Christmas carols, scarves, Wassel, and Christmas trees all mark a wonderful season. Christmas is often called the most wonderful time of the year. But why is Christmas celebrated on December 25? When did this day get chosen? For that matter, why did it get chosen?
Do We Know the Exact Date that Jesus Was Born?
The narratives in Luke 2 and Matthew 2 place a lot of emphasis on where Jesus was born. However, nothing in Scripture indicates the precise date when Jesus was born.
Our current calendar system contributed to the struggle to identify the date Jesus was born. The Gregorian Calendar was established in 1582, long after the birth of Jesus. Before the adaptation of the Gregorian Calendar, the Julian Calendar was used. Julius Caesar established the Julian Calendar in the Roman empire in 45 B.C. The calendar change created a variety of reschedulings for religious holidays (hence why Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a different date than other denominations).
However, the problem goes deeper than that. The B.C./A.D. system wasn’t established until AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus. Dionysius was the first to attempt to estimate the day of Jesus’ birth. But subsequent historians haven’t always agreed with these estimations. In Duncan Steel’s book Marking Time, he states, “the Polish historian Laurentius Suslyga was the first to suggest that Christ was born around 4 B.C.”
So, a combination of calendar system changes and debates about dating systems make it difficult to say which exact year Jesus was born, much less the precise month and day on which he was born. However, the Bible provides multiple references to historical figures that help give us a tighter sense of the period when Jesus was born.
1. From Luke 2:1: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” Caesar Augustus (also known as Octavian) was the first Roman Emperor, and he reigned from 27 B.C. until he died in A.D. 14.
2. From Luke 1:5: “In the time of Herod, king of Judea…” we see another historical reference. Herod or Herod the Great ruled as the Roman-appointed ‘king of Judea’ by Caesar Augustus from 37 BC to 4 B.C.
Due to these references, scholars suggest that Jesus was born between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C. So, unlike many historical figures, we can estimate Jesus’ birth within a few years.
When Did Christians Start Celebrating Christmas on December 25?
The following ChristianHistoryTimeline.com article summarizes the popular theories regarding this question:
“When Did Christians Start Celebrating Christmas on December 25? For the first 300 years of Christianity, it wasn’t. When was Christmas first celebrated? In an old list of Roman bishops, compiled in A. D. 354 these words appear for A.D. 336: ‘25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae.’ December 25, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea. This day, December 25, 336, is the first recorded celebration of Christmas.
For the first three hundred years of the church’s existence, birthdays were not given much emphasis – not even the birth of Christ. The day on which a saint died was considered more significant than his or her birth, as it ushered him or her into the kingdom of heaven. Christ’s baptism received more attention than his birthday in the January 6 feast of Epiphany.
No one knows for sure on what day Christ was born. Dionysus Exiguus, a sixth century monk, who was the first to date all of history from December 25, the year of our Lord 1. Other traditions gave dates as early as mid-November or as late as March. How did Christmas come to be celebrated on December 25? Cultures around the Mediterranean and across Europe observed feasts on or around December 25, marking the winter solstice. The Jews had a festival of lights. Germans had a yule festival. Celtic legends connected the solstice with Balder, the Scandinavian sun god who was struck down by a mistletoe arrow. At the pagan festival of Saturnalia, Romans feasted and gave gifts to the poor. Drinking was closely connected with these pagan feasts. At some point, a Christian bishop may have adopted the day to keep his people from indulging in the old pagan festival.
Historian William J. Tighe offers a different view, however. When a consensus arose in the church to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25, it was reasonable to celebrate His birth nine months later.” — Adapted from ChristianHistoryTimeline.com.
Each off these theories has some credence. A Christian celebration occurring simultaneously as Saturnalia would have protected early Christians trying to protect themselves from persecution. Furthermore, Saturnalia could be seen as a pagan holiday foreshadowing ideas that Jesus fulfilled. Crosswalk.com writer Rachel Dawson states that Saturnalia celebrated “emancipation, gift-giving, and the triumph of light after the longest night. The Christian sees the truth implicit in this pagan tradition that reflects: Christ the Light of the world, His triumph over the night of sin in Luke 1:78-79.”
The theory that early church leaders sought to end the debauchery associated with pagan festivals is equally plausible. Many Christmas symbols (the yule log, the tree) have some diluted pagan origin.
The final theory involves a reportedly widespread idea in Jewish culture during Jesus’ time. Many Jews believed that the prophets of Isreal had an “integral age.” The integral age theorized that the day a prophet was born or conceived was also the day the prophet died. The early church believed that Jesus was killed either on March 26 or April 6. Holding with the integral age theory, this would put Jesus’ date of conception, the day that Gabriel told Mary that she would bear the Christ child, on March 25 or April 6. Eventually, the early church labeled March 25 as the Feast of the Annunciation. December 25 is nine months after that date, approximately when Jesus would have been born if he had been conceived on March 25.
Despite these different theories, one thing remains constant in the Bible. Jesus came down from heaven, the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), and he came to restore our relationship with the Lord and free us from the bondage of sin.
You can read more about why Jesus had to come as a baby in this BibleStudyTools.com article.
What Are Other Important Dates in the Advent Calendar?
Advent is when churches prepare to remember the Nativity of Christ at Christmas. In current traditions, the advent season begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. This Sunday usually lands between November 27 and December 3. Each Sunday before Christmas focuses on one part of the Christmas story.
In some church traditions, candles are lit in the advent wreath, remindng us of the story and preparing our hearts as we head toward Christmas. Each candle has a name and a story associated with it.
1. Churches light the Hope Candle (purple) on the first Sunday of Advent. Prophecies of Isaiah are often read as we are reminded of the hope of the coming Messiah and our continued hope in his second coming.
2. Churches light the Faith Candle (purple) on the second Sunday of Advent. This candle is lit after reading the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, which calls for us to prepare the way of the Lord.
3. Churches light the Joy Candle (pink or purple) on the third Sunday of Advent. This candle is lit at the midpoint of the Advent season, so the Joy of Christ coming is highlighted. It is also called Gaudete Sunday to represent the nearness of Christ’s coming.
4. Churches light the Peace Candle (pink or purple) is lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent. This candle declares Christ’s birth and that he is the prince of peace.
5. The Christ Candle (white) is lit on Christmas Eve. It serves as a reminder of Christ being the light of the world and that those who claim Jesus as their savior are to be Christ’s light in the world (Matthew 5:14).
Other dates in the Advent Calendar are:
Saint Lucy Day is on December 13. This day is celebrated in Scandinavia and Italy in remembrance of Lucia of Syracuse. She was a martyr in fourth-century Rome who brought food to Christians hiding in catacombs due to the emperor Diocletian’s persecution. She is said to have worn a wreath of candles on her head so her hands could carry as much food as possible to those in hiding. Before calendar reforms, Saint Lucy Day was the start of the Advent season, pointing to the coming light of Christ.
Three Kings Day or Epiphany on January 6. In the Eastern Church tradition, this day celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. In the Western church tradition, this day celebrates the visitation of the Magi from Matthew 2.
(ChristianHistoryTimeline.com article first published March 14, 2010).