Why do we celebrate Christ's birth on December 25?

Dear Maggie,

Why do we celebrate Jesus birth on December 25th?

Calendrically Curious

Dear Calendrically Curious,

Ah, we all know and love the cheer of Christmas, but it wasn’t until the 2nd Century that Christians began to debate the date of Jesus' birth and it wasn’t until the 4th century that December 25th began to be the date upon which Christians widely celebrated it.  Others celebrated Christ’s birth on January 6th, a day we now recognize as Epiphany.  But why these dates, ye ask!  The answer’s a bit of a mystery and no one knows but God and a few folks now long dead.  There are some theories and so I’ll offer what bit me knows.

One theory is that these winter dates for Christmas were an attempt to Christianize pagan holidays already taking place at this time.  If ye pagan converts like to have a winter party, the theory goes, then offer an alternative celebration rather than getting rid of the party all together.  Tis kind of like the “harvest fests” that some fundamentalist churches put on as an alternative to “Halloween” celebrations.

This is the most popular theory, but there’s no mention of anyone making the case for such an alternative celebration in ancient Christian writings.  More so the date of December 25th was introduced in the 2nd Century at a time when Christians were distancing themselves from all things pagan, rather than trying to imitate them.  The adaptations of pagan rituals into Christian ones came later when Constantine converted and as Christianity moved into Northern Europe (Christmas trees, for instance, come from druid rituals). 

Another theory that is less popular now, but with roots in ancient writings, says that the date for Jesus’ birth was determined by the date of Jesus’ death.  Many early Christians believed that Jesus’ death was on the same day as the Annunciation to Mary—the day he was conceived.  There are images in the ole days of the baby Jesus descending into Mary’s womb on a cross as Gabriel announces her conception.  These early Christians saw Christ’s incarnation and the salvation he completed on the cross as all wrapped up together.  They also had a Jewish tradition as background to their reflections that said that God created the world and would redeem the world on the same date. 

Many early Christians believed that Jesus died on March 25 and so if he was conceived on the same day he would be born nine months later on December 25.  In Eastern Christianity they used a slightly different calendar and so they thought Jesus died on April 6, which meant that his birth would be on January 6.  With these two formulations we have the two dates for Christmas that were circulating in the early church and the dates we now celebrate as Christmas (Christ’s birth) and Epiphany (the visit of the Magi). 

No one knows for certain what the truth is about the date for Christ’s birth and there are good scholarly reflections far more in depth than mine. No matter the mystery, it is good to ponder the various meanings Christians have given to the date in the past, especially the idea that our creation and salvation are connected as God creates and recreates the world anew in Christ.

I hope that helps answer ye questions!

Christ’s peace be with ya,