A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] On the non-pagan origins of Christmas

Continuing a theme from yesterday’s History and Futility post, I thought I’d share an interesting factoid I came across suggesting that Christmas–the 25th of December holiday, at least–is not a pagan appropriation but rather something rooted deeply into Christianity and maybe even empirical fact.

[C]areful study shows that Western Christians were celebrating Christmas on 25 December in the late third century, before the Sol Invictus festival was widely celebrated in the Empire. So Christians did not create this feast to oppose a popular Roman one. As far as Christmas being a “continuation” of a pagan festival, this seems unlikely when one considers the abhorrence many Christians felt toward paganism. Believers of Jewish descent did not suddenly lose their deep aversion to idolatry after Baptism, and converts from paganism often despised the religions which they left behind. Thousands of Christians died during the Romans persecutions rather than engage in pagan rites. Why would they embrace the hated celebrations of their persecutors?

So how did Christ’s birth come to be celebrated on 25 December? Early Christians believed that Jesus was crucified on 25 March (according to the Julian Calendar, that is). They also believe that this was the very same day that He was conceived in Mary’s womb about thirty-four years earlier. It seemed most fitting to them that the first day of His earthly mission be the same day as his last, thus connecting the mystery of the Incarnation with that of the Redemption.

So Christians celebrated 25 March as the Feast of the Annunciation, a commemoration which continues today. Since 25 December falls exactly nine months after the Annunciation, it seemed the most natural day on which to celebrate Jesus’ birth (although Eastern Christians, following a different tradition, opted for 6 January, twelve days later than their Western brothers and sisters).

There may even be a strong basis for 25 December as the actual, historical date of Christ’s nativity. In a recent issue of “Osservatore Romano” (the Vatican’s official newspaper), Professor Tommaso Federici, Professor at the Pontifical Urbanian University and consultant to two Vatican Congregations, says that recent archaological discoveries in the Holy Land shed light on when Jesus was born:

“As long ago as 1958, the Israeli scholar Shemaryahu Talmon published an in-depth study on the calendar of the Qumran sect, and he reconstructed without the shadow of doubt the order of the sacerdotal rota system for the temple of Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 24, 7-18) in New Testament times. Here the family of Abijah, of which Zechariah was a descendent, father of John the herald and forerunner (Luke 1,5) was required to officiate twice a year, on the days 8-14 of the third month, and on the days 24-30 of the eighth month. This latter period fell at about the end of September. It is not without reason that the Byzantine calendar celebrated ‘John’s conception’ on September 23 and his birth nine months later, on June 24. The ‘six months’ after the Annunciation established as a liturgical feast on March 25, comes three months before the forerunner’s birth, prelude to the nine months in December: December 25 is a date of history”

Even the common argument that shepherds would not have been in the fields in December is inaccurate. That is the time of the year when sheep naturally begin giving birth (“lambing”), and the shepherds would typically stay with the sheep at night to take care of the newborn lambs. In fact, the lambing season would have been the only time of the year in which the shepherds would have stayed with the flocks during the night (see Luke 2:8).

This information seems to confirm that Jesus could well have been born on or near 25 December, perhaps even 6 January (considering the many possible normal fluctuations of gestational periods). So either of these traditional dates may be – or at least come very close to – Jesus’ real birthday! The fact that December 25 happens to fall four days after the Winter Solstice is a coincidence of history (and the Eastern Christmas is sixteen days removed from the solstice, so it’s harder to see a connection there).

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2010 at 6:44 pm

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