By William “Doc” Halliday
Christmas, or Christmas Day is an annual celebration commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. This event is celebrated on December 25th in the United States and in many other countries. However, most scholars do not believe the December 25th date. The date is not given in the bible, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they receive the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season. On the other hand, sheep might well have been enclosed in the cold month of December.
The earliest historical recording of birthdays occurs in the bible. Birthday celebrations are mentioned in the Bible on three separate occasions and, in each case, something terrible occurred. I use a Geneva Bible (1599) for my documentation. In Genesis 40:20 the birthday of the Pharaoh of Egypt is referred to. In Matthew 14:6 and in Mark 6:21, the birthday of Herod Antipater is referred to. And, perhaps Job 1:4 is referring to the birthdays of Job’s sons. Nowhere in the bible is the date of Jesus’ birth mentioned.
The early Christians did not celebrate Christ’s birth because they considered the celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom. For the same reason, ancient Jews did not celebrate birthdays. The first century Jewish historian Josephus noted that Jewish families did not celebrate birthdays. It was common for kings and rulers to have their horoscopes made by astrologers. Their birthdays were considered very important omens of the future. Thus birthdays started as a celebration for kings and deities. It was a pagan celebration.
Instead, early Christians celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus. Easter was the dominant celebration for members of the Christian faith. As time passed, Jesus’ origins became of increasing speculation. You can begin to see this shift in the New Testament. The earliest writings of both Paul and Mark make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide familiar but quite different accounts of the event. Still, neither Matthew nor Luke specifies a date for the birth of Jesus.
In about 200 A.D., Clement of Alexandria, a Christian teacher in Egypt, records a reference to the date Jesus was born. According to this man, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Interestingly, Clement doesn’t mention the December 25th date at all.
In the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized, and are now also celebrated as Jesus’ birthday. These dates are December 25 in the Western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East, especially in Egypt and Asia Minor. The celebration of Christmas by the modern Armenian Church remains on January 6. However, for the vast majority of Christians December 25th prevails. January 6 would eventually come to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany. The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between the two dates became the holiday season which has become known as the 12 days of Christmas.
In 354 A.D., Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate the solstice as the anniversary of Christ’s birth. He probably chose this date because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the sun. This was an effort to recruit pagans into the church. These idol worshippers held pagan festivals to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun when the days began to lengthen. The solstice of course takes place on December 21st, so why do we celebrate December 25th? The difference is due to the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars.
For Christians, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is significant regardless of the day.
Photo of the nativity scene is from interruptingthesilence.com
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