In African societies, the birth of a child is a process which begins long before the child’s arrival in the world and continues long thereafter. It is not just a single event which can be recorded on a particular date (Mbiti, 2002). This was equally the case of baby Jesus of Nazareth. Christians of Western Rite Churches celebrate the nativity of Jesus on December 25th and his conception on the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, while those of the Eastern Rites that is, the Orthodox do so on January 6th. But, nobody knows the exact date of Jesus’ birth. In fact, what matters about Jesus is not the precise date of his birth, but his birth itself, that is the incarnation of God in Jesus. Our actual interest is not in the ‘when’ of Jesus’ birth, but in the ‘what’: ‘The Word became flesh,’ wrote St. John in his gospel (Jn 1:14). This is the reason for our feast. In the late 330s AD, Pope Julius I declared December 25th to be the day Christ was born. In this article, I will allude to two explanations as to why we have this date as Christ’s birth day.
The traditional explanation
This links Christmas to a pagan and pre-Christian feast dedicated to the sun, a feast that in Rome had later become the feast of the undefeated sun. There is an astronomical event that happens now on 22nd December, which is called solstice – when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator) – another phenomena becomes evident: the nights that had previously been getting longer and longer (with only a handful of daylight hours) start shortening, the time of light starts gaining on the time of darkness. It is a simple astronomical event, but for our ancestors, it also had a spiritual and religious meaning. In the fight between darkness and light, death and life, evil and good, that night light, life and good were able to score again their first victory. The victory of the sun (light) against darkness (death) was the victory of light (life). Since 45 BC, when Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar, December 25th was the date of the winter solstice. It was therefore the day the sun proved itself to be “undefeated” by the darkness that had been steadily eroding daylight hours.
That day, the Romans held a festival on the occasion of the “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” – “the birthday of the undefeated (unconquered) sun”. These days, the solstice falls on December 21st or 22nd, due to the astronomic changes that have happened during the last 2000 years and the correction applied by the Gregorian calendar. Accepting this reconstruction of the situation, it is easy to understand how Christians, after gaining freedom of worship with Constantine, saw in that feast a hidden Christian message: it was already a feast in honour of the true “God Sun”, even without knowing who the real “God Sun” was. But Christians knew better that the only Sun and God was Jesus Christ. So, it was easy for them to Christianise a pagan feast or they inculturated the Gospel into the local culture. We ought to recall St. Paul’s experience in Athens whereby he found an altar “to an Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Paul saw a hidden Christian truth in that belief and starting from it, he tried to evangelise them on the true God (Acts 17:24-31).
Pope Julius saw that the date coincided with the winter solstice and the Jewish Hannukah, (feast of the re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple after the Maccabean revolt) which were already times of celebration, so they let the festivities be enhanced during this period. Besides, cattle had been slaughtered and wine and beer had fermented during the winter so everyone was ready to consume fresh produce in abundance. The first recorded celebration of Christmas took place in 336 AD under the reign of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, who had slowly converted to Christianity, with Pope Julius making it official around 350. In 529, Christmas Day was declared an official holiday.
The date of Christmas depends on the date of Easter
The problem for the early Christians was not to know the date of Jesus’ birth, but, more importantly, the date of his death and resurrection, that is the date of Easter. The debate on the date of Easter went on for many years in the Churches and it had also been a cause for bitter divisions. From the Gospels, it is not easy to know the exact date of Easter, as there is a contradiction between the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) on one side and the gospel of John on the other. We cannot enter here in the problem. The early Church followed John rather than the synoptics and thus believed that Christ’s death would have taken place on 14th Nisan, according to the Jewish lunar calendar. Modern scholars agree, by the way that the death of Christ could have taken place only in AD 30 or 33 as those two are the only years of that time when the eve of the Passover could have fallen on a Friday, the possibilities being either 7th April 30 or 3rd April 33.
The date of Easter proved difficult and divisive for early Christian Churches. Not only had they to reconcile the different dating of the Gospels, but they had also to combine the lunar Jewish calendar with the solar Roman calendar and other local calendars. The result was that by the beginning of the 4th century, for the Greek Christians (Orthodox) the 14th Nisan corresponded to April 6th; for the Latin Christians of the West, it coincided with March 25th. So among the Orthodox churches, we have April 6th, and in the Latin rite churches, we have March 25th.
At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception”. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception (and incarnation) as well. It is easy at this point to understand the dating of Christmas. March 25th being the date of the death and the conception of Jesus and annunciation and logically December 25th becomes the date of his birth, while for the Eastern Christians, it is April 6th and so Christmas is on January 6th (as it is in Ethiopia and in the Orthodox Churches). Thus, December 25th, may wholly unlikely have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.
Merry Christmas to you all.
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