December 07, 2021 Eric Gawura

What about Christmas Day? Was Jesus really born on December 25th?

What about Christmas Day? Was Jesus really born on December 25th?

There is no way of knowing for sure exactly what day of the year Jesus was born. Heck, we don’t even know with exact precision what year he was born (it was somewhere between 7 - 4 b.c.). There is no official birth record for Jesus, and the Bible doesn’t mention December 25 or any other date. The Gospel of Luke gives us a lot of details about Jesus’ birth – that he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, that he was laid in a manger, that he was visited by nearby shepherds – but it doesn’t mention a date. That’s because the important thing about Christ’s birth wasn’t the date, but the fact that He was born, that God had taken on human flesh and nature that was important to the Bible, and to the early Church.

In the first two centuries of Christianity Christmas wasn’t even a celebration. Early writings from the first four centuries focus much more on the importance of God becoming man for the salvation of sinners. The first Church Father to mention a specific date was Irenaeus (130—202). Drawing on an established tradition, which believed that one’s date of death coincided with the date of one’s conception, Irenaeus used March 25 as the date of Jesus’s crucifixion – and thus Mary’s conception -- and then worked backwards nine months to arrive at December 25th as the date of His birth. The Church Fathers Hippolytus (ca. 170-236 a.d.), Sextus Julius Africanus (160—240 a.d.), John Chrysostom (347–407 a.d.), and Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386 a.d.) all favored December 25th as well, probably following Irenaeus’ lead.

Aside from the ancient tradition used by Irenaeus, though, there is no way for us to know the exact date of Jesus’ birth. History professor, and LCMS pastor, Paul Maier, in his book The First Christmas summarizes our best guess as to when Jesus was actually born: “Adding up all the clues, hints, and shreds of evidence from every available source, many scholars set the date for the Nativity sometime in the Fall of 5 b.c.” Even that isn’t universally accepted, though.

So why did December 25th end up at the day that we celebrate the birthday of Jesus? Again, Dr. Maier explains:

    “The early Christian Church seems to have observed the birth of Christ on January 6 in the East, and on December 25 in the West, but both practices began too late – the 300s a.d.—to warrant attaching any precision to these dates.

    “Probably it was a matter of substitution. The Romans of the time not only celebrated their Saturnalia festival at the close of December, but they also thought that December 25 marked the date of the winter solstice (instead of December 21), when they observed the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, which was just in the act of turning about to aim northward once again. Christianity sought to replace these pagan festivals with a Christian celebration honoring the “sun of righteousness,” a common epithet for Jesus as Messiah….but all this should not obscure the fact that, according to the best reckoning, Jesus may indeed have been born in the fall or winter of 5 b.c.”

Does this mean that Christians are inadvertently celebrating a pagan holiday?

Not at all! One Christian bloggers explains:

“…the meaning of any word, symbol, or custom is determined by current usage, not origin. Many words and practices have departed from their origins and no longer mean anything close to what they once did. For instance, the swastika has been around for thousands of years as a symbol of good fortune. It was therefore reasonable for the Nazi party to take this as their symbol, as they emphasized that they were the party to bring good times back to Germany, which was going through hard times after World War I. However, it would be absolute foolishness for a person to decorate his home today with swastikas based on their “real meaning.” The swastika has been so thoroughly identified with the horrors of the Holocaust that, in the current culture, it is a symbol for anti-Semitism and all things evil. The original meaning of the symbol is completely irrelevant.

“Regardless of what the Christmas symbols may once have meant, their use today needs to be evaluated on the basis of what they mean today. To automatically associate candles, colored lights, or decorated trees with pagan worship is unwarranted.

If what we know as Christmas originally started out as a pagan celebration, then it has been so successfully co-opted by Christians that any self-respecting pagan would be distressed at what Christians have done to it. Christmas celebrations are so completely the opposite of paganism that any suggested link between the two can be disregarded.”

The reason that we celebrate Christmas goes back to what the early Church put the focus on – not the date, but the fact that God took on humanity and was born to be our Savior. That is the “reason for the season.”

Merry Christmas!