This week, as we creep closer to the 25th of December, we’re
running a daily excerpt from Jason Boyett’s article “Stealing
Christmas” (which appeared in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of RELEVANT).
In it, Jason takes on some of the traditions we associate with the
birth of our Savior and finds that some of them didn’t start out so
“Christian.” So, since we live in a culture that often defines this time of
year by a “War on Christmas” or a “War Defending Christmas,” we thought
it would be fun (and informative) to look at where some of our most
beloved traditions really come from. So far, we’ve tackled the Christmas tree, mistletoe, and gifts; check back each day to find out
more ways we’ve “stolen Christmas.”
Question: What day was Jesus born?
Answer: We don’t know, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t Dec. 25.
Even the date of Christmas doesn’t belong to Christianity. While the Bible doesn’t record the date of Christ’s birth, there’s little to suggest He was actually born on the 25th of December. As you might recall from the Christmas story, there were “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8, KJV). December, in Palestine, is in the middle of the region’s cold, October-to-April rainy season. Sheep would have been inside, not out in the fields.
Regardless, Dec. 25 is a date with a lot of history. It was the feast of the Son of Isis in ancient Babylon, a festival marked with plenty of eating, drinking and even gift-giving. Dec. 25 often marked the end of the Romans’ Saturnalia celebration. The date also coincided with Yule, an ancient German pagan festival occurring on or around Dec. 25.
And in the early years of Christianity, that specific day was celebrated as the birthday of the Persian sun god, Mithras. The religion built around this deity, Mithraism, had become a major rival to the Church in fourth-century Rome, and Dec. 25 was a big party day for the pagans whom Christians hoped to convert. Which posed a problem: How do we convert these guys if we immediately make them give up their favorite feast?
So, even though the early Church hadn’t really bothered to observe Christ’s birth at all, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the official feast day to honor Baby Jesus. And what a coincidence that this date not only competed with rival religions but made it a lot easier for new converts to drop their paganism while holding on to the day’s merriment, feasts and fun. The papal pronouncement became official in 375 A.D. Suddenly Jesus had a birthday.