But, really, why December 25th? How did we pick that date? How do we know that on that specific day a certain little baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes and snuggled into a feeding trough for hungry barn animals?
The answer is we don’t know when Christ was born. We don’t know which silent night was suddenly rocked by a chorus of angels, announcing to a frightened and stunned team of shepherds that the Savior of the world had arrived. Throughout history we have made educated guesses and ancient holiday calendar compromises to come up with the 25th day of December.
For the first three centuries of Christianity, the church didn’t celebrate Christ’s birth at all, on any date. In fact, some church leaders argued against such a practice, saying that honoring his birthday would be too similar to the pagan traditions of celebrating the birthdays of their leaders and their gods.
But some early church leaders didn’t agree with this concern and eventually decided to celebrate Christ’s birth, typically doing so around a recognized holiday known as Epiphany, one of the earliest feasts of the Christian church observed on January 6. According to About.com, Epiphany celebrated the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, remembered by the foreign wise men called by a star to pay him a visit. This celebration is still observed by some liturgical denominations, such as Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Catholic.
Yet another theory of the history of December 25th is that it falls exactly nine months after the date some early Christians believed Jesus was conceived, according to Wikipedia. Others speculate that Christ was actually born sometime in early autumn, based on some mathematical figuring around John the Baptist and the story of the two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary, and their pregnancies, visits, and eventual births. Some people say the choice of the late December date was an effort by the church to co-opt a major pagan holiday, the celebration of the birth of the sun god, artfully repackaging it and spinning it into a celebration of the birth of God’s Son.
According to an article on Christianitytoday.com, the choice of December 25th was likely made as early as 273 AD. Most sources agree that Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336. About.com states that the Roman church calendar definitely records a nativity celebration on that date and Christianitytoday.com agrees that this date coincides with Emperor Constantine’s previous declaration that Christianity was the empire’s favored religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ’s birth and his baptism and then, eventually, adopted December 25th.
Ancient calendars and mathematical equations aside, the most compelling argument against December 25th is the simplest one, found in the Bible itself. Allaboutjesuschrist.org points out that government officials wouldn’t likely require citizens to travel to their native home in the middle of winter for a census and shepherds wouldn’t have had their flocks out in the fields, munching on frozen, dead grass. Winter lasts in the region surrounding Bethlehem for three months, from mid-December to mid-March, and temperatures can dip as low as zero. Shepherds apparently didn’t take their animals out grazing during this time. Instead, grazing season was typically from early March through, possibly, early November.
We’re told in the Bible that Jesus lived for approximately 33.5 years, dying around the time of Passover. Therefore it would seem that he was born about six months (and 33 years) before that time period, which would make his birth in the fall.
The exact date of Christ’s birth isn’t relevant to the meaning. God’s gift to the world, the miracle of Jesus’ birth, and the story of humble beginnings for a glorious Savior — all of that is separate from any evidence that supporters or detractors may seek through calendar calculations, archeological digs, or searches for DNA remnants.
The beauty of December 25th is that everyone who wishes to pause on this day, believers and non-believers, secular celebrants and faithful worshippers, can come together around the globe, across language barriers and cultural divides, to pay tribute to the concepts of peace on earth and good will to all. The meaning isn’t limited to one day of the year, be it December 25th or not. For some of us, our faith represents a daily celebration and belief in Christmas. But, for all of us, the spirit of giving and good will could be honored best by remembering it the other 364 days of the year, as well.
Jaletta Albright Desmond is a self-syndicated columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in Davidson with her husband and two daughters. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org