I am someone who has, for many years, tried to avoid Christmas celebrations because I suspected them to be both pagan in origin and commercialized in practice. Knowing that the Bible does not provide a date for Jesus’ birth did not help. Nor did the seemingly obvious association with pagan winter solstice celebrations make me desire to embrace Christmas. I always thought that if God wanted us to celebrate Jesus’ birthday he would have found a way to tell us exactly when to do so.
Part of my reasoning for this is that we do certainly know the season, if not the exact date of Jesus’ death. It happened on the 15th of the Jewish month of Aviv, which is based on a lunar calendar. This was the day Passover lambs were slain according to a Jewish tradition that has roots in the Exodus story of the Israelite people.
So, why tell us when Jesus died, but not when he was born? Maybe because “better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (Eccl. 7:8 NRSV). It is just possible that God wants us to really focus on what Jesus has done for us as an adult rather than on when he arrived as a baby.
As it turns out, I may have been wrong about a pagan connection with the choosing of the date of December 25. It would seem that the church settled on that date due to some interesting, and probably Jewish-inspired, mental gymnastics. The details can be found in an article written for the Biblical Archaeological Society titled “How December 25 Became Christmas.”
The executive summary is that ancient Jewish scholars (rabbis) often considered important events to be linked to important dates in a cyclical fashion. So the date something begins is somehow linked to the date it comes to completion. You would try to bring a multi-year project to its conclusion on the anniversary of its official beginning.
Now apply that reasoning to the date of Jesus’ death. One would expect some important event that begins the process of salvation to occur on the same date in a prior year.
An obvious beginning-point for Jesus ministry might be his birth. But that doesn’t work for obvious reasons (at least not in a way that leads to December 25th).
What if the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary by the angel Gabriel had taken place on Passover day? What if we assumed that that was also the day Mary conceived Jesus via the Holy Spirit? Counting nine months from that early-spring festival (late march/early April) leads us to an early-winter date (late December/early January).
Now all you have to do is nail down the year, convert the Jewish date of Passover into its Roman equivalent, add nine months and voila! Jesus’ birth date is found!
Around 200 AD Tertullian of Carthage calculated that Nisan 15 was equivalent to March 25 in the year Jesus Christ was born. Nine months later: December 25.
The eastern branch of the church used the same calculation, but a different calendar. They ended up with January 6 in Roman reckoning. That is why the Orthodox churches celebrate 12 days later than the Roman church.
[If the church really wanted to bring Christmas in line with the winter solstice, they missed a perfect opportunity with the Gregorian calendar reform. By then the calendar was 10 days out of date with the solar calendar of the year Christmas was officially adopted on December 25th. It would have been easy for Pope Gregory to have moved the calendar to line up with a solstice on December 25th, as it had been when that date was chosen as the birthday of “the invincible sun” (sol invictus) the pagan sun god. Instead he simply moves the calendar to the point it was when the church becomes an official religion of the Roman Empire, 325 AD.
To me that makes a winter solstice connection with December 25 an unlikely reason for choosing that date for Christmas. Therefore the date itself is not pagan.]
The article provides the most sensible explanation of the origin of December 25/January 6 as the date of Christmas that I have ever read.
The authors of the article do note that though the date for Christmas is not pagan, most of the modern practices associated with Christmas are of later pagan origin (decorated tree, Santa Claus, mistletoe, partying to excess, etc).
What I find puzzling about Christmas from this perspective is why there seems to have been a need to set a definite Roman calendar date for Christmas, when that has never been the case for Easter. Easter never falls on the same date the following year, yet that never seems to bother anyone. The church even saw a need to decouple it from its original Jewish calendar dating with a weird formula that sometimes moves it a month away from Passover.
Yet Easter never falls on the same modern calendar date any two years in a row. So why does Christmas?
Wouldn’t nine months after Easter be a more logical time to celebrate Christmas if we were actually following that logic? Or shouldn’t Easter always be March 25?
Or how about this: Why not let the 14th of Aviv be the day of Jesus’ death, and then let the following Sunday be Resurrection Sunday (or the pagan-inspired title of “Easter” if you really must)?
I get that the church had to get the message out that Jesus was born as a human being, yet is also God.
Did it really have to be by assigning an arbitrary birthday to him?
I could have just read the Gospel accounts and seen that he was actually born as a human being. I could easily have taken the Apostle John’s word for it that the Word pre-existed humankind and was God and became human. Assigning a birthday adds nothing to the story.
It was 300 years before the church decided to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. Somehow the Gospel accounts seemed sufficient for believers before then.
Of course, the whole exercise as described in that excellent article was based on a speculation that the date of Jesus’ conception had to have been the same as the date of his death.
1) We have no way of verifying that assumption of conception and death on the same day, therefore it is pure speculation.
2) Even if it were the same date, the date on the Roman calendar would have been different. Oddly enough, Jews were using the Jewish calendar, not the Roman one, to figure out Passover. It jumps back and forth according to a 19 year cycle, adding an extra month seven times in that cycle to compensate for lunar months compared to a solar year. There is now way the Roman dates would have matched even 33 or 34 years apart.
3) If the Annunciation were indeed on Passover, why not just celebrate Passover as the important date instead? After all, it theoretically marks the actual beginning of Jesus Christ, the God-man.
Better yet, how about we forget to speculate about a date that we are not given for his birth so that we can concentrate on who he was and what his mission was all about: payment for sin and resurrection to salvation for all who will believe and follow him as the Son of God?
Please understand that I do not intend to denigrate the many, many faithful followers of Jesus Christ who do try their hardest to keep Jesus Christ as “the reason for the season.” They are following a deeply rooted tradition that may also be an excellent bonding time for families and a faith-teaching opportunity for Christian parents. I respect those who do truly worship the Lord Jesus at Christmas.
My questions involve the essentially political reasons that the leadership of the Christian church chose to apply a birthday tradition to God’s only Son.
I doubt that it is a sin.
But I do have to wonder about the logic.