Why is Christmas Celebrated December 25th?
Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? The popular answer is that it is Jesus’ birthday. However, it is necessary to reconsider that belief, No records exist in the Bible, or elsewhere, suggesting Jesus was born on that date. If it was not the birth of Christ which set Christmas Day apart from others in the calendar, what was it? To find out, you need to take look at ancient Persian and pagan traditions.
Christmas Was Probably Not the Day Christ was Born
First, let’s take a quick look at why Christmas probably wasn’t Jesus’ day of birth. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia states “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ's birth” ( Catholic Encyclopaedia ). That being said, there are several reasons supporting the idea that Jesus wasn’t born in December. Luke 2:8 states that on the night of Jesus' birth “there were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.” Scholars tend to agree that it is highly unlikely that shepherds were out with their flocks in the cold winter month.
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"The Good Shepherd" mosaic in mausoleum of Galla Placidia. UNESCO World heritage site. Ravenna, Italy. 5th century AD. ( CC BY SA ) Few scholars believe shepherds were watching their flocks overnight in December – it’s more probable they would have kept them under cover.
Luke 2:1-4 also claims that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census when Jesus was born. These censuses were not known to have occurred in winter - also making it improbable to link Jesus’ birthday with the day now called Christmas.
Okay, so Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th. Yet other important events did fall at that time of year for ancient pagans. The most well-known of these celebrations were Saturnalia and the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra.
Originally, Saturnalia was held on December 17th, though the festival eventually was extended until December 25. This celebration honored Saturn, the God of Sowing and Husbandry, and was linked to the rise of a new year and the return of light. Ancient Romans would celebrate this date with a public banquet, giving gifts, partying, and holding a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn.
Roman fresco of dice players from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii. ( Public Domain ) Saturnalia was a “time-off” for slaves when they were allowed to wear nice clothes, sit at the head of the table, and gamble.
Mithra ‘s Birthday?
Roman Pagans who worshipped Mithras believed he was born on December 25th - the most holy day of the year for many ancient believers. This was a well-known cult for the Roman military in the 1st to 4th centuries AD. But Mithras is a god who has his origins in Persia beginning around the 6th century BC. The proto-Indo-Iranian language calls him ‘Mitra’, but that name was later adapted into Greek as ‘Mithras’. Many scholars believe that Roman soldiers discovered this god while completing military campaigns in Persia.
The Mithraic New Year and Mithras’ birthday were celebrated on 25 December. The date was part of the Roman Natalis Invicti festival – a celebration linked to worshipping the sun in general.
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Mithra divinity statue in Vatican library, old illustration. By unidentified author, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1840. (BigStockPhoto)
Uniting Pagan and Christian Beliefs
When Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, he may not have imagined how difficult it would be to convert pagans into Christians. To ease the transition, the birth of Jesus became associated with pagan holidays which fell in December. As the Pagan holidays gained Christian significance, it was decided that the birthday of the Sun God should also be the birthday of the Son of God. The Catholic Encyclopaedia quotes an early Christian stating, "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born.... Christ should be born".
Top image: ‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. Source: Public Domain
Yeah yeah. A lot of people have been taken in by everything presented in videos such as this.
Of course we've been lied to about a lot of things. What's the expression? ...Something like, 'Telling the truth in this age of deceit is treasonous." If we want to know the truth, we have to sort things out for ourselves. That's why it's so important to be able to entertain what we read or hear, but not necessarily embrace it as truth. There are a lot of people telling lies about truth and telling lies about lies.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTbIu8Zeqp0 Go to 4:55
In the article it was worth remembering the celebration of the solstice of European nations. Indeed, our Christmas tradition does not go from the Saturnalia or the worship of the Mithra by Roman soldiers. They go from both Germanic Yola and from the Slavic Kolyada.
Thank you J.A. Eidsmoe!
Flying in the face of conventional modern wisdom is a risky sport but can be quite exhilarating. You have shown yourself to be something of an Olympian, if you'll pardon the pagan reference.
It seems to me that there has been, especially this year, a sort of campaign to dump on December 25. Perhaps is it part of the overall plan to make Christians feel unsure about many aspects of Holy Scripture and of tradition.
Suspicions aside, I am grateful to you for relaying the results of your research. I know that Christ was born during the Roman Warming Period when temperatures exceeded on average what this warming period has given us but I was unaware of your information about sheep being kept out at night in all seasons in Palestine.
Most of your information is news to me. Thanks again...your essay is definitely a keeper.
Good observation! Yes, Acts 1:13-14 tells us that Mary was acquainted with all of the disciples and church tradition suggests that the Apostle John took care of her in her old age. Certainly she knew the birth date of Jesus, and almost certainly she communicated that to the apostles who passed it on as church tradition.
At the risk of flying in the face of collective modern wisdom, I will say that I think there’s a good probability that He was born in December. Let me explain why.
First, a quick qualifier. My Christian faith does not depend upon a December 25 date for Jesus’ birth. If someone could prove positively that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, that would not affect my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. But sometimes it’s comforting, and even fun, to learn that the ancients may have been right and the modern know-it-alls may be wrong.
The Biblical Evidence
What does the Bible say about the date of Jesus’ birth? Luke 2:6 tells us that “the days were accomplished that she should be delivered,” so we assume Jesus was a full-term baby, born nine months after His conception.
So when was Jesus conceived? Luke 1:26 says the angel Gabriel announced the conception of Jesus to Mary in the sixth month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. So Jesus was conceived about six months after John the Baptist was conceived.
So when was John the Baptist conceived? That’s more difficult, but the Scriptures do suggest some answers. John’s father was Zacharias, a Levite priest “of the course of Abia [Abijah]” (Luke 1:5). According to I Chronicles 24:7-19, King David had divided the priests into 24 orders or courses, and these orders took turns serving in the Temple. During their service they lived in the Temple and were thus separated from their wives and children. Each order served for a period of eight days twice a year. The priests of the course of Abia served during the 10th and 24th weeks of the Jewish year.
The angel of the Lord spoke to Zacharias “while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course” (Luke 1:8), that is, while he was performing his service in the Temple. After his course was finished he left the Temple and returned to his wife Elizabeth, and John was conceived (Luke 123-24). If this was after the second course, that is, the 24th week of the year, John would have been conceived around September or October and born around June or July. Jesus’ conception six months later would have occurred around March or April and His birth around December or January.
I am far from certain that this is correct. The Jewish calendar consisted of 12 months of 30 days each, for a total of 360 days. Whether these months and courses would have been the same in the time of King David as in the time of Jesus Christ is unceartain. Some have tried to calculate the dates of these various courses of priesthood and reached different conclusions. Also, some have tried to date the courses of the Temple service backward from the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, when according to Jewish tradition the priestly course of Jehoiarib was serving.
So as I look at the time of Zacharias’s service in the Temple, I am unable to state conclusively that this proves Jesus was born in December, but I can say it is well within the realm of possibility.
I might add here that there was a Jewish tradition that the creation of the world began on March 25th (using our calendar, of course). Some early Christians, among them Sextus Julius Africanus (220 A.D.), argued that because Jesus came into the world to renew the world, He must have been conceived on the same date the world was originally created, March 25th, which would point to a birth date around December 25th. This, however is conjecture.
The Extrabiblical Evidence
St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), a contemporary of St. Augustine whose status in eastern Orthodoxy is comparable to that of Augustine in western Roman Catholicism, argued strongly for a December 25 birthdate because of the course of Zacharias’s priestly service. But he also based his conclusion on the findings of Pope Julius. Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386 A.D.) had asked Pope Julius to ascertain the date of Christ’s birth “from the census documents brought by Titus to Rome” after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Julius then determined the date of Christ’s birth to be December 25.
Julius, Cyril, and Chrysostom were not alone in their reliance upon the census documents. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), in a detailed statement of the Christian faith addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem “as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing.” (Apology, I, 34). Likewise, Tertullian (160-250 A.D.) wrote of “the census of Augustus — that most faithful witness of the Lord’s nativity, kept in the archives of Rome” Contra Marcion, Book 4, 7) .
Unfortunately, we do not have access to these census records today. They may have been lost, destroyed during barbarian invasions, or possibly buried somewhere in the Vatican archives – a not inconceivable possibility; documents buried in the Vatican archives are frequently brought to light by modern researchers. Perhaps it would be wise to assume that these Church Fathers had access to information that we do not possess, and that they knew what they were talking about.
But some will say, Jesus couldn’t have been born in December because shepherds did not keep their sheep in the fields past late autumn. This is frequently asserted as though it is established fact, but it is not. Alfred Edershiem, in his classic work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, cites ancient Jewish sources to the effect that there were flocks of sheep that “remain in the open alike in the hottest days and in the rainy season — i.e. all the year round” (Book 2, p. 186). There was also a special class of Levitical shepherds who kept sacrificial lambs in the field all year round because they were used for sacrifice every month of the year. Winters can be cold in Palestine, but they vary greatly, and some Decembers are rather mild. And scientists disagree as to whether there have been substantial warming or cooling periods in the history of Palestine. A recent study of stalagmites and stalactites in caves near Jerusalem strongly suggests that the average annual rainfall dropped nearly 50% from about 3.0 feet in 100 A.D. to about 1.6 feet in 700 A.D. Average winter temperatures may have varied as well. My common sense tells me that if Mary could have given birth to a baby in an unheated stable in Bethlehem, hardy shepherds could have watched their flocks in the fields.
I conclude with Edersheim, “There is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date (December 25th). The objections generally made rest on grounds, which seem to me historically untenable.”
Again, my faith does not rest on the December 25th date. If anyone who reads this post has some insights or information on the subject of Jesus’ birth, I’d welcome it whether it proves me right or wrong. But there are good Biblical and historical reasons to believe Jesus was born on or about December 25, and the world has almost universally accepted that date from at least the early 400s almost to the present.