The Times West Virginian

Community News Network

December 17, 2012

Was Jesus really born on Dec. 25?

Here's a thought for the harried among us who are unready for the arrival of another Christmas season: There was a time when some scholars argued that the holiday should be observed in the spring. Just imagine three more months of shopping!

  It seems to us a matter of course that Christmas should come on Dec. 25. But over the past 2,000 years or so, the timing of Jesus' birth - which, as the bumper stickers like to remind us, is the original reason for the season - has generated considerable controversy. In fact, there has been enough uncertainty about when to celebrate Jesus' birthday that some Christians have chosen not to celebrate it at all.

 The Bible offers little help in resolving the question: No dates are offered in the Gospel stories. There isn't even a reference to the season of the year. Some readers have thought they detected a clue in the evangelist Luke's mention of shepherds tending their flocks at night as they hear the news of Jesus' birth. To some, this suggests not a December birth, but one during the spring lambing season, when the animals would be free to roam out of their corrals. But wait: Advocates for a December Nativity answer that sheep reserved for temple sacrifices would have grazed unfettered even in deepest winter.

 Clearly, any dispute that hinges on knowledge of Middle Eastern livestock practices of antiquity is not going to be resolved easily.

  Why should it matter? The earliest Christian writers were more interested in Jesus' death and resurrection than in his birth. The oldest of the Gospels, Mark's, makes no mention of Jesus' birth. Later, Matthew and Luke offered extravagant detail - stars, wise men, mangers - but no specifics about timing.

 This didn't stop others from making their own guesses. The theologian Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200, mentions some of the dates that had by then already been proposed as the true date of Jesus' birth. Spring Nativities were popular, with dates in May, April and March being proposed. Dec. 25 was not mentioned as a possibility.

 So how did we end up celebrating a wintry white Christmas? The church only settled on a Dec. 25 Christmas in the fourth century. The standard explanation is that the early church conflated its celebration of the Nativity with pre-existing pagan festivals. Romans had their Saturnalia, the ancient winter festival, and northern European people had their own solstice traditions. Among the features: parties, gift-giving, dwellings decorated with greenery.

 The reasoning goes that the growing church, recognizing the popularity of the winter festivals, attached its own Christmas celebration to encourage the spread of Christianity. Business historian John Steele Gordon has described the December dating of the Nativity as a kind of ancient-world marketing ploy.

But some put forward another, less well-known explanation for the Dec. 25 date - one with appeal for anyone uncomfortable with a connection between Christmas and the old solstice festivals. According to some scholars, Christmas was set near the winter solstice not because of any pagan traditions but based on a series of arcane calendrical computations. This argument hinges on an ancient Jewish tradition that had the great prophets dying on the same dates as their birth or, alternatively, their conception. Thus, to follow this peculiar assumption, the first step in dating Jesus' birth would be to date his death, which the Gospels say happened at Passover. The early Christian writer Tertullian calculated that the date given for Jesus' death in John's Gospel corresponds to March 25 in the Roman calendar. Many Christian churches came to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel's visit to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she would become the mother of Jesus, on this date. Adding nine months to this date produces a Dec. 25 Christmas.

This alternative explanation is sometimes deployed to dismiss the notion that the holiday had pagan roots. In a 2003 article in the journal Touchstone, for example, historian William Tighe called the pagan origin of Christmas "a myth without historical substance." He argued at least one pagan festival, the Roman Natalis Solis Invictus, instituted by Emperor Aurelian on Dec. 25, 274, was introduced in response to the Christian observance. The pagan festival "was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians." According to Tighe, the pagans co-opted the Christian holiday, not the other way around.

But even to some Christians, Christmas has always seemed like a version of a pagan feast - and therefore unworthy of observance. The early church father Origen argued against celebrating Jesus' birthday: "It is only sinners like Pharaoh and Herod who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world." The Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts famously banned the holiday, in part because they found no Biblical authority for celebrating the Nativity on Dec. 25. (They also feared the Saturnalia-esque disorder and rowdiness that seemed to go with the holiday.) Quakers, too, abstained from celebrating. Harriet Beecher Stowe has a character in her 1878 novel "Poganuc People" explain why his family doesn't observe Christmas: "Nobody knows when Christ was born, and there is nothing in the Bible to tell us when to keep Christmas."

There is something familiar about all these erstwhile Christmas controversies. The holiday is still prime time for disputation. At this time of year, more than any other, the sacred and the secular spend a lot of time jostling for space, and eventually, accommodating each other. So, believers need not be threatened by Christmas' putative pagan roots. If the church repurposed the old solstice feasts, it only goes to show its power to bend the broader culture to its pastoral purpose.

 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014

  • Low blood-sugar levels make for grousing spouses

    Husbands and wives reported being most unhappy with their spouses when their blood-sugar levels were lowest, usually at night, according to research released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Missing a meal, dieting or just being hungry may be the reason, researchers said.

    April 16, 2014

  • portraitoflotte.jpg VIDEO: From infant to teen in four minutes

    Dutch filmmaker Frans Hofmeester’s time lapse video of his daughter, Lotte — created by filming her every week from her birth until she turned 14 — has become a viral sensation.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 15, 2014

  • Allergies are the real midlife crisis

    One of the biggest mysteries is why the disease comes and goes, and then comes and goes again. People tend to experience intense allergies between the ages of 5 and 16, then get a couple of decades off before the symptoms return in the 30s, only to diminish around retirement age.

    April 15, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • bomb1 VIDEO: A year after marathon bombing, Boston remains strong

    The City of Boston came together Tuesday to honor those who were injured and lost their lives at the Boston Marathon on the one-year anniversary of the bombing. While the day was sure to be emotional, those affected by last year's race are showing they won't let the tragedy keep them down.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Google acquires drone maker Titan Aerospace to spread Internet

    Google is adding drones to its fleets of robots and driverless cars.
    The Internet search company said it acquired Titan Aerospace, the maker of high-altitude, solar-powered satellites that provides customer access to data services around the world. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

    April 14, 2014

  • E-Cigarettes target youth with festivals, lawmakers say

    The findings, in a survey released Monday by members of Congress, should prod U.S. regulators to curb the industry, the lawmakers said. While e-cigarettes currently are unregulated, the Food and Drug Administration is working on a plan that would extend its tobacco oversight to the products.

    April 14, 2014

House Ads
Featured Ads