Mark D. Roberts

Tomorrow is Christmas Day, the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. But is December 25th really Jesus’ birthday? Many people, including faithful Christians, skeptics, and scholars, answer this question in the negative. In fact, there are quite a few Christians who do not celebrate Christmas, in part because they believe that December 25 isn’t Jesus’ real birthday. This date, they argue, was chosen by early Christians because it was the day on which the Romans held a pagan celebration for the birth of the Invincible Sun. Thus, according to this argument, Christians should not celebrate the birthday of Jesus because it isn’t his real birthday and because the date has pagan roots.
So what’s the real story about December 25?
We do not know the date of Jesus’ birth. In fact, we don’t exactly know the the year of his birth, though it’s estimated to be around 6 B.C. Yes, that sounds strange. Jesus born six years “Before Christ”? In fact, the B.C./A.D. division is a few years off. What is quite clear from history is that Herod the Great, the Herod who sought to have the baby Jesus killed, died in 4 B.C. So Jesus had to have been born before this.
The earliest Christians did not pass on the exact date of Jesus’ birth. They didn’t even record the time of year in which he was born. We get a tiny clue from Luke 2:8, where it says that shepherds were in the field, watching their flocks at nighttime. Some scholars think this suggests that Jesus was born in a warm season, not “in the bleak midwinter.” Others contend that winters near Bethlehem are relatively mild, and shepherds could be out at night with their sheep in December. (The weather report predicts a low of 41 degrees for Bethlehem tonight, with rain.)
In fact, we don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth. For some odd reason, this has been taken by some skeptics as evidence against the historical reality of Jesus. Since we don’t know when Jesus was born, they argue, this means he never really existed. Such an argument is naive in the extreme. The only people in the ancient world whose birthdays were recorded were those born into powerful families. People like Jesus, who was not born into power, would not have their birthdays recorded. Moreover, it’s clear that dates of birth for ordinary mortals were not especially important in Jesus’ culture. The earliest Christians showed no particular interest in the date of Jesus’ birth, even when they believed that he was the Lord and Savior of the world. In fact, some influential early Christians (Origen, for example), argued that it was wrong for Christians to honor the birth of Jesus as if he were a pagan ruler or god.
So why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25? Is this date based on paganism, as some critics of Christmas complain. Yes, it is. But don’t start taking down your Christmas decorations quite yet. Let me first explain why December 25 came to the be the date for Christmas.
In the Roman world in which early Christianity developed, there were several pagan celebrations on or around December 25, including: the birth of the “invincible sun,” the birth of the god Mithras, and winter solstice. Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus at this time, not to buy into paganism, but to overcome it. The hope was that by celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25, Christians wouldn’t be tempted to join in pagan celebrations, and pagans might be drawn into celebrating the birth of Christ. The first official celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 came in A.D. 336, after Constantine gave precedence to Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Thus the celebration of Christmas was not meant to endorse paganism, but rather to oppose it. It’s rather like when Christians who object to Halloween have a “Harvest Festival” on October 31. They’re hoping that the Christian celebration keeps people from engaging in what they believe to be pagan. One who argues that December 25 is a pagan date and should be avoided completely misses the point of the date.

Added Note:

One of my readers, Rev. Dave, offered a valuable comment. He pointed to an online article in which an author claims that the date of Christmas was not based on paganism, but in fact on Christian efforts to identify the actual date of Jesus’ birth. This article, by Willam J. Tighe, is solidly argued, and well worth further attention. Tighe, by the way, is no oddball, but a respected historian at Muhlenberg College. I think his argument has plausibility, though I wish he could have documented earlier recognition of the December 25 birthday of Jesus among Christians. Given Tighe’s evidence, it wouldn’t surprise me if some combination of theories is correct. Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, partly because of their own calculations, and partly because it allowed for a co-opting of a pagan holiday. I hope some historians of the early church and/or the Roman Empire interact with Tighe’s thesis. Thanks, Rev. Dave, for this comment and link.

The history of the date of Christmas is, in fact, much more complex than the summary I have given. Many Christians, especially in the East, celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6. This is still the date of Armenian Christmas, and many Armenians in western culture save their Christmas celebrations for this date. For Christians who use the liturgical calendar, Christmas is actually a twelve-day celebration, culminating on January 6.
Of course there’s no biblical command that says we should celebrate Christmas. Nor is there any biblical command prohibiting it. Thus Christians are free to celebrate Christmas, or not. As long as the celebrations themselves are consistent with biblical teaching, I see no compelling reason not to enjoy Christmas. (In some English and early American traditions, Christmas was a time for drunken revelry and mischief. Not recommended!)
Personally, I think there is much good in Christmas. Giving is a good thing. Generosity is worth encouraging. At Christmas, people tend to give more, not only in the form of presents for their families, but also in benevolences to charitable organizations, especially those that care for the poor.
I’m not worried about the pagan connections in the history of Christmas. I am concerned, however, about the extent to which Christmas has become primarily about spending money in large amounts. In American culture today, it almost seems unpatriotic to cut back on massive Christmas expenditures. We may not be worshiping pagan gods on December 25, but Mammon gets plenty of honor.
The best reason for celebrating Christmas, I believe, has to do with its theological center: the Incarnation of the Word of God. At Christmas we focus on the miracle of God becoming human in Jesus. We marvel at the grace of a God who loves us so much that he became one of us. The Incarnation allows us to know God through Christ. Moreover, the Incarnation makes possible the substitutionary death of Jesus for us. Because God became fully human in Jesus, therefore Jesus was able to bear the sin of the world on the cross. Because of Christmas, Good Friday is good, and Easter is the grandest celebration of all.

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