Dear Father, I have heard from a friend that it is not a fact that Jesus Christ was born on 25 December; also that originally 25 December was a day of a widespread pagan festival. If this is true, then why do Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on 25 December? -Ms. Veena B.
The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” - Luke 2:11-12 (NLTCE)
AFr. Adrian answers:
The date of Christ's birth is not recorded in the Bible. The Bible does, however, give us certain historical clues such as the mention of Caesar Augustus, King Herod, Quirinius the Governor, the census, and the star. None of these, however, is sufficient to establish the exact date, though we can more or less conclude that Christ was born somewhere around 4 BC [The universal calendar is, therefore, around 4 years off!]
Christmas is basically a celebration of the birth of Jesus, which is why it is also called the Feast of the Nativity. It is NOT, as is commonly supposed, the celebration of the birthDAY of Jesus. Jesus could quite well have been born on any other day - unknown to us - but the fact remains that he was born - itself a biblical event and an occasion of joy and celebration in heaven and on earth. It is this mystery of the Nativity of our Lord that we celebrate on December 25.
That still leaves open the question of why December 25 was chosen. Possibly the pagan festival - connected with the sun - had something to do with it. A fourth century explanation is that the birthdays of Jesus (Dec 25) and John the Baptist (Jun 24) had a symbolic meaning because they coincided with the point when the days began to lengthen (Dec 23 onwards) and shorten (June 22 onwards) respectively. This is reminiscent of John the Baptist's profound statement: "He must increase but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Of course, this brilliant symbolism is directly reflected in the movements of the heavenly bodies, so it should not come as a surprise as these two beautifully symbolic dates were already celebrated as pagan festivals. This should not put us off, in the same way that Independence Day has no connection with the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Aug 15) though both celebrations fall on the same day.
Lastly, the most likely explanation of the selection of the date is as follows: Christmas was originally celebrated on January 6 (this would have been the date in the late second century, and possibly even earlier). However, when this celebration reached the Western Church, the date was changed to December 25 in order to make it fall exactly 9 months after the feast of the Incarnation (today called the Feast of the Annunciation), which was celebrated on March 25. This belief is first mentioned around the year 240 AD. The reasoning behind this calculation is that Jesus must have spent 9 months in the womb of his mother Mary.
The best reason I can give for celebrating Christmas on December 25, is that the whole community celebrates it on the same day. Christmas is all about community - whether you are a shepherd or a king, a baby or a senior citizen, there is a place for you in the celebration. So Christmas is not about finding out the exact historical moment when Christ was born; it is a celebration of his BIRTH itself - a time to give glory to God in the highest, and to bring peace to his people on earth.
About Rev Fr Adrian Mascarenhas
Rev. Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas has served as the Assistant Parish Priest of St. Patrick's Church and Ascension Church, and has just completed two years of ministry at St. Peter's Church, Bangalore, India. He received his licentiate in sacred theology from Dharmaram Vidya Kshethram and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome.