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Is Christmas Really the Day Jesus Was Born?

Jesus Christ
Christ Pantokrator Mosaic Dome, Cathedral of Cefalu in Sicily. Credit: Gun Powder Ma/CC BY-SA 3.0

Was Christ really born on December 25? The question of the correct dating of Christmas is an issue that has lingered in the minds of many for centuries after his life came to alter the world forever.

For those who are concerned that the 25th of December may not be the correct time to celebrate the birth of the man who changed world history, a prominent Greek Orthodox priest who also has a PhD in the history and theology of the early Christian church, lays out the thinking behind the dating of Christ’s birthday to late December.

Greek Reporter interviewed Cyprus-born Fr. Panayiotis Papageorgiou, who is the protopresbyter at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Marietta, Georgia, on the subject this week.

He begins by noting two objections to the placing of Christmas on December 25, that the Gospel of Luke states that “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8) “The argument from this is that December is too cold for shepherds to be in the field watching over their flocks! Hence, the proponents of this theory claim that Jesus had to be born in the spring.”

 

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“Shepherds had summer pens and then moved their sheep into the caves of the area during the winter,” Papageorgiou explains, adding that “The sheep were not grazing in the field by night. The shepherds were just guarding their flocks; perhaps taking turns overnight, as the sheep were in their pens in the nearby caves.

“Although the weather in these parts of the world can be cold in December,” he notes, “it can also be warm enough for the shepherds to still take their flocks out during the day, but bring them back inside the caves at night where it is much warmer than in their summer pens – a practice prevalent in some places in the Middle East even until today.

Another objection, which is often cited by those who deride the celebration of Christmas, was that ancient pagans celebrated the god Saturnus, the god of agriculture, on December 25, which according to the Roman calendar was the Winter solstice.

“It is, in fact true that many pagan feasts were Christianized during the fourth century and subsequently, which makes this a reasonable claim,” Papageorgiou states. “Still, this is no proof that the birth of Christ did not take place at some time in December, even if it was not exactly on December 25, and even if the Christians intentionally overlaid the birth of Christ over the pagan feast.”

St. John Chrysostom traces Biblical events to arrive at December birthdate for Christ

In fact, he says, “the feast of Christmas was first celebrated at the beginning of the fourth century, first in Rome (in 336 AD) and subsequently in the Eastern parts of the Empire by the end of the fourth century, where we find a sermon by St. John Chrysostom explaining why celebrating Christmas in December and especially on December 25 is appropriate and has historical proof in the events of the New Testament.”

St. Chrysostom, preaching at the end of the fourth century in Antioch only ten years after the feast of Christmas was established in the East, offers a contemporary account of the reasoning behind the choice of December 25 as the day for celebrating the birth of Christ.

Chrysostom notes that the time of the Census as mentioned in Luke 2:1-7 is crucial here. Papageorgiou states to Greek Reporter that “this was the first Census, which happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Chrysostom) points out that whoever wants to know the exact time of the Census can freely search the ancient codices, which are kept in the public libraries of Rome. Chrysostom was a trained lawyer of the time with personal knowledge of government records.”

The early Father of the Church then explained the Jewish tradition of the censing of the Temple in Jerusalem by the high priest, who would enter the Holy of Holies only once a year during the Feast of Tabernacles in September also points to a late December birth for Christ.

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The Gospel of Luke 1:8-15 relates Zacharias entering the Holy of Holies to offer incense, where he had a vision of an angel of the Lord who announced to him the birth of his son, whom he was to call John.

“Soon after that, Elizabeth, his wife, became pregnant,” Papageorgiou explains, adding “Chrysostom points out that six months later, the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary and announces to her that she will bear the Son of God and also reveals to her that her cousin Elizabeth is already in her sixth month of pregnancy (Luke 1:30-37).

“This means that, if the Bible is correct, Elizabeth became pregnant (with her son John the Baptist) in the latter part of September, after the Feast of Tabernacles, and Mary became pregnant six months later in the latter part of March.

“If we count nine months from that time we end up at the latter part of December, which is the time when Jesus was born. Hence, the celebration of Christmas on December 25 is justified,” Papageorgiou tells Greek Reporter.

Naturally, it is impossible to arrive at the exact day that Christ was actually born, and Christian belief does not hinge on the exactitude of this date. However, the priest states that the Christians of the fourth century, who were much closer to the people who had experienced it than any person of today, had calculated the time of his birth and concluded with December as the month.

“Their decision was biblically and historically based and it has to be closer to the real day than any modern guess,” Papageorgiou notes.

It is indeed possible, he continues, that early Christians sought to substitute the celebration of the solstice with the birth of the Son of God. “This seems to have become one more victory for them against the dwindling pagan religion that worshiped the creation rather than the Creator, Papageorgiou says, adding that “they were comfortable that the season of his birth was the right one and December 25 seemed perfect to them.”

The priest is quick to assure those who might be worried that they are celebrating Christmas at the wrong time, that they should “enjoy the joyful feast and find comfort in the fact that the Early Christians knew what they were doing when they decided that December 25 it is. Merry Christmas!”

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