When Was Jesus Born?
Hey Mark, tonight one of my friends said to me: "I heard that Jesus really wasn't born on Christmas, He was born in October, could you explain this to me" and I found myself stumped. I tried to explain to him that the exact date is unknown and that it's not the date we celebrate, but the event. Regardless of the actual date it would have the same meaning as if it were another day because thats the day we have decided to celebrate it. But he still doesn't understand. Why exactly did we choose the 25th of December? And where did it come from? Could you explain it to me?
I’ll tell you, I usually celebrated Christmas in October as a kid…at least, that’s when I would sneak into my parents’ closet and find all of my gifts. I was such a brat. Okay, I still am a brat. But let’s get to it…
3 Wise Guys and a Baby
In actuality, for about the first 300 years after Jesus’ resurrection, they celebrated Jesus’ birth as part of the feast/celebration of the Epiphany (which we now celebrate a week or two later – January 6th). Epiphany basically means manifestation and it celebrates the manifestation (publicly making known) of the Baby Jesus as the Messiah and King, when the magi worshipped Him (Mt. 2:1-12). There is an amazing history to the evolution of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany – far too great to go into here. But let’s dig a little deeper.
So many false gods…so little time
Scholars debate on specifics of why the Church began honoring Christmas on December 25th. Some believe it was to counteract a five day harvest festival of Saturnalia was held that praised the false god, Saturn, the god of agriculture, a few days before the winter solstice. This is actually tied more into the season of Advent, however, than Christmas specifically.
Most smarty-pants scholars agree that the reason in the 4th Century that the date of December 25 was ascribed and chosen as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth was to counteract the pagan, Roman feast of the Sol Invictus “the unconqurered sun” or “Birthday of the Sun” celebrated by Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire which took place on the same day. It was believed to have begun and be held by a group of people who worshipped Mithra a Persian false god who developed quite a following during the days of early Christianity. It was in that time (between 330 or 336 A.D.) that the Church was busy defending its truth against heresies (beliefs that go against church doctrine). Heresies like “Docetism” which denied the human nature of Jesus, is one such example.
Early Christians had great respect for symbolism and absolutely would have used it to counteract things like pagan worship festivals. You can understand why they’d want people to turn their attention from the light of false “sun gods” and to, instead, worship the Son, Who is God, “the Light of the World” (John 8:12).
How’s the weather?
We don’t have to get all “astronomical” or “meteorological” here, but beginning with the fall equinox, nights become longer and days shorter – as you probably notice where you live (unless you’re in Alaska, your nights/days are all screwed up!). But on the winter solstice, the day outshined the night (the first “longer day” than night in that time of year. Many, in turn, believed December 24th to be the longest “night” of the year, and the 25th (on the Julian calendar) was traditionally celebrated, in turn, as the “birth” of the sun – the longest “day” of the year. The pagans in Rome held a festival in which they worshipped false gods, some engaging in highly immoral acts and other manners of evil. To counteract the heresy, the Church began their worship of the one and only, the TRUE SON on the same day.
Wouldn’t it be cool if…Jesus was actually born on that day?
There were even great efforts over the centuries (by some in the church) to prove that Jesus was, indeed, born on December 25th. It usually stems from the assumption that Zechariah was in the Holy of Holies (Luke 1:5-13) on the Day of Atonement, which usually falls on September 25th…the fall equinox. That would mean that his son, John the Baptist, would have been born around June 24th (summer solstice), based on the truths gleaned from that same passage. And since we know that Elizabeth was six months pregnant (Luke 1:36) when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and told the great news of her role in the coming of Salvation (JESUS)…then that would mean that Jesus was conceived around March 25 (spring equinox) and born 9 months later on winter solstice…right around December 25th.
Sounds cool, huh? Sounds like it could work?
While it’s highly unlikely based on historical evidence, we should always remember the next line out of the angel’s mouth after the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy:
“All things are possible with God” - Luke 1:37
The rest of the story
For more reading, on the original Christmas story (no matter what time of year it happened) check out Luke 1:5-2:52 and Matthew 1:18-2:23.
Also, try the Catechism of the Catholic Church - CCC #525-526.
Oh, and, incidentally…I still “celebrate Christmas in October” but now it’s in my own bedroom closet that I find the gifts…just don’t tell my wife – what she doesn’t know won’t hurt us. (She’s terrible at picking good hiding places, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’m far too impatient for my own good.)
I told you I was still a brat.
Thanks for the question. By the way, tell Jesus Happy Birthday every day – it just might be it!
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