Back in the late 1980s, I caused a near-uprising in an adult Sunday school class when I said that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25.
It seemed the most obvious and innocuous thing to me. After all, the Bible doesn’t mention a date. If anything, Jesus’ birth would have been closer to springtime, since the book of Luke indicates that shepherds were in the fields with their flocks—an activity which would not occur in winter.
But many class members didn’t see it that way. One woman, in particular, was incensed. I can still remember her angry eyes as she accused me of undermining her faith.
Looking back, I can only imagine how much angrier she would have been if I had told her the earliest Christians didn’t celebrate Christ’s birth at all.
I learned more about this while talking to Winnipegger Gerry Bowler, author of two books about Christmas—The World Encyclopedia of Christmas and the recently-published Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday.
The earliest Christians, he told me, didn’t celebrate Christmas because birthday celebrations were associated with Roman religions. “That was the kind of thing that pagans did,” he said.
It wasn’t until the fourth century that Christmas was recognized by the early church—and not because people wanted a day off and gifts. Instead, it was prompted by a theological dispute about the nature of Christ.
Some Christians, called Gnostics, believed that Christ did not have a real or natural body during his life on earth. One way the church could combat this idea was by emphasizing the birth of Christ.
A great way to do that was by celebrating his birthday.
But that created a new problem; when was his birthday? Nobody knew.
Ultimately, December 25 was chosen. But why that date?
There are at least three theories. The most popular is that early Christians co-opted the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a solstice celebration that occurred in late December and featured gifts, decorating trees and feasts.
By infusing pagan symbols with Christian meaning, the early church would have had an easier time promoting the faith—and dealing with a festival that might have been hard to extinguish by other means.
Another theory is that they co-opted the feast of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), which occurred on December 25. After all, what could be more powerful than the sun than Jesus, the son of God?
But Bowler thinks there’s another reason for the date.
In the ancient world, he told me, people believed great men died and were conceived on the same date.
Since early Christians concluded Jesus was killed on March 25, it meant he was born nine months after that date—on December 25.
Connecting the conception and death of Jesus in this way sounds odd today. But as Andrew McGowan notes in his article in Bible History Daily titled “How December 25 Became Christmas,” “it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together.”
The date of Christmas “may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies,” he adds.
For Bowler, there is better evidence for this way of deciding Christ’s birth date than for the other theories. And “if that’s what the early church decided, it’s good enough for me,” he says.
Over the centuries, the church has had an off-and-on relationship with Christmas. The Puritans in England and America and the Presbyterians in Scotland banned it in the 17th century, arguing it had no scriptural basis.
Whether it was a way to co-opt pagan celebrations, or an ancient belief connecting conception and death, today Christmas is universally celebrated by almost all Christians.
(Although Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar celebrate it on January 6.)
These days, it seems the co-opting has gone the other way around, with the secular world taking over what was once an explicit religious event.
But Bowler doesn’t mind. Even when the religious elements of Christmas are avoided or suppressed, “the magic of the story of the nativity leaks out,” he says.
And despite the secularization of Christmas, it is still a time when “Christians can be most public,” he adds.
“The Christian message may be castigated the rest of the year, but on Christmas it can be heard.”
Even if December 25 isn’t Christ’s actual birthday.
From the December 24, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press