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Note On the Date of Christmas

01-10-2021From the desk of Fr. Villa

A common assertion is that early Christians derived Christmas from pagan celebrations, and that these feasts are therefore pagan (though overlaid with a thin veneer of Christianity). How much truth is there in this assertion? Since the Western Christmas (25 December) falls near the Winter Solstice (21 December), it occurs at the same time of the year as certain pagan solstice feasts. One such feast was the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Nativity of the Invincible Sun), which commemorated the birth of the sun god Mithra. After Emperor Aurelian declared Mithra/Sol Invictus to be the patron of the Roman Empire in 274 AD, this feast in his honor became very popular. Some say that the Christians invented Christmas, a feast in honor of Jesus' birth, as an alternative to this popular feast of Mithra's birth. Others claim that Christmas was never a separate feast, but is the feast of Sol Invictus itself, continued and adapted by pagan converts in the fourth century, after Constantine forced them to become Christians. Unwilling to abandon their beloved Mithraism, they changed Dies Natalis Solis Invicti into a feast of Christ's Nativity (since no one knows for sure what day Jesus was born).

In 1958, though, the Israeli scholar Shemaryahu Talmon published an in-depth study on the calendar of the Qumran sect, and he reconstructed without the shadow of doubt the order of the sacerdotal rotation system for the temple of Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 24, 7-18) in New Testament times. Qumran was home to a community of Jewish ascetics called the Essenes, who devoted their lives to writing and preserving sacred texts. They were hard at work by the time Jesus began preaching; ultimately they stored the scrolls in 11 caves before Romans destroyed their settlement in A.D. 68. Here the family of Abijah, of which Zechariah was a descendent, father of John the Baptist and forerunner (Luke 1,5) was required to officiate twice a year, on the days 8-14 of the third month, and on the days 24-30 of the eighth month. This latter period fell at about the end of September. It is not without reason that the Byzantine calendar celebrated 'John's conception' on September 23 and his birth nine months later, on June 24. The 'six months' after the Annunciation established as a liturgical feast on March 25, comes three months before the forerunner's birth, prelude to the nine months in December: December 25 is a date of history. Even the common argument that shepherds would not have been in the fields in December is inaccurate. That is the time of the year when sheep naturally begin giving birth ("lambing"), and the shepherds would typically stay with the sheep at night to take care of the newborn lambs. In fact, the lambing season would have been the only time of the year in which the shepherds would have stayed with the flocks during the night (see Luke 2:8). This information seems to confirm that Jesus could well have been born on or near 25 December, perhaps even 6 January (considering the many possible normal fluctuations of gestational periods). So either of these traditional dates, December 25, January 6 may be - or at least come very close to - Jesus' real birthday! The fact that December 25 happens to fall four days after the Winter Solstice is a coincidence of history (and January 6 is sixteen days removed from the solstice, so it's harder to see a connection there).

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