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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this episode we will try to find out why December 25th was chosen as the date for Christ’s birthday. The real reason may surprise you.
With Christmas around the corner, many of the less-reverent types like down-playing the day by telling us the early Church selected December 25 as the date to celebrate Christ’s birth because it was trying to stamp out the celebration of a pagan festival that took place at the end of December.
Originally called Saturnalia, this pagan celebration marked the end of winter solstice, that typically takes place on December 21, when the days start getting longer. Essentially, this pagan festival was a form of sun worship as people celebrated the sun’s victory over darkness, and it was typically celebrated between December 17 and 23.
However, that all changed in 274 AD, when Roman Emperor Aurelian set December 25 as the day for the celebration, and gave it a fancy new name Aurelian Dies Natalis Invictis. Yes, in typically despotic fashion, he named it after himself.
Those promoting the idea the church was trying to sanitize the worship of the sun god also throw out the idea that gift giving was part of this ancient pagan celebration as additional proof. However, the wise men also brought gifts when they came to honour Christ, so that is rather weak.
But nevertheless, Christmas has been mocked in some quarters as little more than a cover-up for a pagan celebration.
So was this the real reason why December 25th was chosen as the day for Christ’s birth?
For a start, there is no concrete Biblical evidence telling us what day Christ was born. But despite that, by the 4th century, two dates were in the running for the day of Christ’s birth, December 25 and January 6, with the December date the ultimate winner.
We even find Jesus’ birthday mentioned as falling on December 25th in a Roman almanac from that time, which listed the dates when Christians were martyred.
Though some argue, that December 25th was picked to stamp out the pagan sun festival, historian Andrew McGowan in his article entitled How December 25, became Christmas, says history tells a different story.
Because originally, there was little interest in Christ’s birthday among early Christians, because birthdays back then were significant celebrations in pagan culture, so Christians typically avoided celebrating them and this included Christ’s birthday.
It wasn’t until after 200 AD that we find any discussion of when Christ was born, when Clement of Alexandria, an Egyptian Christian teacher, cited May 20th and April 20th or 21st as possible dates of Christ’s birth.
So if the earliest Christian writers were thinking Christ was born in the spring, where in the world did the December 25th date come from?
It sounds suspiciously that they may have selected that day to purposefully squash the sun-god holiday.
Well, oddly, according to McGowan, it probably had more to do with the date of Christ’s crucifixion.
Based on the dates when the Jewish Passover fell, early Christians had a pretty good idea when Christ died. An early Christian historian, Tertullian, who also lived around 200 AD, said Christ was crucified on March 25.
And that’s when it got interesting.
Because a new theory began to develop in conjunction with March 25. Basically, it was believed that Jesus’ conception and death took place on the same day of the year – March 25.
This meant Jesus came down from heaven, the same day that He went back to heaven, and a tradition developed that a person was extremely blessed if they died on the same day they were conceived.
But it didn’t stop there.
A religious day was eventually developed to celebrate the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she had conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:30-32).
Roman Catholics call it the Feast of Annunciation or conception and still celebrate it today on March 25.
And March 25th gained even more significance, when they subsequently began to pile other important events on this already auspicious day. Some believed it was the day that Adam was created, and others suggested that Satan fell on the same day. It became an all encompassing day.
Here is where it gets interesting.
According to McGowan, the first reference to Christ being conceived on March 25 is mentioned in 240 AD and the earliest reference to December 25th being celebrated as the day of Christ’s birth is in 316 AD.
In other words, the first mention of Christ’s conception falling on March 25 takes place decades before the earliest mention of Christ’s birthday falling on December 25.
This is significant because as this theory of March 25 gained a foothold, it didn’t take long for some to calculate if that was the day the Holy Spirit conceived Christ, then He would have been born nine months later on December 25th.
And in fact, an early Christian writer Augustine noted this connection in his book “On the Trinity” written around 400 AD when he wrote:
“For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born according to tradition, upon the December 25th.”
Note how Augustine’s main emphasis is March 25. In his mind it is clearly the most important date marking both the day of Christ’s conception and Christ’s death, while December 25 was simply the natural result of the divine conception.
McGowan says other writers of that day marvelled on the foresight of God who chose to conceive Christ, so that the Lord’s actual birthday would overwrite the pagan holiday in December.
This reveals there was no pre-planning to have Christmas intentionally cancel out a pagan holiday.
However, we can be relatively certain of one thing, Christ was probably not born on December 25.
Though the Bible does not give us any clear evidence of what day Christ was born, it does provide hints of what season it was.
First, there was a significant historical event associated with the birth of Christ, and that was the census that required Joseph and Mary to return to their hometown of Bethlehem, where Christ was eventually born.
Like winters around the world, in the massive Roman Empire winter brought a lot colder and often wetter weather, making travel unappealing and difficult. Though the impact was not so dramatic in Israel, it was in other parts of the empire and because of this, the Romans did not tend to hold censuses in the winter, which throws doubt on the December 25 date.
Secondly, the Bible tells us that the shepherds were out in the fields with their flocks (Luke 2:8). This suggests Jesus’ birth took place in the spring, when shepherds were typically with their flocks during lambing.
And maybe not coincidentally, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29), that supports the notion that Jesus was born in the spring.
Though December 25th is probably not the day of Christ’s birth, there is nothing wrong with celebrating a day when God became flesh and dwelt among us.
And there is no doubt Christmas has strong ties to Christ’s birth, as demonstrated by the actions of a principal of an elementary school in Omaha, Nebraska, who was trying to remove any hint of Christmas from school classes.
In her memo to teachers, she warned them not to play Christmas songs or even have the kids sing Christmas carols in class. She also said the students were not allowed to create Christmas crafts. And she made no doubt why, when she also banned candy canes because its “J” shape spoke of Jesus and the Candy cane’s red spoke of the blood of Christ and white of Jesus’s resurrection.
In her memo, Jennifer Sinclair warned her teachers:
“I’m hopeful we can avoid the discomfort of me directly questioning something you’ve copied, posted and had your kids do. That makes me uncomfortable, and I know it doesn’t feel good.”
Fortunately, Liberty Counsel, a non-profit legal organization dedicated to defending Christian liberty, found out about this nonsense and sent a letter putting an end of Sinclair’s plot to steal Christmas.
- How December 25th became Christmas: Bible History Daily
- Lead photo: Credit: Vankfire/Flickr/Creative Commons