Posted by: BibleScienceGuy | December 8, 2021

Why Is Christmas December 25?

(4 Minute Read plus video. 8Dec2021)

At Christmas we rejoice in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Savior of the world, and we celebrate the purpose for which He came.

But when was Jesus actually born? Why do we observe Christmas on December 25?

The answer is that the December 25 tradition is very ancient, and there is no good historical evidence against that date.

Around 350 AD Pope Julius I declared December 25 as the official date for the birth of Jesus. But this date had already been in use for quite some time. The earliest records of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 go back to before 200 AD, and the tradition was firmly established in the church by 400 AD.

Ancient Testimony for December 25

In the 2nd century AD, Africanus (c. 160 – c. 240) and Hippolytus (165-235) both gave December 25 as Jesus’ birthday. Augustine of Hippo reports a December 25 tradition that existed prior to 312 AD. A mid-4th-century Roman almanac lists dates for bishops and martyrs. Its first listing is Christ’s birthday on December 25.

Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) accessed Rome’s still-extant census records and reported Jesus’ birth as December 25. In 386 AD John Chrysostom said December 25 was the correct date. Ever since, both the Eastern and Western churches have accepted December 25.

Scripture doesn’t specify Christ’s birthday. The date was not preserved because first-century Christians didn’t celebrate it. They focused on His death and resurrection just as the New Testament does.

Jesus Himself at the Last Supper instructed His followers to remember His death (Luke 22:17-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). He said nothing about remembering His birthday. The NT epistles focus on explaining the significance of His death and resurrection and the application to daily life.

Why December 25?

How did early Christians settle on December 25 for Jesus’ birthday? Two distinct arguments for December 25 led them to this choice.

First, about 200 AD, Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that in the year Jesus died, Nisan 14 (Passover) was the equivalent of March 25 on the Roman calendar. At that time Christians and Jews believed that a prophet died on his conception date. They believed that if Christ died on March 25, then he would have been conceived on March 25. Nine months after His conception date would give December 25 as His birth date.

Second, John the Baptist’s father Zechariah was in the priestly division of Abijah (Luke 1:5), the 8th of 24 divisions of temple priests (1 Chronicles 24:1-5,10). Early church historians knew which priestly division was in the temple in August 70 AD when the Romans sacked Jerusalem. Counting back they concluded that the Abijah division and hence Zechariah would have been in the temple in early October. His wife Elizabeth conceived John the end of October after Zechariah left the Temple. Since Mary conceived Jesus six months later, the conception would have been around March 25 and the birth around December 25.

These two converging arguments influenced early church leaders to settle on December 25 for Christ’s date of birth.

Challenges to December 25

The December 25 date has been challenged by claiming that shepherds would not have been outside in the fields around Bethlehem (Luke 2:8) during winter. But this is only speculation. Judean winters were relatively mild, with the coldest nights occurring in late February.

December nights were plenty warm enough to pasture sheep and ideal for grazing on new grass sprouted by winter rains. December was actually better grazing weather than the hot dry summers. Perhaps the shepherds were sitting around campfires outside the sheepfolds when the angels appeared.

Since shepherds were tending sheep around Bethlehem rather than out in the wilderness, it was likely winter, for in winter sheep were brought in from wilderness pastures. In fact, the Mishna implies lambs for Temple sacrifices were kept outside year-round in fields around Bethlehem.

Adoration of the Magi
by Rogier van der Weyden
He who holds the universe together humbled Himself to be born as a man.

Another objection to the December 25 date for Christmas is that no census requiring winter travel would have been held. Yet December travel was quite feasible. In any case, Rome was not known for compassionate consideration of subject peoples.

Today nobody knows what the census deadlines were. Maybe Joseph purposefully journeyed in December, trying to complete the trip before the birth. Or maybe he delayed till the deadline, hoping for the birth before the trip. Caesar’s census was God’s tool for placing Mary in Bethlehem for the birth to fulfill Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:4-6; Micah 5:2).

Some in the last few centuries have argued that Christians took over the pagan Saturnalia festival. But the historical evidence contradicts this. The first time such a connection is mentioned is in the 12th century, many centuries after the December 25 date for Christmas was well established. The Saturnalia festival idea was popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries when some people promoted the idea simply to provide a secular explanation for the December 25 date for Christmas.

Is December 25 Jesus’ birthday? Nobody knows for sure. December 25 is as good a date as any to celebrate His birth, and it has early historical support.

Read my article What Year Was Jesus Born? for information on the year of Jesus’ birth.

Does Christmas Matter?

What is the significance of Christmas?

The earthshaking truth is that Jesus was born to die! He told His disciples,
“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Here’s a 2-minute Christmas video from Living Waters on the reason for Christmas:


 

Questions to Ponder

1. Jesus is the reason for the Christmas season. How do you plan to honor Him?
2. In what sense are you and I the reason for the season?
3. Can you think of someone who needs to understand the reason for the season? Do you have a plan to explain it?

Share your thoughts on these questions in the comments below. It could encourage or help another reader.

For Christ and His Kingdom. Soli Deo Gloria. Alere Flammam Veritatis.

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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
“for the defense of the gospel”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:5; Phil 1:16)
Wednesday December 8, 2021 A.D.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. (Romans 6:3-5 ESV)

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