We hear a lot about Jesus during the holidays – more than any other time during the year. We see Christmas specials focused on the birth of Jesus, and we see nativity scenes, some of which include Santa Claus for some reason. We even see people who throw a birthday celebration for him at Christmas. But there’s no doubt that around the world, people often see 25 December as the birthdate of Jesus. But is it?
The history of how 25 December came to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus is pretty convoluted. Critics claim that Christians accepted the date because of its pagan origins, which means Jesus himself has connections to paganism. Some Christians have argued that early believers hijacked this date because of its pagan origins so that they could demonstrate the superiority of Christ over the pagan gods. Others have argued that the Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted a pagan festival in AD 274 called the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to serve as an alternative to a date that had some importance to early Christians. Despite their popularity, some of these suggestions are more myth than fact.
Many people may not know that the association of 25 December with the birth of Christ took centuries. Biblically speaking, no reason to connect the birth of Christ with this day exists. Even in the early church, Christian authors gave little thought to the issue. Eventually, believers did make attempts to determine the date of Jesus’ birth, but the earliest writers say absolutely nothing about it. Writers like Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-200) and Tertullian (c.160-225) don’t mention anything about celebrations of Christ’s birth. Origen of Alexandria (c.165-264) mocked Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries. In the third century, Clement of Alexandria offered several possible dates for the birth of Christ, with this date being found nowhere among his suggestions. Clement wrote that he was aware of several candidates for the day of Christ’s birth, which included dates in March and May, with several suggestions in April.
So, should Christians see 25 December as the day of Christ’s birth? Here we’re going to have to say no. Scholars have mined the biblical text for clues as to the time of year when Jesus was born. They are virtually unanimous that he wasn’t born during the winter. Luke indicates shepherds were out tending their flocks (Luke 2:7-8)—something that they wouldn’t have done past October when the weather began growing colder.
If we go back to the very earliest years of the Christian movement, we find no records of them celebrating Christmas. They memorialized his death, burial, resurrection, and enthronement in the Lord’s Supper instead. They envisioned baptism as a death and resurrection (Romans 6:3). Christ’s birth didn’t seem to be as important in the life of the church as other important events from his life.
When we hear about someone celebrating Christmas with, “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” we have to realize that no one in the early church ever did. But even if it isn’t Jesus’ birthday, his birth does have vital significance for Christians. It makes his sonship incredibly relevant for us as human beings (John 3:16). It also means that his life on earth had a starting point, like ours, even though it was quite different from the lives we have (John 1:14). We see him triumph over the same temptations with which we struggle (Hebrews 4:15). He is the eldest of our spiritual brotherhood of believers (Romans 8:29).
This time of year does remind us of Jesus’ humanity, which humbles us, inspires us, and ultimately serves as an integral component of the salvation we enjoy.
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