Ever since I grew old enough to begin the complicated process of starting to separate the myths we are often fed as children from the truth, I’ve been told that the long-held date of December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ, Christmas, isn’t really the date upon which Christ was born as a human baby.
I’ve heard the stories that December 25 was just a pagan holiday that Christians “took over” once the Christian religion gained ascendancy in the Roman Empire. I’ve heard that due to the wintery time of year and the shepherds out in the field in the Christmas narrative, December 25 couldn’t be the time of the birth of Christ.
But since our planet has one through great periods of climate change going back even farther than the time of the Roman Empire, I’ve long wondered if there really might be something to the date of December 25.
Then a couple of weeks ago I came across an article in an archaeology magazine that had me thinking about these things afresh.
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.
This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.
Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”
This gives me something new to ponder this Christmas, and hopefully you, too. Regardless of whether Christ was born on December 25 or not, there is little room for doubt in history that he was indeed born, and set in motion an unprecedented change on the earth that is still powerfully working today.
Not only history tells me that, but the change Christ has wrought in my own lost, self-destructive life tells me that. As I searched in vain for meaning everywhere but in Christ, there was no reason for my life to continue doing anything other than what it already was–spiraling downward into nothing.
I’m grateful Christ came to earth to live as one of us some 2,000 years ago. I’m grateful he loved me more than his own life, so that he was willing to give his life for me, his enemy. And I’m grateful that he stuck with me through long years of obstinence and rebellion, until I finally allowed him to repair my wreck of a life.
If you haven’t examined the truth-claims of Christ found in the Bible, there is no time better than today. If you haven’t put your faith in Christ and trusted him to remake your existence into the abundant life, there’s no time like today. Let this Christmas be the Christmas your life changed immeasurably for the better; let this Christmas be the Christmas you joined the land of the living.
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”