Each December, we throw a big shindig in celebration of the anniversary of Jesus’s birth. But, without a birth certificate or other official record of His actual birthdate, December 25th seems like it’s an arbitrary date for our Christmas traditions. So, how was it chosen as THE date?
The Bible doesn’t name a month, day, or even season, for Jesus’s birth, so historians rely on other clues to estimate when it occurred. In the Nativity story, shepherds tended their sheep, which some say is evidence Jesus was born in the Spring. Others say Israel’s mild winter temperatures allow sheep to graze even in December. According to Slate.com, it’s also possible for sheep set aside for religious sacrifices to have been given free rein, cold night or not.
The primary rationale comes from the story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who was old & without any children. One day, her husband, Zacharias, a priest who was burning incense in the temple, was visited by the angel Gabriel who told him Elizabeth would have a son. The thought was that Zacharias was probably in the temple for Yom Kippur, which is believed to have always taken place on September 24th. Nine months after September 24th is June 24th, so they chose that as the birthdate of Elizabeth & Zacharias’s son, John the Baptist. Gabriel later visited Mary to say that she, too, would bear a son, and mentioned Elizabeth was in her 6th month of pregnancy. So, that means Jesus would’ve been conceived in late March, and born in late December, the night of December 24th, to be exact.
The first known record of December 25th celebrated as Jesus’s birthday was in the year 336. Because it was mentioned in a book containing other important religious dates related to Emperor Constantine, some assumed a celebration probably occurred on that day. So, 336 is said to be the 1st known “Christmas.”
Whether Christmas was celebrated on December 25th before 336 may forever be unknown, but we do know the custom quickly caught on (spending the holiday watching A Christmas Story marathon wouldn’t come until much later). By the end of the 4th century, bishops were holding Christmas Mass across Rome, with pagan festivals falling out of fashion.
Since the origins of Christmas are just as subject to interpretation as Jesus’s actual birthdate, we should all feel free to play Christmas music whenever we want!
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