By Lorelei Nettles
Was Jesus born on Dec. 25? The Bible does not give the exact date of Christ’s birth, so how can we determine it? Should the date really matter?
I have heard many sermons and read many articles and booklets on the subject of Christmas. Surprisingly, they all lead to the same conclusions: Christmas just is not what it is cracked up to be. What do we know about the holiday known as Christmas? Was it always the celebration of Christ’s birth, or was it based on something else entirely? The truth is that, early on, Christians did not celebrate Christ’s birth; it was His death and resurrection that were supremely important.
Dec. 25 was originally a date that the ancient Romans observed in their worship of Saturn and Mithra. Consider this information about Saturnalia from history.com:
“In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.
“Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, [Dies Solis Invicti Nati, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun] on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.”
In the fourth century the major church of the day did not like that the above-mentioned holidays were being observed. They saw them as a threat to Christianity and decided they would have to do something about this. So, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth, thus melding it into their worship, trying to Christianize the pagans as it were, but in turn, many pagan customs were soon adopted into the very fiber of the Christian lifestyle.
What does the Bible tell us?
Any good shepherd would not leave his sheep out in the elements to suffer from the cold.
Carefully reading the story in the Bible, we find that Christ was not born in the winter. During the winter, it is usually cold and wet in the Holy Land. Any good shepherd would not leave his sheep out in the elements to suffer from the cold. Look at Luke 2:7-8: “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
Note that the manger had room for Jesus, even if the inn did not. During the winter, this would not be so. In winter, the animals would have been in the barns using their mangers. Also, at night it would be much cooler than during the day, so even if the animals had been out during the day, they would not be out at night. Barns of the first century were not the elaborate buildings we have today—animals would have filled these small areas.
Another thing to think about is, if Jesus had been born in the winter, where would Mary and Joseph be willing to have her child, begotten by the Holy Spirit, born when the inns were full? Even mangers would be full of animals and their refuse! Putting a newborn baby into a probably freezing cold manger with only swaddling cloths would be unthinkable. Temperatures were probably 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) or lower at night in late December. Instead, she would probably be clutching her child, all close together huddling in the corner. Assuming Christ was born in the winter just does not make sense, does it?
Varying evidence puts the birth of Christ in the autumn, when people could travel and after the crops had been harvested. At that time of year it would have been warm enough for the family to stay in a stable.
Making sense of the census
One reason for the family to be in Bethlehem was because of the census. People had to go to the place of their origin to register.
Luke 2:3 states: “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.” This could be why the inns were full—there were a lot of people traveling to and from the places of census. The Romans would not have had the census in the winter when the people would have trouble traveling.
While there is some debate on the subject, it is believed that this was one of the very first censuses taken in order that all the people could be taxed. Some may say that it is unrealistic for people to have traveled so far for a census, but a Roman census document, dating from A.D. 104, has been discovered in Egypt that specifically commanded citizens to return to their original homes for the census (A.H.M. Jones, ed., A History of Rome Through the Fifth Century, 1970).
“Around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome.”
We can find some hints about the date Christ was born by what we read in Luke 1:34-37. “Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. 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. For with God nothing will be impossible.’”
In what way does this scripture help? If we note verse 36, we see that Elizabeth was already six months along in her pregnancy. We then can establish that Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, was born six months earlier than Jesus Christ.
We also know that John’s father was a priest. Luke 1:5 tells us he was a priest of the division of Abijah, which some sources say had one of its main duty periods at the temple around Pentecost, which generally falls in mid- to late June on our Roman calendar. Elizabeth conceived after her husband returned from the temple, possibly around late June.
This would have put the birth of John around March or April, so Christ would have been born around September or October.
Luke 1:22-24 says, “But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless. So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months.”
This would have put the birth of John around March or April, so Christ would have been born around September or October. Though the Bible doesn’t say exactly when Christ was born, it clearly wasn’t in December. If you do the research, you can prove these things for yourself, and I encourage you to do so.
So, does it matter if we observe Dec. 25 as Christ’s birth, even if we understand it is not Jesus’ birthday? What does Jesus think of us celebrating it, and what does God think of it?