Christmas Traditions

Santa Bear

Did you bring the Cokes?


Why December 25th?

Here in Arkansas, Christians traditionally celebrate Christmas on the 24th and 25th days of December and we generally recognize the Christmas season to commence on the psuedo-advent-redneck-holiday of "Black Friday". The bible doesn't reveal the date of Jesus' birth, however, so how did it get to be December 25th? No one knows. It was first celebrated on December 25th, in the year 336 by Roman Emperor Constantine, and not long after that, Pope Julius I declared December 25th as the official time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But why? There are only theories of course, but they all seem to fall along two lines:

Theory Pagan

The prevalent theory is that early Christians simply appropriated existing pagan celebrations. Early Christians weren't as interested in the birth of Christ as they were in the crucifixion. Paul's epistles hardly mention Jesus' birth. Second century Christians had the birth story and that was enough. After Rome's conversion, however, things were different and Christians wanted to commemorate the Lord's birthday and Rome was already throwing wild parties around the time of the Winter Solstice.

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and takes place on December 21st or 22nd. The Roman Festival of Saturnalia was held as a week-long feast from December 17th to the 23rd to celebrate the Roman god Saturn. Another festival created by Caesar Aurelian in 274 to honor the Sun god Mithra was called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun) and was celebrated on December 25th. It's where we get the word Sunday.

By the time of Jesus, the Jews were celebrating Hanukkah. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and that celebration takes place on the 25th of Kislev which can be from late November to late December. (Jews used/use a hybrid solar-lunar calendar but that is another story.) Since Jesus is Jewish, it may have seemed natural for early Christians to choose a date that coincided with a Jewish celebration and Roman feasting.

The Winter Solstice celebrations are where the use of Mistletoe, Holly, Ivy, and Laurel leaves came from. Singing carols was also part of the old tradition, as well. They weren't Christmas songs of course, but the custom is very old. This pagan appropriation theory also has the quality of simplicity. It makes sense and you don't have to think too hard about it.

Theory Christian

There is a widely held view that Jesus was in fact born on December 25th. This stems from the Christian tradition of Annunciation; when Gabriel visited Mary and told her she would be the mother of Jesus. Christian tradition has this happening on March 25th. If you add nine months to March 25th, you get December 25th. Perfect! It doesn't raise any questions at all. Except for how did March 25th become the day of Annunciation? Or, which came first, Christmas or Annunciation? It's complicated.

What follows is a weak explanation. I've seen this information used to prove Jesus was born on dates other than Christmas. The best version that supports Dec 25th is here: God's Birthday It's a good short read. Here is the link for those of you who want to type it - https://taylormarshall.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Gods-Birthday-Dec-18.pdf

The advent of Jesus is explained by Gabriel to Daniel 9:20-27. Earlier in the chapter, Daniel, realizing the exile is coming to an end, prays to God to end Jerusalem's desolation. In verse twenty, while Daniel is still praying, he is visited by Gabriel who he recognizes from an earlier vision. (Daniel refers to Gabriel as a man.) True to his nature, Gabriel starts to explain stuff:

Daniel 9:22-27 22. He instructed me and said to me, "Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. 23. As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the message and understand the vision: 24. "Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy. 25. "Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26. After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27. He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.' In the middle of the 'seven' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him. "

I told you all that so I could tell you this:

Remember John the Baptist? His birth was first. His father, Zechariah served in the temple and was of the priestly division of Abijah (Luke 1:5). You can read in 1 Chronicles chapter 24 about the order of service, but Abijah was the eighth lot and they served in the temple twice a year; so priests of Abijah served in the eighth and thirty-second week of the year. The point of this is that if theologians can pinpoint when the cycle of weeks of service began (and they can but I'm not getting into it) then they can extrapolate the date of John's birth. And that is in late June. The Nativity of John the Baptist is celebrated June 24th.

So if John the Baptist is a Gemini, he must have been conceived around the end of September. Luke 1:26 is where you can read about Gabriel visiting Mary.

Luke 1:26-28 26. In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27. to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

So if John is conceived September 25th, and Mary is visited by Gabriel in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, that would make the Annunciation (the conception of Christ) March 25th. Add nine months and Merry Christmas!

So?

I think I was ten when I first heard the idea that Christmas was a "churched up" version of a Roman holiday. I started this with the intention of learning more about the pagan holidays of old, but I came out understanding that the December 25th date may not be as arbitrary as I had come to believe. I'm also aware that the information presented is not universally accepted. Here's a link to a website that uses the exact same technique to prove that Jesus was not born on December 25th! This is why I have a 9pm cutoff every night where I go downstairs and soften by brain with television. It can get to be overwhelming.

The takeaway is this: It really doesn't matter. I love studying the bible. I enjoy reading about people who lived long ago. But knowing or not knowing the date of Jesus' birth really doesn't impact the story at all. All the bible trivia in the world doesn't change the fact that Jesus lowered himself to our level for a short while so we could be with him for eternity. And when I'm standing before Jesus, if it's still on my mind, I can ask him.