In the last several decades, much to do has been made of the Pagan origins of Christmas, which I hope to prove to you could be no further from the truth. Arm-chair theologians who carelessly abstract their claims from hearsay and various Internet sites, often ignoring the primary resources and/or their proper contexts, often wrongly conclude that the advent of Constantine brought about the demise of the one true apostolic church, the introduction of pagan idolatry into the church, and the idolatrous celebration of Christmas.
Although many of the practices of our modern Christmas celebration do include pagan activities, which later crept into the holy day as a result of the Western Church's attempt to Christianize its pagan contemporaries, it is naive to think that the early church embraced these as part of their celebration of the nativity. The earliest mention of the date for Christmas came circa 200 while the earliest documented celebrations came between 250-300 A.D., a period when persecuted Christians were intentionally distancing themselves from their pagan roots, not trying to mingle with them via syncretism.
The earliest record supporting the 25th of December as the birth of Jesus was written in the early third century by Hippolytus in his commentary on Daniel 4:23. He states: "The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, 5500 years from Adam." Hippolytus' date for the nativity was Wednesday, December 25th, 5 BCE. Even before Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria who lived from 150-215 CE, wrote that "...there are those who have not only determined the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place...in the twenty-fifth day of Pachom." Another early mention of Jesus' birthday came in the mid-300's from a Roman Almanac that lists the death dates of various bishops and martyrs. The first date listed is December, 25th and writes, "natus Christus in Betleem Judeae".
Although the calculations of the early fathers may not have been precise, it is evident that the Church began to recognize the nativity long before it began the practice of converting pagan holidays into Christian ones under Pope Leo in the early seventh century. The point is, that the recognition of the winter birth of Jesus was recorded by the end of the second century, which was over a century prior to Constantine's rule and long before it became identified with any pagan festival.
Many Christians reject the significance of December 25th because of its connection to the Roman Mithraic Feast of the Sun god, and the celebration of Saturnalia which both coincide with the winter solstice, however this coincidence should not invalidate the significance of the December 25th date because as we have shown above, the date was "calculated" prior to the Western Christian (Roman Catholic) practice of syncretism. Could it be that God, in His eternal wisdom and heavenly sense of humor chose December 25th as the day when the SON of God triumphed over the god of the Sun by bringing redemption to those pagan gentiles, who were covered in darkness, through the light of the Christ Child?
Early Christian tradition holds that the annunciation of Christ's birth and his subsequent conception came to Mary by the Angel of Gabriel in the sixth lunar month on March 25th in 5 BCE, which would have been the 15th of Nisan, the exact day of Pesach (Passover). Now projecting nine months from that date, the early fathers calculated December 25th to be the date for the nativity of Christ. This calculation would give the mid-winter birth of Christ some validity. However, the questions of the shepherds watching their flocks by night have caused some to dismiss this because the normal times for shepherds to watch their flocks in the fields was in the spring and summer. It is important to note however, that it was also traditional for shepherds at this time to reserve a winter pasture near large towns so that their flocks could continue to graze year round, especially in more mild winters. The mid-winter calculation all depends upon when Zechariah was actually fulfilling his duty as a priest in the temple, for there are two possibilities that exists according to the "divisions of Abijah" mentioned in 1 Chronicles 24.
Some scholars believe that Zechariah's stint at the temple occurred during the 10th week which was the 8th course of Abijah according to 1 Chronicles 24:10. This places Zechariah's service on the second Sabbath of the month of Sivan (May/June) and John's birth on Passover, Nisan 15 (allowing for the two week period of separation before returning home). This position is interesting to note because during the Passover Seder, a special place is always set in anticipation for the coming of Elijah, whom Jesus said was none other than John the Baptist. This calculation would place the birth of Jesus six months later on the 15th day of the seventh month which is the first day of the feast of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles). It is interesting to note as well, that in John 1:14, the Scripture says that the Word (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt (literally tabernacled) among us..." Furthermore, Messianic tradition holds that Hanukkah, or the festival of lights is believed to have been the time when the Maccabees hoped for the return of God's Shekinah glory. Hanukkah comes approximately three months after Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement - late September/early October). This means that if Jesus was in fact born in Sukkot, that he may very well have been conceived during Hanukkah!
Others state that each of the 40 families of priests who were to serve at the temple throughout the year, served two terms which would put the second course of Abijah at the 34th week. This would place his service at the temple on Yom Kippur (late September) which seems to agree with the conversation between Zechariah and Gabriel found in Luke 1:8-24, meaning that John was perhaps conceived on or around the 17th of Tishri (early October) and born on the 17th of Tammuz (June/July). This interpretation would mean that Jesus was not only conceived on Nisan 15 (March 25), but was born nine-months later on December 25th.
I know, it's as clear as mud...It still confuses me, but hang in there for one more point!
As we stated earlier, the first record of Jesus' birthday was calculated sometime in the beginning of the third century by Hippolytus who indicated a December 25th nativity in 5 BCE. When I discovered what I am about to share with you, it nearly floored me! As we discussed earlier, there is great probability for the birth of Jesus having occurred on the first day of Sukkot (the feast of Tabernacles) which places Jesus' conception during the Festival of Lights, or Hanukkah). Check this out! In 5 BCE, the first day of Hanukkah (Kislev 25) fell on December 25th! Chew on that for a while...
The point I'm trying to make is this: whether Jesus, was actually born on December 25th or sometime in late September is not near as important as the fact that He came! And whether the Jewish Calendar or the Christian Calendar is correct is of little importance. What is important, is that some how, and in some way, God has unfolded His mysterious plan, in that both Jew and Gentile became beneficiaries of Christ's advent. Furthermore, that December 25th should hold great weight in both traditions. Whether it be a celebration of his actual birth from the Virgin's womb, or a celebration of His conception, both can and should be considered an advent of the promised Messiah; one being the return of God's shekinah glory to the earth into the womb of a young Jewish girl named Mary, and the other being the great fulfillment of God's promise to "tabernacle" with His people.
In the Lion, In the Lamb,
1. Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145
2. Philocalian Calandar
3. Hebrews For Christians, John J. Parsons, "Christmas Day" hebrew4christians.com/articles/Christmas/christmas.htm
4. The Seven Feasts of Messiah, Edward Chumney, Treasure House, 2001
4. The Seven Feasts of Messiah, Edward Chumney, Treasure House, 2001