Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Just how did we end up celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on 25th December? Is it a good guess at the actual date? Did the church compromise with the pagan Roman culture? The answer is not straightforward.
At the outset, we are not given a specific date for Jesus’ birth in the Gospels. The only thing which comes close is the mention of shepherds keeping sheep when they hear of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:8. Perhaps that means it was lambing season (sometime in the spring, rather than the depths of winter, as December is in the northern hemisphere).
The writers of the early church don’t mention any celebration of Jesus’ birth, and several of them dismiss the celebration of the birthdays as a pagan practice. In 200 A.D., their best guesses at the date of Jesus’ birth didn’t include 25th December. Two centuries later, the favoured dates were either 25th December (in the western part of the Roman Empire and in North Africa) or 6th January (in the eastern part of the Empire).
In contrast to the uncertainty about the date of Jesus’ birth, there is one date in Jesus’ life that we can know with reasonable precision. His death was just after the Passover, which always fell on the 14th day of Nisan. However, the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar as ours is, so the date of the Passover (and consequently Easter) keep moving according to the timing of the full moon.
Early Christians marked Jesus’ death and resurrection every week as they met with him to worship him (John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 1:3, 2:1-4). Australian historian Andrew McGowan notes that a distinctive annual celebration was being held by the mid-second century (How December 25 Became Christmas, Bible History Daily, 12/02/2015). It is true that the Roman Emperor Aurelian established a feast called Sol Invictus on 25th December in 274 A.D. and some have alleged that the church adopted this date for reasons of convenience or compromise.
However, as McGowan explains, there is no mention of this in Christian writings; the idea isn’t suggested until the study of comparative religions took hold in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead the early church saw the date in December as a divine proof of Jesus’ importance. December 25th is 9 months before March 25th, the date of the crucifixion in the West calculated by Christians in the West. In the East, Easter was celebrated on 6th April and Christmas on 6th January, again 9 months apart.
The early church thought Jesus’ conception and his death were on the same date. Therefore, his birth would have been 9 months after the date of the crucifixion. For Christians from the earliest days, the fact that Jesus came into the world was always held tightly together with the reason for his coming: his death for sinners.
Reflecting on the significance of the Passover in the Gospels (and in John especially), one may note that the Jews had this idea: At Passover, God’s deliverance could well be expected again (John 6:4-15f). If anything, it is a Jewish idea (not a pagan one) that God’s redemptive actions can be expected at the same time of the year.
At this point, the church had not compromised its celebration of the Lord’s Day even though Sunday was a working day. Christians often met close to sunrise and sunset. If they had resisted the pressure to just meet on Saturday, why would they be so keen to accommodate paganism by picking one of many pagan holidays to celebrate Jesus’ birth?
They might have chosen any date, but their choice was a day which acknowledges God’s sovereign direction of all events and ties together his incarnation and his resurrection. Marking Jesus’ birth on 25th December is not based on a clear statement in the Scriptures. But for the believer who considers Jesus’ death and resurrection to be central events of history, recognising that his birth is part of the same unbroken plan is a God-honouring thing to do. It shows what we believe about who Jesus is, where he came from, and why. As C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.’ So, like the early Christians, when we celebrate the beginning of His work, we should celebrate the end of it too (Revelation 12:5).
Yours in Christ’s service,