Sunday, December 18, 2016

Why is Christmas on December 25?

Lost amid the holiday hoopla, Santa Claus, decorated fir trees, eggnog and carols, there’s a basic question: why did anyone think Jesus was born on December 25?

After all, no writer of the time period gave a date for his birth.  We don’t even know what year he was born.  In fact, despite all the displays, images of shepherds, stars, magi and the like, we really know nothing about Jesus’ birth.  Early Church Fathers didn’t want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  The first recorded Christmas took place near the middle of the 4th century.  As a result, any real information was buried under the weight of centuries.

To complicate matters, no historian of the time period, Jewish or Roman, mentioned Jesus.  None knew he existed as a child or an adult, not even Philo, the great Jewish philosopher from Alexandria who died in 41 C.E.  He longed for evidence of God’s existence and even created the image of a living word, which John picked up to begin his Gospel: “In the beginning, there was the word …”

The only texts that give us any information on Jesus are the four Gospels.  Only two of them, Matthew and Luke, provide birth stories.  However, they contradict each other, rendering their accounts useless as historical guides.

In Matthew, great kings from the East follow a star first to Jerusalem where King Herod greets them and then to Bethlehem.  They worship the newborn baby and bring fabulous gifts. Herod is so upset that the future king has been born that he tries to kill all the children.  So, Mary and Joseph must take Jesus and flee to Egypt.

The problems with that tale are legion:  Just for starters, no star is capable of guiding anyone.  In addition, astronomers of the day, an era when the skies were watched closely, somehow missed it. 

To get around that, some apologists have suggested the kings were aware of the Jewish myth that the formation of certain stars presages the birth of a monarch.  That, too, is absurd. Astrology has long been proven inaccurate.  Also, that same formation has occurred multiple times in human history without anyone suggesting another messiah was born.

Finally, the kings were called magi, meaning that they believed in the Zoroastrian faith.  Why they would know a Jewish myth or care if a Jewish king was born remains a mystery.  On top of that, their gifts would have made the family wealthy, so the Roman Catholic Church was obligated later to claim that Joseph and Mary gave the gifts to a “poor” family.

Actually, Matthew was drawing on stories of how the sons of Roman emperors were welcomed into the world: foreign kings brought them the gifts ascribed to the Holy Family – gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Moreover, Matthew was comparing Jesus to Moses.  He was writing to Jews in Egypt, refugees from the war against the Roman from 66 to 73 that leveled Jerusalem, killed an estimated 1 million Judeans, sent another 1 million fleeing to other countries and enslaved 1 million more.
Matthew wanted them to believe that if the refugees followed Jesus, he would lead them back home.

The only valid element in his story is King Herod, who died in 4 B.C.E.

In contrast, Luke has the family caught up in a census, requiring Joseph and his pregnant wife to return to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem.  However, unable to find a place at an inn, they settle for the barn.  Jesus is then born and placed in a feeding trough, a manger.  The family then goes to Jerusalem for the traditional naming ceremony.

There’s no Herod, attempted murder, fleeing to Rome or any other element of Matthew’s birth account.  However, there really was a census, just as there really was a Herod.  Both are described in surviving historical documents.  Nevertheless, the timing is off.  The census took place in 6 C.E., 10 years after Herod’s death.  That’s not the only problem with Luke’s imaginative account.

Manger scene
The census was held in Judea when the Romans ousted Herod’s son, who had succeeded his father. However, Joseph and Mary lived in Galilee, an area unaffected by the census.  Then, too, the purpose of a census then was to determine taxable property. Anything Joseph owned was in Galilee, not Judea.  In fact, no one was asked to return to a hometown.  That would have made the census useless.

Both Matthew and Luke wanted to get Jesus to Bethlehem because several prophets had foreseen the next king coming from the line of David, who was born in Bethlehem.  The fourth evangelist, John, rejected that argument: he has a resident of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth ask how anyone could think Jesus was the next king since he hadn’t been born in Bethlehem. 

John also compounded efforts to date Jesus’ birth by saying Jesus was almost 50, when the other three Gospels list him as close to 30.

As a result of this complete mishmash, historians cannot figure when Jesus was born.  Supposedly, he was crucified during the rule of Pontius Pilate, who was Judean governor from 26 to 36.  Count back 30 years, if you follow Matthew, Mark and Luke; 50 years, if you believe John.

But why December 25?

For many years, historians have assumed Christians adopted that date to counter the Roman Saturnalia, a holiday in late December, or the birth of the invincible sun, a popular holiday for a different god.  That one fell exactly on December 25.

There was precedent: all religious holidays gave been borrowed from other sources and given new meanings.  Easter, for example, comes from the Jewish Passover, which comes from the merger of two ancient Egyptian holidays.  Sabbath, too, was borrowed from the Babylonians while the Saturnalia originated in Egypt.

The idea that the Christians were overlaying an existing holiday was the prevailing opinion until recently.  It had been contested by scholars who pointed out that no extant writings from Church Fathers contain any mention of pagan holidays or concern about creating an alternative holiday to counter them.

Artist's view of assumption
As a result, researchers in religious history now suggest that the day occurred naturally.  The Catholic Feast of the Assumption -- which honors Mary’s pregnancy – falls on March 25.  Nine months later would be December 25.  Many Christian sects celebrate Jesus’ birthday as January 6.  It may not be a coincidence that they also celebrate the Feast of Assumption on April 6, exactly nine months earlier.  Unfortunately, there is one serious quibble with this view: while the first references to Christmas date from the 330s, and Christmas wasn’t placed on Dec. 25 until about 20 years later, mentions of the Feast of the Assumption don’t show up until 300 years after that.

Besides, nine months for a pregnancy is an average.  Births rarely occur exactly nine months after conception.

That may mean the celebration of Jesus’ birth created a need for a holiday to mark the pregnancy, not the other way around.

After looking at all the evidence, there’s still no way to determine exactly when Jesus was born.  As such, December 25 is as good a day as any. 

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University and an M.A. in communication from Kent State University.  You can reach him at 
 He is the author of the famed novel The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All as well as The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Comparative Religion for Dummies.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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