Saturday, November 28

Dating Christmas

When was Jesus born in Bethlehem? The Bible describes with great certainty the fact of Christ’s birth as well as the place. But not the exact date.

One of the greatest of the Patristic writers, Basil of Caesarea believed Christ was born on November 20th in the year 4 BC. Another, Clement of Alexandria, speculated that Christ was born on November 17 in the year 3 BC. Still others, such as John Chrysostom, speculated that since shepherds were in the field the night Christ was born, it must have been in spring or summer. Similarly, Athanasius argued for a date of May 20. Cyril of Jerusalem reasoned for the date to be on either April l9th or 20th. And Ambrose of Milan made a strong traditional case for March 25th. Quite obviously though, no one really knew with any degree of certainty.

In 354, the Bishop of Rome started to observe December 25th as the date of Christ's birth. Four major Roman festivals had long been held in December, including Saturnalia which celebrated the returning sun god. As men converted from Paganism to Christianity, their culture was likewise gradually converted. Thus, it was natural for them to want to replace their old Pagan festivities with a celebration of the advent of their Savior.

In fact, Christians had already begun celebrating the incarnation and nativity of the Lord Jesus on that day since at least the early part of the third century--just a few generations removed the days of the Apostles. Thus, by 336, when the Philocalian Calendar--one of the earliest documents of the Patriarchal church--was first utilized, Christmas Day was already a venerable and tenured tradition. Though there is no historical evidence that Christ was actually born on that day--indeed, whatever evidence there is points to altogether different occasions--the conversion of the old Pagan tribes of Europe left a gaping void where the ancient winter cult festivals were once held. It was both culturally convenient and evangelically expedient to exchange the one for the other. And so joy replaced desperation. Celebration replaced propitiation. Christmas Feasts replaced new Moon sacrifices. Christ replace Baal, Molech, Apollo, and Thor.

Like so many calendar dates, the many different customs of Christmas ultimately melded together. And thus emerged the traditional Advent season--a four week long anticipation of Christmas beginning in late November and marked by a series of important feasts, fasts, rituals, and rites all the way through the designated day for the incarnation itself.


Unknown said...

This is an excellent history of the Christmas tradition. I read one argument for a winter Christmas that few seem to consider. the Church fathers judged Palestine as it was after 70 AD and shepherds were only out in Spring and Summer. But when the Temple still stood, a steady stream of sacrifices was needed by the priests for their daily and holiday sacrifices, and so shepherds would be out "watching their flocks by night" in nearby Bethlehem, where fodder and water were more available than in Jerusalem, and away from the sheepfolds of their homes. So a winter birth is more possible than usually stated.
Rev. Shawn Keating
Mobile, AL

Scribbler said...

Ever nice add Shawn........

Lawrence Underwood said...

That is a very interesting take on the timing, and the second time I have heard that in the past week. Thanks.

Lawrence Underwood
Mobile, Alabama

Austin Bob said...

I am a little late chiming in here, but I think there is an additional aspect of the timing that is interesting. The early church fathers were clearly more attuned to the sense of "story" in God's dealing with us than are we "moderns". They would also have been much more attuned to the rhythms of pastoral seasons (as I sure is implicit in the earlier comment.) I suspect that there was a very deliberate decision to place Christ's birth at that point in the annual cycle that is the very first indication of the coming rebirth of the earth in spring. Just when things look the darkest, Christ appears, bringing light to the world. This seems to reinforce the overall structure of the Scriptures as a whole.