Every year as Christmas draws near I hear bah-humbug arguments insisting that the Church’s Christmas celebration is non-historical. It’s just a selling out, they say, concocted to compete with pagan winter festivals. Well, it’s time to bah-humbug the bah-humbugs. I am not on a mission to disprove completely the influence of pagan culture in the shaping of Christmas. But I have been thinking about how certain ideas (even ideas about Christmas) pass into the general psyche and go unverified or unchallenged.
In the Bleak Midwinter
Historical evidence and practical reasoning supports a late December date for the birth of Christ. The early Church (and even the Biblical record itself) placed light emphasis on the specifics of Jesus’ birth. It chose to focus more on his final days and death. Easter is the Great Day for the Church, far outshining Christmas in importance. However, references to Jesus’ birth ‘in the bleak midwinter’ begin to appear in the mid-4th Century; the date of December 25th is cited regularly from that period on.
Andrew McGowan explains where this dating for Jesus’ birth comes from: “Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover.”* Biblical and extra-Biblical witness is precise in the dating of Jesus’ death during the celebration of the Jewish Passover. As early as 200 C.E. a scholar named Tertullian had calculated Jesus’ crucifixion (reported by the Gospel of John as the 14th of Nisan**) as corresponding to March 25th in the Roman calendar.
Crucifixion and Conception
From these early times, the date of Jesus’ death by crucifixion also came to be recognized as the date of his conception (an event recorded in Luke 1:26-38 and known as the Annunciation).*** Ancient religious belief (particularly in the Jewish tradition) strived to hold all of salvation together. Thus, in the case of the Savior Jesus, the beginning of salvation (conception) and climax of salvation (Christ’s death) were coterminous; celebrated on March 25th.
It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that March 25th is nine months before the traditional date for Christmas (December 25th). Thus, there is a reasonable explanation for a mid-winter date for Christmas that derives not from pagan ritual, but traditional Christian belief holding together the Annunciation and the Passion.****
At the end of the day, I don’t think it really matters whether the celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas corresponds precisely with his actual date of birth. It is not a theological hill to die on. However, it is worth considering (particularly in response to self-assured critics who claim that Christmas is merely a spin-off of pagan ceremonies) that a December 25th date for Christmas has ancient sources and teaches deep theological truth about salvation.
Regardless of the provenance of the Christmas date or the influences on certain Christmas practices, the Church ought to celebrate the birth of Christ. His birth marks the coming of God’s Messiah--the one who addresses ‘the hopes and fears of all the years,’ the one who will ‘give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.’ May you and yours celebrate that One this Christmas.
* This quote and other ideas in this post come from a helpful article in the Biblical Archaeology Review ** See John 19:14, 31, and 42 *** Today many Christian churches still celebrate the March 25th as the Feast of Annunciation ****A particularly powerful example of the equation of Annunciation and Passion comes from poet and pastor John Donne and his poem 'The Annunciation and Passion' which he wrote in 1608 when the March 25th Annunciation Date coincided with Good Friday.