Some thoughts on when Jesus was born
“Keep the Christ in Christmas.” “Remember the reason for the season.” How much do you really know about the celebration of Jesus’s birth? The term, “Christmas,” is an Old English expression for “Mass of Christ” (Cristes Maesse). The Western and Eastern Churches disagree over the exact time of Christmas. In the Western Church, Christmas time (or “Christmastide”) begins on December 25 and ends on January 6 (the Day of Epiphany). Hence, this is the origin of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
No one knows the precise date of Jesus’s birth because for the first few centuries of the Church, no one seemed to care when it happened. Before 525, there was no official date adopted by the Western church. The first reference to the birth of Jesus on Dec 25th might come from Theophilus of Antioch (171-183). Some ancient authors agreed; others disagreed.
It was not uncommon for ancient authors to date Jesus’s birth in association with the vernal equinox (or some other association with the Sun). The vernal equinox in modern times is dated to March 20/21, though the ancient people dated it to March 25. It marks the change from the longest night to the gradual elongation of daylight hours. In the same way, the conception or birth of the Son of God brings “light” to a dark world. For example, a Latin author argues in De Pascha computus (written ca. 243) that the first day of creation was March 25. The author assumes that Jesus must have been born on the same day as the creation of the sun, which is on the fourth day, which would mean March 28.
Other authors believed that since the first day of the universe’s creation was March 25, it must be the case that Jesus, “God’s new creation,” must have also been conceived on March 25. This would date Jesus’s birth nine months later, on December 25.
Other authors agreed with their Jewish counterparts that great prophets were conceived on the same day as their death. And since many Christians believed that Jesus died on March 25, then he must have been born on March 25.
Other authors dated Jesus’s birth to various days in spring, such as April 2, 19, or May 20. To read more on this issue, see Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas or Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas.
It is often argued by skeptics that Christmas is simply a pagan festival because the Roman celebration, Sol Invictus, was held on Dec. 25. It is argued that Christians simply “baptized” that pagan festival. It is true that Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun” festival dedicated to the sun god on Dec. 25th by the Romans, fought for religious attention in the Empire. However, the Christian dating for Dec. 25th seems to have already been suggested by the time the Sol Invictus was established in 274 by Emperor Aurelian.
The roots of having a festival celebrating the birth of Jesus begins in controversy. A sect of Gnostic Christians existed in the early second century in Alexandria, Egypt, led by Basilides. This group believed that Jesus was not born divine. Instead, the divine Word united with a human Jesus at His baptism. They believed Jesus’s baptism was the first time the divine Word appeared on Earth. This festival was called “Epiphany,” since this is a Greek word for “appearance.” They celebrated this festival on Jan. 6.
Orthodox churches argued that the divine Word first appeared on Earth at Jesus’s birth, not his baptism. So, many churches celebrated Jesus’s birth and baptism on Jan. 6. In fact, to this day, the Orthodox church celebrates Jesus’s birth and baptism on Jan. 6. The Western church would separate these events: Dec. 25 for His birth; Jan 6 for the visit of the Magi or His baptism (depending on the Church).
In the Western church, the precise date of Dec. 25, 1 AD was not standardized until 525, when Pope John I commissioned the monk, Dionysius Exiguus, to make a standard calendar for the Western Church. Unfortunately, his calculation of years was off by nearly five years (Jesus was born between 6-4 BC), and there is no way to know what precise day Jesus was born.
Some people still get upset when they see, “Xmas.” “X” is the Greek letter, “chi,” which is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek. At least as early as the 15th cent., Christians have used “Xmas” for “Christmas.” Perhaps you’ve seen the labarum (seen on right), which uses the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek, the “X” and “P.” So, “Xmas” is not an attempt to remove Christ from Christmas.
So much for the history! This year, I encourage you: before one present is opened, open to Matthew 1 and Luke 2. Read the accounts of Jesus’s birth. Let it sink in. Pray. Praise God for sending His Son to take away the sins of those who trust in Him. Give Him all the glory. And that’s how we’ll keep Christ in Christmas and remember the reason for the season.