This article has been revised and republished on my newer site, Youth Pastor Theologian.
I recommend you read that version instead.
Christmas is coming soon, but why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th? The Bible makes absolutely no reference to any date, and gives barely any information that could even hint at which season Jesus was born. So how did the Church land on December 25th as our celebration of Christ’s birth? The early evidence shows that it wasn’t until the late 2nd Century until people even started trying to figure out what date Jesus was born. Some Early Church leaders actually argued against trying to determine a date for Jesus’ birthday. Instead, the emphasis was on Jesus’ death and on the specific days and events leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection (since those details are given in Scripture). Since there is so little information about Jesus’ birth, the Early Church was always content to simply emphasize the virgin birth without knowing when exactly Jesus was born.
Interestingly, the “12 Days of Christmas” comes from a disagreement regarding when Christmas should be celebrated.
“The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.”
By the 300’s there were Christian groups regularly celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25th. Before then, the Christians either didn’t care to know Jesus’ birthday or they were still trying to come to agreement.
How They Chose December 25
There are two main theories about how the Church settled on December 25th. As noted below, I am deeply indebted to Andrew McGowan’s article “How December 25 Became Christmas.” Please read his article for more detail. What I’ve written below is essentially a summary of his article with a few of my opinions sprinkled in for good measure.
The most popular explanation for the date claims the Church selected December 25th because of pagan celebrations during the same season. It is argued that the Church assumed more people would embrace Christmas if it was seen as a replacement-option from their pagan holiday. However, this actual theory was never voiced until the 12th Century. Again, McGowan offers this explanation:
“More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.
“There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.”
The Christians could not have borrowed from celebrations that weren’t yet established. Some specifics may have been adopted over time (such as the Christmas tree and other similar traditions), but it seems like a stretch to say Christmas was placed on December 25 because of pagan holidays. Additionally, it was uncommon for the Church at that time to borrow from pagan religions (later on, this became an undisputed practice).
The second theory for why the Church chose this date has to do with the date of Christ’s death. Tertullian determined March 25th as the date for Jesus’ death, which was later turned into the Annunciation (when Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Messiah). March 25th is exactly nine months before December 25th, and therefore December 25th was selected as the date for Christ’s birth. In the Eastern Church celebrates the Annunciation on April 6th, and thus Christmas is observed on January 6th. As noted above, the days between December 25 and January 6 are known as the twelve days of Christmas. Regardless of the difference between the Western and Eastern celebrations, the dates of Christmas are directly related to the Annunciation (not determined by attempts to “Christianize” pagan holidays).
This second theory has support dating from the 300’s. Most significantly, Augustine (widely regarded as the most important theologian in Church History) references this as his explanation for Christmas celebrations on December 25th. Whether it seems far-fetched or not, the Church’s tradition clearly places his death and the Annunciation as happening on the same date of the year. After all, Jesus was born in order to die for the sins of the world. This tradition is also reflected in artistic depictions of Mary receiving news of her pregnancy, while Jesus is pictured coming from heaven carrying a cross.
McGowan concludes his article with this,
“In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism.”
We may not celebrate Jesus’ birth on the exact right calendar date, but if that was crucial then God would’ve included those details in Scripture. To me, the second theory seems like a more reasonable explanation for how the Church landed on December 25th as the day to celebrate Christmas.
Why We Still Celebrate With Joy
Ultimately, the specific date when Jesus was born is not as important as HOW he was born (or THAT he was born at all!). The good news of Christmas is this: In the midst of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, God came to the rescue.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:16-17, ESV
Truly, Christmas is an announcement of GOOD NEWS of GREAT JOY for ALL PEOPLE. Regardless of the exact date of Jesus’ birth… this is news worthy of joyful celebration.
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