Christmas is a holiday commemmorating the birth of Jesus, celebrated on December 25 (some Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate on this date according to the Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7). There is no consensus on exactly how and when the celebration of Christmas started, but the majority of scholars agree that the actual birthdate of Jesus remains unknown. The word is derived from a contraction meaning "Christ's mass". Aspects of the celebration may include a surge in church attendance, increased focus on teaching about the incarnation, the gathering of many families and friends, the exchange of cards and gifts (often including the Santa Claus myth), and the display of Nativity sets, Christmas trees, and an abundance of lights and decorations.

Despite being nearly universally associated with the birth of Jesus, Christmas is celebrated by a broad range of people of many different faiths. Largely a cultural holiday developed by writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens in the 19th century as a family-oriented day of "peace on earth and good will toward men," it is also the most economically significant holiday of the year. This commercialization, along with the relationships some have tried to draw in recent years to ancient pagan festivals, has prompted some groups to oppose the celebration of Christmas, despite the fact that our current traditions bear almost no resemblance to the practices of the ancient, classical or medieval periods.


Pagan origins?

There were a variety of Roman festivals around December that many point to as early predecessors of the Christmas feast. The festival honoring the god of agriculture (Saturn) was celebrated on December 17 during the Republic Era and transformed over the years from a day of merry-making to a full week or more of decadent revelry during the late Empire Era. Most cultures in the Mediterranean had festivals celebrating the winter solstice (which on the Julian calendar being used at the time fell on December 25), and the Romans were no exception. In A.D. 274 the Feast of Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun) was established to mark the shortest day of the year. A week later the Romans would celebrate the first new moon of the new year.

Little is known about how (or whether) these festivals impacted the earliest celebration of the birth of Jesus. During his life, celebration of one's birthday was indeed more of a pagan practice than a religious one (cf. Mark 6:21-29). There is no record of the apostles or the early church leaders doing anything significant to mark the day of Jesus' birth. In fact, the earliest record of December 25 as a church festival was after the last great persecution (the document dates to AD 354, but refers to a Roman practice in AD 336).^[ _citation\ needed_]^ While there is no historical evidence that anyone in the pre-reformation era made the connection between Saturnalia, Sol Invicta or any Roman feast and the Christian celebration of Christmas, modern scholars point to the coincidence of the dates to demonstrate that they must be related. The first recorded observation of this alleged link was in 1687 by Increase Mather, a Puritan preacher (and father of Cotton).^[_citation\ needed_]^

For one and a half millennia, the religious significance of this festival was minimal at best. From the 5th to the 16th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the "Feast of Fools," which mimicked the practices of Saturnalia, but no one ever tried to associate this with Christmas. In the early 7th century, the pope ordered that churches be decorated for the feast. The tradition of Christmas trees may have developed subsequent to this. In the colonial times, celebration of Christmas was actually banned. However, the state of Alabama declared Christmas a legal holiday in 1836, and its popularity has spread ever since.

On the other hand, it appears that most of the traditions and practices of the various pagan festivals around the winter solstice have run their course. While the vestiges of human sacrifices may be found in the baking of gingerbread men, or perhaps the remnants of orgies found in the expectation of a kiss under the mistletoe, it would be hard to argue that our modern celebrations rival the debauchery of Mardi Gras (which ironically stems from a religious holiday.)

Traditional dates for the birth of Christ

In the latter half of the second century AD, Clement of Alexandria was among the earliest to affix a date to Jesus' birth:

"From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days."

Using the Roman calendar, the date would be November 19, 3 BC However, being from Egypt, it is not unreasonable to assume Clement would count using the Egyptian calendar, making it January 6, 2 BC. For several reasons, this date quickly became the most popular theory, although several others are mentioned, including March 25 or April 6. Apparently there was a widespread belief in Judaism at the time of Christ that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception. While some held to the March 25 or April 6 crucifixion date as his birth date, it was more commonly held that this was the date of his Incarnation. Thus, his birthday would naturally follow nine months later, landing on December 25 or January 6, depending on which calendar you used. (The reason for the discrepancy arose from the difference between how the Greek Christians in the eastern part of the empire and the Latin Christians in the western part of it calculated the date of Christ's crucifixion.)

In his early third century commentary on Daniel, Hippolytus, Bishop of Rome, wrote (according to some manuscripts):

"The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, 5500 years from Adam."

Writing as he was from a Jewish-Christian perspective, this would be interpreted as December 25, 2 BC. However, many believe that this date is contradicted in the same manuscript where he calculates it as April 2. Therefore, it is surmised that he amended his date to conform to the more popular traditional date held by his contemporaries. It should be noted that despite these ancient (well before the establishment of pagan festivities around the winter solstice by Aurelian in AD 274) attempts to calculate the actual date of Jesus’ birthday, there was very little interest in celebrating it as a holiday in the early church or even in the post-reformation evangelical church until at least the 19th century.

Biblical dates for the birth of Christ

  • (Luke 1) Herod was king in Judea. According to Antiquities of the Jews (XVII:6:4) by Josephus, there was a lunar eclipse just a few days before he died, likely corresponding to the astronomical event in either 5 or 1 BC The latter date roughly matches other milestones listed by Josephus, such as the 37-year reign (from around 39 BC) and the 34 years elapsed since the conquest of Jerusalem (around 36 BC) In any case, we can reasonably assume that the conception and birth of both John the Baptist and Jesus occurred at least a few years before 1 BC (cf. Matthew 2:16, "...according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.")
  • (Luke 1) Zechariah's division (Abijah) was on duty in the temple. This position in the rotation would place the conception of John the Baptist sometime shortly after the middle of the 3rd (Sivan) month of the Jewish calendar (cf. I Chronicles 24:10).
  • (Luke 1) Mary conceived Jesus around the 6th month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, or somewhere around the 9th (Kislev) Jewish month. Assuming a normal period of human gestation, Jesus would have been born somewhere around the 6th (Elul) or 7th (Tishri) month, near the appointed time for the feast of Tabernacles (cf. Leviticus 23:33-43).
  • (Luke 2) Augustus was the Roman Emperor and Quirinius was ostensibly governing Syria. While Caesar Augustus' reign places the period comfortably between 23 BC and AD 14, the presence of Quirinius as governor puts the chronology in somewhat of a pickle. Most historians agree that he assumed power in AD 6 (several years after the death of Herod) and ordered a census for the purpose of taxation. In fact, Luke mentions the problems caused by this in his second book (cf. Acts 5:37). The key here seems to be that it was the "first registration" to take place while he was governing, hinting that there would be a subsequent census. Geisler suggests, "When it came time to begin the census, in about 8 or 7 BC, Augustus entrusted Quirinius with the delicate problem in the volatile area of Palestine, effectively superseding the authority and governorship of Varus by appointing Quirinius to a place of special authority in this matter"^[1]^
  • (Luke 2) There was no room in the inn. Why? Was it because of the census? That's certainly a possibility. However, the census process took several years, and unless Joseph and Mary procrastinated until the last possible date to go and register (which seems unlikely due to the impending birth) it is more plausible that they decided to time the journey to coincide with their required trip to Jerusalem for one of the three annual feasts. This could explain why the accommodations in Bethlehem (just a few miles away from Jerusalem) were scarce.
  • (Luke 2) There were shepherds in the field watching their flock. This would be unlikely (but possible) during the cold winters often experienced in the countryside surrounding Bethlehem. However, it would have been a common practice from April through September.
  • (Luke 2) They went to the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after the birth of Jesus. Luke mentions that it was "according to the Law" on three separate occasions and specifically lists the sacrifice they made. An odd rendering indicates that it was for their purification, rather than just for hers, as would have been required by law (cf Leviticus 12).
  • (Luke 2) The theme of Redemption was on the mind of both Simeon the priest and Anna the old woman. (Interestingly, Luke indicates that she had been in the temple both day and night, and the temple was usually closed at sundown... except for on Yom Kippur.)


  1. ? Geisler, Norman L (1992). When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. ISBN 0801011426

See also