the Roman Empire it was December 25th and in the East it was January 6th.

So we're back to the question. Why December 25th? Well, as I said, the most common answer is that the Roman Saturnalia festival took place then. Add to that, Roman emperor Aurelian established it as the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. So to synchronize and evangelize, the church took that time of celebration as their own. "Come on, Stan, everyone knows that."

Maybe. What they don't know are the problems with that theory. For instance, no surviving early church writing makes that connection. All their writings indicate that the pagans were stealing from Jesus's birth, not vice versa. The modern claim doesn't occur until the 12th century. And the theory is problematic because the church in the early centuries was insistent that they distance themselves from pagan observances so as to avoid even the slightest hint of tainting.

So is there another possible explanation? Yes, as it turns out. Early church writings suggested that Jesus was conceived and died on the same day of the year. Tertullian suggested the date was March 25th. The Catholics celebrate the Feast of Annunciation on March 25th for that reason. Augustine repeated the claim in his treatise, On the Trinity. And, of course, 9 months from March 25th is December 25th. So Augustine wrote December 25th as the birthday of Christ. Interestingly, the church in the East did the same math, except they used the Greek calendar, placing Jesus's death and conception on April 6th ... which, of course, would put His birth on January 6th, the day they still celebrate as the birthday of Jesus.

Note, by the way, that this whole method of calculation was common in the church at the time. They saw all of redemption tied together like that. Indeed, the rabbis of the time saw all of life tied together like that. To them the world was created at the date of the Passover, the Patriarchs were born then, and so on. It seems odd to us, but not to them.

Was Jesus born on December 25th? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Or was it a means of stealing pagan worship from pagans? Could be. Maybe not. Do our current Christmas traditions contain pagan trappings? Yes, that's true. It's just not as sure that it's as entirely as pagan in its origins as we've all been told.



Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I'd like to offer a couple of good articles explaining how we got Dec. 25th:

Stan said...

(Psst! Glenn! That second one is the "Source" link in my post.) :)

Glenn E. Chatfield said...