The Birth Of Jesus
Was Jesus really born on December 25th?
John D. McHugh/AFP/Getty Images
The Bible is fairly ambiguous about when Jesus was born.
At Christmastime, you might notice signs amid residential light displays or on church boards that merrily proclaim "Happy Birthday, Jesus" or announce that "Jesus is the reason for the season." Of course, such messages are merely meant to remind people of the sentiment behind Christmas. But the signs do raise questions about the accuracy of Biblical dates and the history of the Church year.
Because the Bible offers no date for Jesus' birth, the placement of the nativity is up for debate. However, the presence of shepherds "keeping watch over their flock by night" [Luke, 2:8] suggests the birth may have actually occurred in the spring during lambing--the only time of year shepherds watched their flocks both day and night. During the centuries immediately following Jesus' life, Church leaders made no effort to correctly date the nativity. They focused on deaths and feast days, dismissing births as secondary.
But by the early fourth century, Church leaders decided they needed a Christian alternative to rival popular solstice celebrations. They chose December 25th as the date of Christ's birth and held the first recorded Feast of the Nativity in Rome in A.D. 336. Whether they did so intentionally or not, Church leaders directly challenged a fellow up-start religion by placing the nativity on December 25th. The Cult of Mithras celebrated the birth of their infant god of light on the very same day.
When Can We Open the Presents?
European families often exchange gifts on Christmas Eve in the belief that Jesus was born that night. But in the United States, most families open their gifts on Christmas morning -- diving into the piles of packages in pajamas and nightgowns. Others might open a few presents upon return from midnight mass, but wait to open the rest by daytime. The traditional American Christmas morning has led some churches to call off or postpone services on Christmas day.
Church leaders may have also had theological reasons for choosing the date of Dec. 25th. The Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus had identified the 25th as Christ's nativity more than a hundred years earlier. Chronographers reckoned that the world was created on the spring equinox and four days later, on March 25th, light was created. Since the existence of Jesus signaled a beginning of a new era, or new creation, the Biblical chronographers assumed Jesus' conception would have also fallen on March 25th placing his birth in December, nine months later.