Why December 25?

Carols ring from in-store speakers, twinkly lights sparkle on rooftops, menus are being planned and families are poised to gather.  Christmas is near, and people all over the world are counting down the days until December 25.  Some do it in a purely secular spirit and look forward to holiday parties and Santa’s treasures.  Others take a more religious view to the holiday and focus on the celebration of Jesus’ birth – but not a birthday.

Scholars agree that biblical clues indicate that Jesus was not born on December 25 but that the day has been widely agreed upon as a celebration of his birth.

Why not celebrate Jesus on his actual birthday?  Records do not exist for that specific date, and biblical clues are conflicting.  One thing is certain, though, he wasn’t born in December. Bethlehem is chilly and often rainy in December, and the shepherds are not in the field.

The bible suggests that Mary and Joseph were headed to Bethlehem in order to register for a census and pay taxes in the city of Joseph’s origin.  Because farmers were done with their harvests in the fall of the year, that would have been the most logical time for such a census and taxation to take place – when the farmers were flush and finished with work.

Fall is also a time of harvest festivals and celebrations, and it’s a time when Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for Sukkot, a week-long celebration that follows Yom Kippur.  This would be a time when homes and inns would be overflowing with family and friends gathering to honor the harvest and join in their religious ceremonies.  It would be a time when a too-full inn might offer a stable as lodging to a young expectant couple.

Two other festivals encourage Israelites to gather in Jerusalem: Passover and Shavu’ot. These happen in the spring of the year and inspire some thought that Jesus was a spring baby. This theory would coincide with the shepherds tending their flock in the fields at night because spring lambing would require around-the-clock observation.

There are more detailed clues, too, that are given in the bible’s book of Luke. Here, the pregnancy of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is detailed. Luke writes that Mary conceives during her cousin’s sixth month of pregnancy and that her son is born six months after Elizabeth’s.  Through a complicated exploration of biblical clues, the date of Elizabeth’s conception can be narrowed down to June, Mary’s to December, and the ultimate birth of Jesus to September.

If it’s possible that Jesus was an autumn baby, why do we celebrate his birth in the darkest days of winter?  According to Reverend Julianne Lepp, a Unitarian Minister educated at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, it has ties to pagan traditions.

“The early beginnings of Christmas, in fact, have direct roots in the winter solstice celebration that took place at Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture,” Lepp explains.  “When Christianity was introduced to the Roman Empire in the early 4th Century, the church allowed the Saturnalia tradition to continue, but concluded the week-long festival with a day dedicated to the birth of Christ, or Christ Mass, better known today as Christmas.”

In fact, Emperor Constantine was a Christian convert who sought to combine pagan worship and Christianity. Mithraism and other pagan religions honored the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice, and it married well with the Christian birth of the holy son.  Rome first celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25 in 336AD, and Pope Julius I made it official in 350AD.

“In seeking the return of the light we seek to restore balance,” says Lepp. “It is an age old quest of restoring our tired hearts and rekindling joy in the darkest of nights. It is the real hope of the season.”

This hope is reflected in the Christian and pagan traditions that remain dear at Christmas time.  Yule logs burn brightly under mantles festooned in holly – both customs that come from the Scandinavian celebration of solstice.  Candles burn as they have since Saturnalia festivals when they were given as gifts to chase away darkness. Wreathes, pagan symbols of life everlasting, decorate front doors.  Colorful decorations on evergreen trees recall the original fruits, nuts and cookies that were hung reverently on trees that showed power over winter demons by maintaining their color throughout the winter months.

Even more recent Christmas traditions can be traced to the rebirth of light at the winter solstice.  Santa’s sleigh may stem from a Norse myth of Freya who rewarded good deeds with gifts in the days following the winter solstice that she doled out from her stag-drawn chariot.  And Santa himself is a warm and shining light that emerges in the darkest days of the year to bring joy around the world – just as the sun is beginning its reemergence into the northern hemisphere’s coldest days.


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