Tis the season when people start talking about “Saving Christmas”, because they think there is a “war on Christmas” every time someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. We hear phrases like “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “put Christ back in Christmas”, but perhaps we should take a moment to find out if Christ ever truly was in Christmas to begin with.
Christmas is one of the most beloved holidays around the world, and is celebrated in over 160 countries. Christmas is a civil holiday in many countries, and is celebrated by both Christians and non-christians alike. If Christmas is really “all about Christ”, then why do so many non-Christians love to celebrate it?
Now before you accuse me of being a Scrooge or a Grinch, please take a moment to consider what I have to say, and test everything with the Bible to find out what is true.
If you have ever wondered if Christians should celebrate Christmas, then Yule love this teaching.
WAS CHRIST REALLY BORN ON DECEMBER 25TH?
There has been a lot of speculation and superstition about the birthday of Jesus (Yeshua, in Hebrew). We can find evidence of this as early as the third century, however, there is virtually no evidence of Christians even discussing this issue in the first or second centuries. It was not until the very end of the second century that it is even mentioned.
“There were, however, many speculations in the 2nd century about the date of Christ’s birth. Clement of Alexandria, towards its close, mentions several such, and condemns them as superstitions.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, entry for Christmas)
The earliest record we have of any date being selected comes from Egypt around 200 AD (nearly 200 years after the death and resurrection of Christ). According to Clement of Alexandria, certain Egyptians assigned the date of Messiah’s birth to the 25th day of Pachon, which is approximately May 20 on our calendar. It is also important to note that Clement ridiculed them for being “overly curious” for trying to set a date for the birth of Christ. This means that the oldest record of anyone trying to set a date for the birth of Messiah was in the spring, and it was met with opposition from other Christians. This fact is striking, and should cause us to at least wonder why the disciples and earliest believers had no interest in discussing the birthday of their Messiah for the first 200 years.
As we study writings from the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, we find that several different dates were proposed over the years. Some suggested dates in March or April. January was also a popular month, as well as November. Apparently, there was no agreement about when He was born, and according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were claims about His birth taking place in every month.
“Lupi has shown that there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, entry for Christmas)
Why was there so much discussion about the date of Messiah’s birth during the third and fourth centuries, yet total silence on the subject for the first 200 years of Christianity? If the birthday of Yeshua was so important, why didn’t the apostles write about it? Surely His disciples would have known His birthday if it was important, and they would have conveyed it to everyone they taught, yet the writings from the first and second centuries are completely silent on this topic.
It is also important to note that there was much dispute among Christians in the third century over the issue of celebrating Christ’s birth at all. One of the theologians who rejected the birth celebration of Christ was Origen of Alexandria.
“As late as 245 Origen, in his eighth homily on Leviticus, repudiates as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Christ ‘as if he were a king Pharaoh.’” (Encyclopedia Britannica, entry for Christmas)
And according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Origen said,
“of all the holy people in the Scriptures, no one is recorded to have kept a feast or held a great banquet on his birthday. It is only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod) who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world below” (Catholic Encyclopedia, entry for Natal Day)
Many people have looked to the Bible for clues that might provide a key to unlock the secret date of Messiah’s birth. The Gospels provide us with some important information about His birth that might help us identify if Yeshua was born in late December or not.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that there was a census which caused Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem to be registered.
“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.” (Luke 2:1-5)
We have no historical records to verify when this census took place, but it is not likely that Ceasar would mobilize an entire population of people in the middle of winter, which makes December 25 an unlikely date for the birth. Luke also tells us that there were shepherds watching their sheep in fields at night, which is yet another indication that this event was probably not during the winter. Although these clues are hardly conclusive, they do give us good reason to doubt the mid-winter date, which means further investigation is needed for us to find our answers.
The Gospels do give us one clue that is very helpful in determining the season of Messiah’s birth. In the Gospel of Luke, we are told that Zacharias was serving as a priest in the Temple during the appointed time for the division of Abiyah.
“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth… So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division” (Luke 1:5,8)
This is one of the most significant clues for the timing of the birth of John the Baptist and ultimately the birth of Yeshua. If we can find out when the division of Abiyah served, then we can calculate nine months out to the birth of John the baptist, and likewise calculate the birth of Yeshua six months later.
We know from 1 Chronicles 24:7-18 that there were twenty-four priestly divisions serving in the temple in rotation, which means each division served twice per year. Which gives us two possible times during the year that Zacharias might have served in the Temple, so we can narrow it down to two possible times when Messiah could have been born.
The Scriptures make no mention of when the division of Abiyah served, the information is recorded in the Mishnah, which explains that the rotations began with the first division serving at the first Sabbath of the month of Aviv, and since Abiyah was eighth in the list, he would have served on the 8th Sabbath, however all of the priests were required to serve in the Temple on Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, which means those weeks the rotation was suspended for the Feast and resumed afterward. By calculating it out and taking the Feasts into consideration, this would place Zacharias’ service during May or June if he was serving in the first rotation, and December or January if he was serving in the second rotation.
If Zacharias was serving in the first rotation in June, that would place the birth of John nine months later, around the time of Passover. How does this help us determine the birth of Yeshua? Because the Bible tells us that He was conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which would be November or December.
“Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren.” (Luke 1:36)
If this theory is true, that would mean that Yeshua was conceived around the time of Hanukkah (the Feast of Dedication), and would place His birth sometime in August or September, right around the time of the Fall Feasts (Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles). Because of this, some people have concluded that Yeshua was born on the Feast of Tabernacles, because John said that “the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us” (John 1:14), however, this is not very likely since everyone would have been in Jerusalem for the Feast, including Mary and Joseph. It is more likely that His birth could have been on the Day of Trumpets, because trumpets announce something. The Day of Trumpets is the time when kings were anointed, and it also announced the coming of the day of Atonement, signaling the people to repent.
This is assuming that Zacharias served in the first rotation for Abiyah, but if he served in the second rotation, then John would have been conceived around the time of Hanukkah, and born around the time of the fall Feasts, which would place the birth of Yeshua during the spring, around the time of Passover. We can make the same deduction that Yeshua was probably not born on Passover, because His parents would have been in Jerusalem with everyone else during the Feast.
It is interesting that the Gospels mention the Shepherds keeping watch over their sheep near Bethlehem, because these might have been the sheep that were used in the Temple service during Passover. Apparently, the year old lambs that were killed for Passover were born and raised near Bethlehem. Is it possible that the Lamb of Yahweh was born at the same place and time as the lambs that were used during the Passover sacrifices at the Temple? Remember that one of the earliest dates suggested for His birth was in the spring. Perhaps this is why John prophesied saying, “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)
We cannot know for sure if He was born in the fall or spring, but we can say with confidence that He was not born in the middle of winter. So, if He wasn’t born in winter, why was December 25 selected as the date for this celebration? According to the Holman Bible Dictionary:
“No evidence remains about the exact date of the birth of Christ. The December 25 date was chosen as much for practical reasons as for theological ones. Throughout the Roman Empire, various festivals were held in conjunction with the winter solstice. In Rome, the Feast of the Unconquerable Sun celebrated the beginning of the return of the sun. When Christianity became the religion of the Empire, the church either had to suppress the festivals or transform them. The winter solstice seemed an appropriate time to celebrate Christ’s birth. Thus, the festival of the sun became a festival of the Son” (Holman Bible Dictionary, entry for Christmas)
I have searched a number of Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, and they all come to the same conclusion that the date of December 25 was selected to replace the birthday of the Roman sun-god.
Pagans worshipped all sorts of things including the sun, moon, stars, trees, animals, and even man-made idols. However, sun-god worship was one of the most popular forms of paganism. It can be found in Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Many myths in the sun worship cults placed the birth and death of the sun in the winter, because the days grow shorter and darker that time of year. But, after the winter solstice the days start getting longer, which caused the pagans to believe that the sun was born or re-born in the middle of winter each year.
That is the real origins of the December 25 date.
I would like to take a moment to share a quote from Charles Spurgeon, who is considered a beloved and highly respected Protestant preacher from the late 1800’s. Here is what he had to say about the celebration of Christmas.
“We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas. First because we do not believe in any mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be sung in Latin or in English: Secondly, because we find no scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority. Superstition has fixed most positively the day of our Savior’s birth, although there in no possibility of discovering when it occurred. It was not till the middle of the third century that any part of the church celebrated the birth of our Lord; and it was not till long after the western Church had set the example, that the eastern adopted it. Because the day is not known. Probably the fact is that the “holy” days were arranged to fit in with the heathen festivals. We venture to assert that if there be any day in the year of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which our Savior was born it is the 25th of December. Regarding not the day, let us give God thanks for the gift of His dear Son.” —C. H. Spurgeon Dec. 24, 1871 (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, p. 697)