There are some highly influential people obsessed with proving that Christmas is a fake holiday stolen from pagans, and if we are to have a merry little Christmas, we must address them.
The attacks on celebrating Jesus’s birth on December 25 would be tolerable if they were simply made in an honest search for the truth, but they’re not. They are an attempt to chip away at the pillars of the faith that is the foundation of the true message of Jesus Christ. Once the faith falters, Jesus message of love, peace and unfathomable mercy for all can easily be dismissed as myth. This is what those who attack Christianity truly desire.
Christmas is an easy target for anti-Christian zealots. The truth is that we do not know the precise date of Christ’s birth. The Bible gives almost no indication. The descriptions it does give, such as the shepherds watching their flocks, are often used as evidence against winter being the right season. Christmas also falls around the same time as several pagan celebrations, adding ammunition for these attacks.
Despite atheist’s assertions to the contrary, Christianity (Catholicism especially) is rational and embraces facts. Although we celebrate the birth of our Savior on December 25, we fully accept that we don’t know for certain if it is the date upon which it actually happened. This is much the same as we accept that we don’t truly know the year He was born. It is commonly accepted that Jesus was born sometime between the years 4 B.C. and 3 A.D. And the truth is it doesn’t matter.
One of the traps Christians fall into is debating topics that are irrelevant to the heart of Jesus’ message. Once we allow someone to steer the debate in the direction of specific dates of events or the reliability of various translations of the Bible, we have lost. Just like it is fools-game to entertain a debate about the alleged corruption and unreliability of the Bible because of its many translations, it is equally foolish to argue about when Jesus was born rather than discuss what Jesus taught.
The quickest way to answer someone who attempts to discredit Christianity itself based upon uncertainty about the date of Christmas is to answer that it doesn’t matter. We celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Savior on December 25. That’s all that matters. And it is the perfect time for us to do so.
There is a magical feeling around Christmas time and the colder weather adds to it. Like the song says: “the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” The bitter cold of winter countered by the warmth of my home certainly reminds me of the cold, dark world that was made warm and bright thanks to the birth of that baby boy in Bethlehem.
Whether or not Jesus was born in the winter or the fall or even the spring, I am glad we celebrate the event in winter. The whole world – Christian or not – changes around this time. Only the darkest of hearts can persist in their evil ways around Christmas.
There is a strong essence of peace on Earth and goodwill toward man everywhere you turn, with the exception of the disgraceful antics of shoppers trampling and fighting their brothers and sisters over earthly goods – a practice that not only smothers the good spirit of the season, but also the entire message Jesus preached.
So, to preface with the acquiescence that we don’t have the date nor do we truly need to fight about it does not equal a concession that December 25 is completely off target. The date was selected based upon a number of good theories from several incredibly intelligent church fathers. The premises in favor of the traditional date answer virtually every argument against it. Let’s explore, shall we?
Saturnalia and Sol Invictus
This is one I know you’ve heard at some point. Saturnalia was indeed a pagan Roman festival celebrating the god Saturn which happened in December. But that’s where any connection with Christmas ends.
The feast of Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17 to 23, and the primary feast day was the 17. If Christians had been co-opting this celebration, they would surely have planted Christmas solidly on the 17th so the pagans would more readily assimilate.
Sol Invictus – the birth of the unconquered Sun – was celebrated by the Romans on December 25. Surely this is a more convincing piece of evidence of the pagan origins of Christmas. Well, it certainly would be, except for the fact that the first celebration of Sol Invictus was as a result of a decree by Emperor Aurelian in the year 274. The celebration of Christmas predated this decree.
While it is a fact that Christmas was not on the official Catholic Church calendar until 354, there is evidence that Christians had long before marked the date as the birth of Jesus. St. Hippolytus of Rome confirmed as much in his writings sometime between the years 202 and 211:
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when He was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years.”[i]
So by the time Aurelian instituted the celebration of the birthday of Sol Invictus on December 25, Christians had already been celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on that date for at least 60 years. The only possible connection between the two celebrations falling on the same date is that Aurelian may have been trying to dilute the growing Christian threat to his power by choosing that date. Regardless, Christianity certainly did not co-opt this holiday.
Another sneaky attempt by atheists and other anti-Christians is to suggest that Christianity chose December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth to align it with the winter solstice. The glaring (almost cringe-worthy) problem with this theory is that the winter solstice is on December 21. If the Church was really trying to attach any significance to Jesus’ birth from the solstice, it would have set it on the same day.
Too Cold for Shepherds?
A supposedly biblical argument that self-described intellectuals like to tout is that there were shepherds keeping watch over their sheep on the night of Jesus’ birth.[ii] Somehow the idea has taken root that on December 25 the weather at night would be too cold for shepherds to be out in the fields. The conclusion usually follows that this proves that Jesus was born sometime in the fall, not winter.
The problem with this entire thread is that we are talking about shepherds and sheep. Sheep are covered with wool and have no problem living outdoors in winter. As such, the men who raised them had full access to the most reliable cold-weather material the ancient world produced. It is almost comical – and certainly ignorant – to suggest that men who harvested wool for a living would be sidelined by cold weather.
Just to seal the casket on this ridiculous notion, the average nightly temperature in Israel during the month of December is between 40 and 50F (5-10C). We are not exactly talking about the frozen tundra of Antarctica, here. So for the record, yes, there would have been shepherds watching their flocks on December 25 in Bethlehem.
Why December 25?
Now that we have debunked some of the most popular attacks on the celebration of Christmas, let’s flip the investigation and try to determine where we really got December 25 as the date on which we celebrate Christmas. Earlier I stated the Bible gives almost no indication as to Jesus’ birthday. However, it isn’t completely silent.
Calculating the date directly from the Bible’s narrative of the Nativity is next to impossible, but there are clues embedded in the descriptions of other events. There was an old Jewish tradition, at that time, that God timed certain important events to fall on the same date.
It was in keeping with this tradition that the early church believed Jesus died on the same date he was conceived. An excerpt from the writings of St. Augustine confirms this:
“He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which date he suffered. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”[iii]
Although a specific date is not given, all four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on the preparation day for Passover. Because the exact year of the crucifixion is unknown, the calculations for Passover are rough, at best. However, Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, which usually falls in March or April.
If Jesus died on or around the fourth week of March, and we presuppose that He died on the same day as His conception, then nine months from His conception would have been the fourth week of December, making the date on which we currently celebrate Christmas highly probable.
In keeping with this presupposition that the tradition is legitimate, there are other clues that we can cross-reference and conclude that the March 25 date is feasible for the Incarnation. In Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple priestly division of Abijah. This was done by rotating members of the priesthood twice a year. St. John of Chrysostom performed a series of calculations which concluded that Zechariah’s service began on the Day of Atonement (October 1).
It was during this service that Zechariah heard the angel’s proclamation that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son. If we take the two weeks for his service, he returned home to Elizabeth around the third week of October.
The Angel Gabriel told Our Lady Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, when he announced to her the conception of Our Lord.[iv] Although they are not precise scientific calculations, if we assume John was conceived in the third or fourth week of October, then move forward six months, we find March 25 being within the acceptable range of falling inside the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
Once again, this evidence is based upon the presupposition that the dates of Jesus’ conception and crucifixion were the same, which no non-Christian will accept – and that’s ok. We are not trying to convert anyone here. The purpose of removing the veil from the lies about Christmas is simply to answer the questions regarding our beliefs, and also to affirm that those who either do not know our faith – or have a grudge to bear against it – should not be considered reliable sources regarding it.
What has been discussed in this article are some of the prevalent arguments levied at Christians in order to insinuate that there are weaknesses in the historicity of the Christian faith. Much like every other area which anti-Christians attack, Christmas is attacked with half-truths and lies. But we cannot blame those who would attack our faith for doing what they feel is right, if we ourselves are unprepared to defend it.
The anti-Christmas arguments addressed here are so full of holes that anyone who chooses to use them, despite this, should be immediately disqualified as a credible source.
In our response, we must never make the mistake of believing the purpose for the attacks on the Church’s celebration of Christ’s birth in December is to argue the historical date of Jesus’ birth. Those who say Christians have stolen the date from pagan holidays are not interested in when Jesus was born; most of them don’t believe he ever existed. Their true purpose is to attack the integrity of what we believe in.
As discussed earlier, once the Church can be proven wrong in one area, the rest of the fabric can be unraveled, which brings us back to the primary response we should deliver to anyone who says December 25 is not the right date to celebrate Jesus’ birth: it doesn’t matter.
The date of Christmas is not given in the Bible, nor is it even mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What the Catechism does say, is that we are to meet together to observe special days of note, including the Nativity of our Lord.[v] But it does not suggest anything about having to get the date right.
Atheists and other non-Christians have this idea that everything regarding God has to be exactly right and any challenge to it will compromise the integrity. This is not the Christian way. Christianity is about the spirit of the message; it is about love. There are numerous examples in all four Gospels of how Jesus despised the practice of keeping strict tradition while simultaneously ignoring the true essence of why the tradition exists: to help us live in a manner pleasing to God, and of service to our fellow man.
It really doesn’t matter whether the birth of Christ is celebrated on December 25, or January 6 or June 1 or August 19, nor does it even matter on which date it happened; all that matters is that it did happen. This is why anti-Christians will do everything they can to bog the debate down with irrelevant arguments like the ones addressed in this article.
They cannot argue against Christ’s message, nor can they besmirch Him as a man. They have to somehow shift the argument to worldly topics, or they lose immediately. Of course, even on a worldly platform, when one argues against the truth, one still loses, eventually.
It doesn’t matter upon which date Jesus was born, but it does matter that we honor His birth on December 25. There is ample evidence to suggest that the date is accurate, but that is not the point. Christmas is a celebration of the first steps in the most amazing and inimitable acts of love that could ever be performed: God coming down to earth to live among us, to teach us, to lead us and ultimately to freely offer Himself as a sacrifice for a debt we had accumulated, but could never pay, ourselves.
The true question here is: did the Catholic Church steal December 25 from pagans. It is abundantly clear from the historical evidence that it did not. So what is the right answer to give when someone asks you whether December 25 is the correct day to celebrate Christmas? Absolutely!
[i] Saint Hippolytus of Rome, Commentary on Daniel
[ii] Luke 2:8
[iii] Saint Augustine, De trinitate, Book 4, 5
[iv] Luke 1:36