"If you can't believe that he [Jesus] was born on December 25th, then you can't believe anything else in the Bible!", or so stated a woman quoted in the Practice of Ministry in Canada article Enshrining Ignorance by Jim Taylor. Is December 25th the true date of Christ's birth? How did celebrating that date come about?
Luke 2:8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
Luke 2:9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
Luke 2:10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
Luke 2:11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
So the shepherds were watching over their flocks in the field at night. Have you ever thought that it may have been a little cold on a late December night in Bethlehem? Well the Bible says nothing about the birth of Jesus being at that time of year. Indeed, if the flocks were still in the field, it definitely was not during the winter. Since the Bible does not openly declare any particular date for the birth of Jesus Christ, just how is it that December 25 was selected?
III. The feast of the Epiphany, which had existed fairly generally in the Greek Church even in the third century, is now found in the Latin Church also. In migrating, the feast acquired, however, a new meaning. Whilst in the East it commemorated more especially Christ's Baptism, in the West it came to be a festival in honour of His manifestation to the Gentiles. The other meanings of the feast gradually passed into the background, one of them, that of Christ's birth, becoming the object of an entirely new festival, Christmas. The origin of the latter is by no means clear: the Armenian Ananias the 'Computer,' writing at the beginning of the seventh century, tells us that it was kept at the imperial court under Constantius (337-61); we have also an illusion of the so-called Chronographer of A.D. 354. If his notice at the head of the Depositio Martyrum is to be taken as indicating that December 25 was merely reckoned as Christ's birthday, then the feast may have arisen subsequently to 354, but if it refers, as quite possibly it may, to a festival, then Christmas must have been kept as a feast not only in 354, but, as is clear from a comparison with the Chronographer's Depositio Episcoporum, as far back as 336. However this may be, the feast certainly existed in Rome before 360, and from thence it spread throughout the Church; Justin I [p. 199] (518-27) was, nevertheless, obliged to issue decrees making its observation compulsory throughout the empire. Armenia alone refused to accept it, and there Christ's birth is still commemorated on the Epiphany. December 25 seems to have been chosen on account of the Roman custom of keeping this day as the festival of Sol Invictus - i.e. of the re-birth of the sun; it was judged fitting to substitute for the pagan feast a Christian one commemorating the birth of the true Sun of the world and Redeemer of mankind.
Source: Manual of Church History, Volume I., by Dr. F. X. Funk, Published by B. Herder, 17 South Broadway, St. Louis, Mo., Copyright 1912, bearing the Nihil obstat and Imprimatur of the Catholic Church, pp. 198-199.
The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days counted from December 25th to January 5, January 6th being the date the Epiphany (Twelfth Night) is celebrated, which is when the three Wise Men, or Magi, visited Bethlehem.
Date of Christ's birth uncertain in the 3rd Century.
[p. 249] Uncertainty about Jesus’ birthday in the early third century is reflected in a disputed passage of the presbyter Hippolytus, who was banished to Sardinia by Maximin in 235, and in an authentic statement of Clement of Alexandria. While the former favored January second, the learned Clem- [p. 250] ent of Alexandria enumerates several dates given by the Alexandrian chronographers, notably the twenty-fifth of the Egyptian month Pachon (May twentieth) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus and the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi (April eighteenth or nineteenth) of the year A.D. 1, although he favored May twentieth. This shows that no Church festival in honor of the day was established before the middle of the third century. Origen at that time in a sermon denounced the idea of keeping Jesus’ birthday like that of Pharaoh and said that only sinners such as Herod were so honored. Arnobius later similarly ridiculed giving birthdays to “gods.” A Latin treatise, De pascha computus (of ca. 243), placed Jesus’ birth on March twenty-first since that was the supposed day on which God created the Sun (Gen. 1:14–19), thus typifying the “Sun of righteousness” as Malachi (4:2) called the expected Messiah. A century before Polycarp, martyred in Smyrna in 155, gave the same date for the birth and baptism placing it on a Wednesday because of the creation of the Sun on that day.
Source: Walter Woodburn Hyde, Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire, pp. 249, 250. Copyright 1946 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Christmas: The supposed anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, occurring on Dec. 25. No sufficient data … exist, for the determination of the month or the day of the event… There is no historical evidence that our Lord’s birthday was celebrated during the apostolic or early postapostolic times. The uncertainty that existed at the beginning of the third century in the minds of Hippolytus and others—Hippolytus earlier favored Jan. 2, Clement of Alexanderia (Strom., i. 21) “the 25th day of Pachon” (= May 20), while others, according to Clement, fixed upon Apr. 18 or 19 and Mar. 28—proves that no Christmas festival had been established much before the middle of the century. Jan. 6 was earlier fixed upon as the date of the baptism or spiritual birth of Christ, and the feast of Epiphany … was celebrated by the Basilidian Gnostics in the second century … and by catholic Christians by about the beginning of the fourth century. The earliest record of the recognition of Dec. 25 as a church festival is in the Philocalian Calendar (copied 354 but representing Roman practise in 336).
Source: A. H. Newman, “Christmas,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. 3, p. 47. Copyright 1909 by Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York.
December 25th instituted as a Christian holy day
A star cult, sun-worship, became (in the third century A.D.) the dominant official creed, paving the road for the ultimate triumph of Judaeo-Christian monotheism. So strong was the belief in the Invincible Sun (Sol Invictus) that for example Constantine I (d. 337), himself at first a devotee of the sun cult, found it, indeed perfectly compatible with his pro-Christian sympathies to authorize his own portrayal as Helios. And in 354 the ascendant Christian church in the reign of his pious but unsavory son, Constantius II, found it prudent to change the celebration of the birth of Jesus from the traditional date (January 6) to December 25, in order to combat the pagan Sun god’s popularity—his “birthday” being December 25.
Source: Frederick H. Cramer, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics, p. 4. Copyright 1954 by the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th?
Although Christmas is celebrated on the 25th day of December each year, the exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown. Most biblical scholars agree that the birth, in fact, did not take place in December at all, but probably occurred during the spring of the year. The Gospel of Luke states that the shepherds to whom the announcement of the birth was made were watching theirs sheep by night (Luke 2:8) which would suggest the lambing time (the spring). Only then did shepherds bother to guard their flocks around the [p. 206] clock. In winter, for example, the sheep would have been kept in the corral.
Why, then, the 25th of December? Actually, the date was chosen not by the Christians, but by Romans, the traditional antagonists of the Early Church.
Each year as the days became noticeably shorter in November and December, the Roman citizens feared that the earth may be "dying". With the "return of the sun" at the end of December resulting in longer days, the Romans celebrated the "Feast of the Sol Invictus" (Unconquerable Sun") on December 25. Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered in 354 that all Christians celebrate the birth of the Christ child on that day. Scholars believe that the bishop chose this date so that Christians, still members of an "outlaw religion" in the eyes of the Romans, could celebrate the birth of their Savior without danger of revealing their religious conviction, while their Roman neighbors celebrated another event.
Source: The Christian Book of Why, by John C McCollister, copyright 1983, ISBN 0-8246-0317-6, published by Jonathan David Publishers, Inc. Middle Village, New York, 11379., pages 205, 206.
The Winter Solstice - Day of the Sun's birth
[p. 89] A very general observance required that on the 25th of December the birth of the “new Sun” should be celebrated, when after the winter solstice the days began to lengthen and the “invincible” star triumphed again over darkness. It is certain that the date of this Natalis Invicti was selected by the Church as the commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus, which was previously confused with the Epiphany. In appointing this day, universally marked by pious rejoicing, which were as far as possible retained,—for instance the old chariot-races were preserved,—the ecclesiastical authorities purified in some degree the customs which they could not abolish. This substitution, which took place at Rome probably between 354 and 360, was adopted throughout the Empire, and that is why we still celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December.
The pre-eminence assigned to the dies Solis also certainly [p. 90] contributed to the general recognition of Sunday as a holiday. This is connected with a more important fact, namely, the adoption of the week by all European nations.
Source: Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans (reprint; New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), pp. 89, 90.
Origin of the word.
The word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038, and Cristes-messe, in 1131.
[Christ's Mass is conducted at midnight of the eve of December 25th, which is the only instance of a midnight Mass in the Catholic calendar.]
Dies Natalis Invicti Solis (birthday of the unconquered sun)
The well-known solar feast, however, of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date.
Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III, Christmas, Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight, Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Christmas, a "Pagan" feast?
The reasons for celebrating our major feasts when we do are many and varied. In general, however, it is true that many of them have at least an indirect connection with the pre-Christian feasts celebrated about the same time of year — feasts centering around the harvest, the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice (now Dec. 21, but Dec. 25 in the old Julian calendar), the renewal of nature in spring, and so on.
Source: The New Question Box - Catholic Life for the Nineties, copyright 1988 by John J. Dietzen, M.A., S.T.L., ISBN 0-940518-01-5 (paperback), published by Guildhall Publishers, Peoria Illinois, 61651., page 554.
The above information may come as something of a shock to some people, but not to others, I am sure. As you can see, December 25th has absolutely no biblical foundation as a day of Christian worship. In fact the evidence from the Bible tends to eliminate December (it being the dead of winter) as a possible month for the birth of Christ. Just as Sunday keeping is commanded only by Catholic Tradition, so Christmas (Christ's Mass) is founded solely on the authority of Catholicism, which picked the day so as to coincide with the pagan Sun worshipping observance of the Winter Solstice.
Protestants who observe Christmas, and have Christmas eve midnight services, are keeping a holy day of obligation decreed by the Papacy, a Roman Catholic Tradition, just as they are doing with Sunday keeping. The Bible says nothing of celebrating the birth of Christ, and does not even give us the specific day of the year of the event. Why then, is it one of the most celebrated days of the "Bible Only" Protestant Christian calendar? Every year you will hear people, even pastors, bemoaning the paganization of Christmas - how Santa Claus and greed have taken over this most solemn and holy day. Little do they apparently know, the 25th of December was never holy to God, but has long been a pagan festival season celebrating the birth of the Sun. In keeping Christ's Mass, nominal "Bible Only" Protestants are, in practice, tacitly acknowledging the authority of Roman Catholic Tradition, which in principle they reject.
See also What Day Was Jesus Born?
Celebrating the Risen Sun.