In Luke 2: 1-11, we read the account of Jesus’ birth. It’s a popular verse; in fact Linus reads the scripture as the true meaning of Christmas in the television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” But, where do we read that Jesus was born on December 25? We know that his birthday was during the census, but we aren’t given a specific date for the census. We know that Mary and Joseph were pledged to be married, but we don’t actually know the date for their marriage to backtrack and know when Christ was born. We know that the shepherds were tending their sheep in a field, but we aren’t certain as to when they arrived in Bethlehem to praise their savior.
If no one knows the actual date that Jesus was born, why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? There are two theories, both of which have faults, one of which is more popular among theologians.
The earliest record of Christ’s birth being observed on December 25 is from the middle of the fourth century (354) on a document that listed various martyr’s feasts for the year. For the church’s first three centuries, Christmas wasn’t even on the calendar. Some church leaders were opposed to the idea of celebrating Christ’s birthday because birthdays were for pagan gods and kings. They believed it would be wrong to honor the Messiah in the same way others were honored. Other church leaders started to speculate the date of his birth because they wanted to celebrate, but soon discovered that actual records of his birth were lost, so various dates on the calendar were mentioned as days of celebrating Christ’s birth.
In the second century, the Church of Rome chose December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth to deliberately turn people away from pagan feasts being observed at the same time. Natalis solis invicti, which means the “birth of the unconquered sun” and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “sun of righteousness,” were both pagan feasts celebrated on what was believed to be the winter solstice. Christ was the true son and should be worshiped over all other gods. The first direct suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was determined to outshine pagan traditions wasn’t made until the 12th century, however there were references mentioned in various sermon accounts in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Many question this theory because Christians during the first and second century were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions like we do today because Christians believed in a strong calling as God’s holy people. After Constantine converted to Christianity in the mid-fourth century, Christians adapted pagan festivals according to his rule.
It is believed that the dates of Jesus’ death and his conception are linked. The connection between death and conception is an ancient and medieval understanding that salvation is bound to not only death, but also conception. The conception of Jesus binds the promise of salvation through his birth. The idea that creation and redemption are tied together is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition.
Though, much of the New Testament provides little detail on Christ’s birth, it does provide detailed information on Jesus’ ministry, miracles, death and resurrection. March 25 is the recognized date of Christ’s crucifixion. If the date of His crucifixion and the date of his conception are indeed linked, then according to the natural cycle of birth, nine months after March 25 would be when Mary would have given birth to our savior.
Are you more concerned with actual documentation tying Jesus’ birth to December 25, are you allowing today’s “pagan” traditions to pull you away from the miracle of Christ’s birth or do you connect his birth to his death and resurrection? Christmas, whenever celebrated, is a date that marks the foundation of Christianity and Jesus deserves your honor and praise.