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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Why Christmas is held on 25th December

Why Christmas is held on 25th December


According to popular tradition, Christmas is celebrated on 25th December to honor the birth of Jesus. However, no records exist in the Bible or elsewhere to suggest that Jesus was actually born on this date, which raises the important question – why is Christmas celebrated on 25th December? In fact, the selection of this date has its root in both Persian and pagan traditions.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia admits "there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ's birth" (Catholic Encyclopaedia).  There are, however, a number of reasons to suggest that Jesus was probably not born in December. 

Firstly, Luke 2:8 states that on the night of Jesus' birth "there were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks."  Many scholars agree that this would have been unlikely in December, as shepherds would have been keeping their flock under cover during the cold winter months. Shepherds did not remain in the fields of Judea at night during December due to lack of forage and the bad weather.

According to Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, Luke's account "suggests that Jesus may have been born in summer or early fall. Since December is cold and rainy in Judea, it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night" (p. 309).

Similarly, The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary says this passage argues "against the birth [of Christ] occurring on Dec. 25 since the weather would not have permitted" shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night.

The Good Shepherd figure has firm roots in pagan antiquity, and became very popular in its application to Christ's characterization of Himself. Like a mother's love, the shepherd's concern for his flock was legendary, and helped reassure Christians of the quality of God's promise and love. This depiction is Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the early Christian catacomb of Domitilla/Domatilla (Crypt of Lucina - 200 CE)

Secondly, it is written in the Bible that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). However, The Romans would have known better than to have taken such censuses in winter, when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition for traveling. Taking a census under such conditions would have been self-defeating.


Pagan celebrations

Since it appears unlikely that Jesus was born on 25th December, it raises the logical question of why Christmas is celebrated on this date. The answer points back to the Romans' pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Two celebrations in particular took place around December 25 - the Saturnalia, and the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra (Catholic Encyclopedia). 

A painting by Thomas Couture depicting Romans celebrating Saturnalia

The Saturnalia festival began on 17th December and later expanded with festivities through to the 25th December. It paid tribute to Saturn, the agricultural God of Sowing and Husbandry, and was associated with the renewal of light and the coming of the New Year. It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home--  A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn, a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere.