How did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus’ birthday?
The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season. The non-biblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225).
Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find reference to Jesus’ birthday as December 25 in the western Roman Empire. The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday is seen in a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”
So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the date December 25?
There are two theories today connecting the Christmas date as a spin-off from other cultures. One extremely popular, the other less popular. The most standout theory about the origins of the Christmas date is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December.The first is that by the 12th century we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was being set at the time of pagan feasts. Why? Because they claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan festivals for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly with established pagan ideas. Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.
More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, is linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.
The lesser popular theory, is that it is a spin-off of Kislev 25, Hannukah. Kislev is the month of Chanukah in the Jewish Calendar which spans 8 days and often falls during November or December. Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev and concludes in the month of Tevet.
In 140 BC, the Maccabees defeated the vastly more numerous and powerful armies of the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who had tried to forcefully uproot the beliefs and practices of Judaism from the people of Israel. The victorious Jews repaired, cleansed and rededicated the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem to the service of Hashem. All the Beit HaMikdash‘s oil had been defiled by the pagan invaders; and when the Jews sought to light the Beit HaMikdash‘s Menorah (candelabra), they found only one small cruse of ritually pure olive oil. They lit the Menorah with the one-day supply, which miraculously, burned for eight days, until new, pure oil could be obtained.
What strikes me as I do this study, is that in the Old Testament, God is quite clear about His appointed times and dates, and yet the most celebrated Christian holiday is left to speculation in the New Testament. No doubt that Christmas is a combination of spin-offs over the centuries from Kislev 25 to evergreens in the home.
As for me, I ask, which would Jesus have celebrated? I think Kislev 25 and not brought a tree into his home according to Jeremiah 10:1-5.