“Was Jesus really born on December 25th?” — Ebenezer Scrooge
Although both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke both describe the birth of Jesus, the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly when Jesus was born. In fact, for the first three hundred years, Christians didn’t celebrate his birth so how did people settle on December 25th as the date? There are two theories, one well known and the other not so known.
First, many people believe Christians simply adopted the Winter Solstice for the date of the holiday. This popular theory suggests that since the pagans already celebrated this holiday, the Christians simply took it over. “The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25th. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals …” (Biblical Archaeology Society, August 12, 2014, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org).
The trouble with that theory is, it isn’t found in any ancient Christian writings. It wasn’t until the 12th century that anyone suggested that connection! A more interesting, but lesser known, solution involves the better-established date of Jesus’ death at the Passover (Easter).
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25th in the Roman (Solar) calendar. March 25th is, of course, nine months before December 25th; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation – the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born on December 25th. (Biblical Archaeology Society, August 12, 2014).
So when was Jesus born? We really don’t know. What we do know is that he was born – the Son of God Incarnate – who “will save his people from their sins.” That’s something worth celebrating! Merry Christmas indeed!