Day 2: The Origin of December 25

It took me until high school to understand what my friend meant about "Christmas" not being in the Bible (since she couldn't explain it in middle school, I don't think she understood either). Once I understood her point, my question became "is it possible to celebrate the pagan holiday from the celebration of Jesus?" That's what the heart of this series is about.





On the 2nd Day of Christmas, Someone Picked a Date

Introduction

Why December 25th? God is explicit in the Old Testament about when the Feast Days should occur, but no where in the New Testament are we ever given a date for Jesus' birth (a possible hint that it was never meant to be celebrated). So, how did people come up with December 25th? Is that really Jesus' birthday and does it even matter?
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The Date of His Birth

The first place one should think to look for the date of Jesus' Birthday is the Bible—it is after all a believer's trusted source of information on our Savior. No explicit date is given for the birth of Jesus, and the only references to time we have are that He was born 6 months after John the Baptist and during the time that people were required to travel to register. We are also told that during the time Jesus was born, shepherds were in the field watching their flocks. It seems unlikely that in an era where the common cold was life threatening, people were traveling and sleeping in fields in the middle of winter. While the Middle East may be desert-like, in the winter Bethlehem's average low is approximately 40°F, and it's average high is in the upper 50's.[1] That doesn't sound like good travel or sleep outside in a field weather—possible, but definitely not ideal. Without any Biblical evidence to assume this date, we have no reason to defend flock tending during this time of the year. This leaves us with 2 questions: why didn't the Bible tell us the date (or at least the month) and how did people calculate December 25th?
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The Bible on Birthdays

The word birthday is found only 3 times in the Bible, once in reference to Pharaoh (a pagan—Genesis 40:20) and twice in reference to King Herod (also a pagan—Mark 6:21 and Matthew 14:6), but never in reference to one of God's people. We are often told of God's hand in miraculous births (such as Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Mary) but God never says what time of year He performs these miracles. When the Israelites departed Egypt, He thought it was important enough to document the 14th of Nisan and require future generations, but nowhere are we shown God stating a date of birth as though it is important to remember and commemorate. In fact Ecclesiastes both confirms and explains why birthdays are not important.
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth.Ecclesiastes 7:1 KJV
This is why we are never given exact dates or even estimates for the birth of His people, but in a few cases (e.g. Miriam in Numbers 20:1) we are given approximate dates of their death. Even with Jesus, we know that He died as the perfect Passover Lamb and thus died around the 14th of Nisan. If God wanted us to celebrate Jesus' birthday, don't you think he would have at least recorded the month of Jesus' birth?

Christian theologian Origen, who lived from 185 to 254ad, wrote the following as it pertains to Christians and birthday celebrations[3][4]:
...not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday.
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December 25th vs. January 6th

We know that during Jesus' ministry and after Jesus' crucifixion, Christians were not celebrating His birthday.The first record of attempting to pinpoint the date of Jesus' birth appears to 200ad. The estimates provided at this point in Christian history all point to the thought that Jesus was born in the Spring. Yet by 300ad, Christians were celebrating Jesus' birth either on December 25th (in the West) or January 6th (in the East and Egypt).[2] How did we get these dates?

Pagan Holidays?

A popular theory is that Christmas is actually modeled after and a substitute for one or more of the pagan holidays meant to honor the winter solstice. The 3 holidays most commonly accused of being the blueprint for Christmas are Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and Yule.
Saturnalia
Named for the Roman god Saturn, Saturnalia was a Roman holiday that consisted of a week long party coinciding with the winter solstice. Google's dictionary describes it as "the predecessor to Christmas."[5] There were large public celebrations, but there were private parties and festivities honoring Saturn as well—much like the public plays/productions and private parties for Christmas. Another similarity, is a red hat, known as the freedman's hat, which was worn during the Saturnalia during the switching of roles. During the role switch, slaves were granted many freedman privileges and were served (to an extent) by their masters. Government offices were closed during Saturnalia and small gifts were exchanged at feasts and banquets. The phrase "deck the halls" likely stems from the tradition of adorning the halls of ones home with green boughs during this holiday. Caroling—nude caroling to be specific—was also part of the festivities.[6][7]
Sol Invictus
Another ancient holiday that takes place during the Christmas season is Sol Invictus. Sol Invictus actually takes place on December 25th just like Christmas. There is debate as to whether Sol Invictus was created to suppress Christianity, or if Christmas was created to suppress Sol Invictus.[8] Sol Invictus was a sun worshiping holiday for Sol, a Latin cult. One writer tries to defend Christmas against accusations of paganism and copycat tendencies, by citing the uncertainty of whether Sol Invictus or the celebration of Jesus' birth came first and listing quotes from the early church where leaders wished to distance themselves from paganism.[9] Interestingly, the author doesn't mention the traditions of Saturnalia and Yule that the church (specifically the Roman Catholic Church, as it was the only "official" church for quite some time) adopted. Actions speak much louder than words, even today we have so-called Christian who spew hate and venom that is not of God. If the early Christians were so set on distancing themselves, why did they adopt the traditions of Saturnalia and Yule? Why is it that in Old English, the holiday was still called Yule and not reflective of Jesus (the first version of the word Christmas didn't occur until the latter days of old English approximately 900 years later)?[10][11] Similarly, today, many preachers will condemn actions such as premarital sex and drinking, but members of the church commonly partake in these practices anyway. While I wouldn't say there is definitive evidence that Sol Invictus inspired Christmas, I also don't agree with this poster's reasoning and attempt at "proving" the two have no connection (I don't think this is definitive either).

Yule
Yule also took place in accordance with the winter solstice (around December 21st)[12] and is the namesake for the word "Yuletide."[13][14] Yule or Yuletide was the popular name for the holiday before Christmas came into fashion and is still referenced in many Christmas carols.[15] As a celebration to honor the sun, the primary traditions of the holiday included light (such as candles). The pagan Yule also included the decorating of a tree, wassailing (caroling), and the Yule log. After converting to Christianity, many didn't want to give up their pagan holidays so they incorporated the pagan traditions with their new faith. It is thought that the original Yule festivities celebrated the battle between the Oak and Holly Kings. The Oak King was said to be symbolic of the new year and light, with the Holly King representing darkness.[12] In addition to the poinsettia, holly is also closely associated with the Christmas holiday today. This version of Yule is still celebrated by Wiccans today.
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A Non-Pagan Reason?

Some argue that the date of Christmas is not due to pagan influence, though I think the above section proves that many Christmas traditions are in fact pagan. One argument is the lack of discussion on co-opting the pagan holidays for Christianity in documents from the early church. I find this to be a flimsy argument. Not only could this matter easily be discussed verbally, the hijacking of a popular pagan holiday by a persecuted faith seems like a stealth mission. I imagine the reaction of the Romans upon learning Christians were going to be over Saturnalia would be akin to fans of Fifty Shades of Grey learning Disney was going to make the movie adaptation.

The alternate hypothesis lies is the dating of Jesus' death. As the Passover Lamb, we know that Jesus died on Nisan 14 (possibly Nisan 15—but that's a discussion for another post) and according to Tertullian of Carthage, the Roman equivalent of Nisan 14 in the year Jesus died would have been March 25. This is interesting since scholars still can't agree on the exact year Jesus died. The same author who dismisses one theory because no one recorded an intent, suggests that even though these same people never recorded a year of death, they were able to calculate and convert the day of the Passover sacrifice during the year of Jesus' birth. He goes on to hypothesize that per the belief Jesus died and was conceived on the same day, March 25th must be His conception date and exactly 9 months later would be December 25. Quotes from 4th century Christians prove that at least some of them believed Jesus was conceived on the day He died, His death date was March 25th, and that identified His birthday on December 25th. The date of January 6th was supposedly determined in the same fashion, because in the East Christians converted the 14th of Nisan to April 6th.[2]

Maybe this theory would make sense, if I could figure out why the early Christians believed Jesus died on the day of His conception... Every explanation of this idea quotes the same source and suggests "it just feels right." To me that is synonymous with "I don't want to give up this pagan holiday, this sounds good enough so I'm going to roll with it." I don't remember anything in the Bible suggesting this connection. If I find anything explaining this concept I'll update this section with the information.
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A Biblical Date?

Many suggestions have been made for the birthday of Christ, but during my research, I only came across one that seemed to have Biblical origins. Luke 1 begins with the foretelling of John the Baptist's birth, to his father Zacharias. Zacharias was married to Elisabeth, Mary's cousin. We are told that in the sixth month of Elisabeth's pregnancy, the angel appeared to Mary to announce her miraculous pregnancy. Thus, we know that John the Baptist was approximately six months older than Jesus. If we could pinpoint the date of John the Baptist's birth, we could also approximate Jesus' birth. Many work backwards, stating that since Jesus was born on December 25th, John the Baptist was born around June 25th.

However one researcher suggests using 1 Chronicles 24 to determine when the angel announced the coming of John the Baptist.[16] 1 Chronicles 24 tells us about the division of priests by familial line as it relates to their service of the sanctuary. Each male Levite descendant was given a time, based on this division that they were responsible for the sanctuary. Since Zacharias was a priest preforming his duty at the sanctuary, we know that the angel appeared to him during his assigned time. Luke 1:15 tells us that Zacharias was of the lineage of Abia. In 1 Chronicles 24:10, Abia (or Abijah) is given the 8th lot.

A commentary on the Jewish Torah called the Mishnah is cited to suggest each lot served one week at the temple, in order, starting with the first Sabbath of Nisan. Since Nisan was the first month of the year, this makes sense. The author of this theory also provides commentary on how the feast days of the Passover, Feast of Weeks, and Feast of Tabernacles, in which everyone was required to journey to the temple, would require all of the priestly lineage for help. This also discusses the fact that in a 51 week year (per Hebrew tradition) the each of the 24 divisions could serve twice, totaling 48 weeks and leaving 3 "extra" weeks, the weeks of the previously mentioned feasts. Leap year would have 55 weeks, adding 4 more "extra" weeks. The author suggests that for each of the extra four weeks, one sixth of the divisions were responsible for the tabernacle; this would give each division equal time to serve.[16][17]

Based on this school of thought and the assumption of Jesus' birth in 6bc (which is debatable), the author calculates that Zacharias would have been at the temple to receive the angel's message between June 4th and June 11th. Elisabeth would have conceived sometime in June after he returned home, thus the sixth month of her pregnancy would have been in December, and John the Baptist would have been born sometime in March. This would place Jesus' birthday in September. The author guesses at dates to show that perhaps Jesus was born around the Feast of Tabernacles in 6bc.[16]

I think this is an interesting theory, though not without it's flaws. One problem is that we don't know for a fact that Jesus was born in 6bc. Most scholars estimate that He could have been born anywhere from 7bc to 4bc . Since the first Sabbath would not fall on the same day each year, the dates shift slightly within the Jewish calendar over the range of plausible years. Further, when we try to convert these dates to our current Georgian calendar, we have to account for even more shifts in time (particularly the leap years). Then of course, there is the fact that we cannot be sure how soon after Zacharias returned Elisabeth became pregnant—that night, that week, a month later? In addition, Mary might not have carried Jesus for exactly 9 months, He may have come a day early. Also, if each family served twice a year, it is possible the angel visited Zacharias during his second term. If we assumed there were roughly six months between terms (if each family served twice, they would start over around half way point of the year). This would place the beginning of Elisabeth's pregnancy in December, and Mary's 6 months later in June. That would lead us back to a spring birthday for Jesus. Interestingly, this would place Jesus' death date close to His actual birthdate (vs. conception) per the speculation in the section above.
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Discussion

In short, it's impossible to say when Jesus was born. Without bias (based on whether you're trying to defend Christmas), there is a 1 in 365 chance that Jesus was born on December 25th (1 in 366 if He was born on a leap year). That means there's roughly a .3% chance December 25th is actually Jesus' birthday.

Again, people often say "so what?" and posit that it doesn't matter because it's the thought that counts. This is interesting because in Leviticus God only discusses forgiveness for sins the Israelites unknowingly committed (committing a sin on purpose meant you deliberately disobeyed God which was punishable by death or exile). A sin is a sin whether you think you're doing good or not. So, I'm not sure that logic holds up. Further, there's still the question of whether Jesus actually wants His birthday celebrated. Biblical passages concerning birthdays and patterns revolving around births suggests He does not.

It took me until high school to understand what my friend meant about "Christmas" not being in the Bible (since she couldn't explain it in middle school, I don't think she understood either). Once I understood her point, my question became "is it possible to differentiate the pagan holiday from the celebration of Jesus?" That's what the heart of this series is about.
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References

  1. Monthly Average/Record Temperatures: Beit Lahm. Weather.com. 2015
    a. Beit Lahm is currently the official name of Bethlehem, Israel
  2. McGowan, Andrew. "How December 25 Became Christmas". BIBLE REVIEW-WASHINGTON-. 18.6: pg. 46-48. 2002
  3. Moore, Edward. Origen of Alexandria. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2015
  4. Origen. The Fathers of the Church: Homilies on Leviticus 1-15. Translated by Gary Wayne Barkley. 1990
  5. Saturnalia. Google.com. 2015
  6. Wigington, Patti. Saturnalia. About.com. 2015
  7. "In Reference to Saturnalia". Encylopædia Brittancia. 2015
  8. Veith, Gene. "Christmas is NOT Based on the Feast of Sol Invictus". Patheos. December 2012
  9. Sorensen, Jon. "Why December 25?". Catholic Answers. December 2013
  10. Harper, Douglass. "Christmas". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
  11. "Old English". Dictionary.com. 2015
  12. Wigington, Patti. "History of Yule". About.com. 2015
  13. Harper, Douglass. Yuletide. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
  14. Harper, Douglass. Yule. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2015
  15. Hillerbrand, Hans J. "Christmas". Encyclopæpedia Britannica. 2015
  16. Turner, Gary. "When was John the Baptist born?". Christmas in September?. 2015
  17. Turner, Gary. "Notes". Christmas in September?. 2015

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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