Have you ever wondered why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th? Have the modern-day theories that Jesus Christ was really born in the spring or fall or that December 25th was chosen to quash a pagan feast have you wondering about the validity of the biblical account of Jesus’s birth? If so, you are not alone.
Fr. Panayiotis Papageorgiou, PhD, Protopresbyter of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Marietta, Georgia offers compelling answers to these questions. The following is a brief summary of his comments. To listen to full 15-minute homily, please visit here.
For 1,700 years, December 25th, Christmas day, has been celebrated as the birth of Christ. In recent years, some have questioned the accuracy of the date, bringing about unnecessary discord and confusion. Some have even proposed not calling Christmas a legitimate feast of the Church, because the date of December 25th is not accurate in their view.
Skeptics rely on two pieces of evidence to bolster their argument. The first comes from the gospel of Luke 2:8, “And in that region, there were shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night.” They argue that December is too cold for the shepherds to be in the fields watching over their flocks. Thus, Jesus had to have been born in the spring or in the fall.
A common practice in the Middle East in ancient times, as well as today, however, is for shepherds to house their flocks in caves in the winter to protect them from the cold. While it can be cold in December, it also can be warm enough during the day to allow the sheep to graze and then move them to the caves at night. It also is possible that it was warm enough for the shepherds to guard their sheep from outside of the caves.
The second piece of evidence is idea that the early Christians substituted the feast of the birth of the Son of God for the pagans’ feast of the birth of the god sun on December 25th, ignoring the historical date of Christ’s birth. Many pagan feasts were Christianized in the fourth and subsequent centuries, which makes this a reasonable claim, but it is not proof that Jesus was not born in December.
The Feast of Christmas was first celebrated at the beginning of the fourth century, first in Rome in the year 336 and then in the eastern parts of the empire by the end of the fourth century. About 10 years after Christmas began to be celebrated in the east, St. John Chrysostom, a preeminent theologian of his time, offered a sermon, during which he presented historical evidence from the New Testament to support the selection of December 25th as an appropriate day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
He points to verses Luke 2:1–7, the first census, which occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. He explains that the time of this census is documented in the ancient records, housed in the public libraries in Rome, hinting that the time of birth of Christ is easily verifiable from the public records.
He also explains the Jewish tradition of the censing of the temple in Jerusalem by the high priest, who would enter the holy of holies once a year. This event occurs in September during the Feast of Tabernacles. He cites Luke 1:8–20, which describes how Zacharias was selected to perform this duty. He entered the holy of holies to offer incense, and had a vision of an angel of the Lord who announced the birth of his son, St. John the Baptist. Soon after that, Zacharias’ wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant. Six months later the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and announced to her that she will bear the son of God, and reveals to her that her cousin Elizabeth is already in the sixth month of pregnancy (Luke 1:26–38).
Using simple arithmetic, Elizabeth becomes pregnant in the latter part of September after the feast of the Tabernacles, and Mary become pregnant six months later in latter part March. Jesus is born nine months later in the latter part of December. From this evidence, St. John Chrysostom concludes that the celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25th is fully justified.
In closing , Fr. Panayiotis once again affirmed that although St. John Chrysostom was silent about this, it is possible that fourth century Christians sought to replace the pagan feast of the birth of the sun god with the birth of the Son of God. Regardless, the early Christians were comfortable that the season of December was correct and that December 25th seemed a perfectly good choice to them. Be comforted, then, that the early Christians “knew what they were doing” in establishing December 25th as the day Christ was born.
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