If Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, why do we call it his birthday?

Dec 20, 2020 9:57 PM

Just in case you didn’t know—and I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you—December 25 is not the historical birthday of Jesus.  He was not born “on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.”  Shepherds were not out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks in a blizzard.  In fact, that one detail from Luke’s gospel about the shepherds is the only firm time stamp we have for the date of Jesus’ birth--and it tells us not when he was born, but when he was not.  Palestinian shepherds take their sheep out to open pasture from spring through fall.  Winter is the only season Jesus could not have been born.

Maybe you’ve heard that the date was chosen by the Catholic Church to counteract or perhaps even piggyback on the pagan Roman Saturnalia. Admittedly there is some convergence there, but the real story is far more complicated—and interesting—than that. Maybe you’ve heard that it was a date chosen by the Emperor Constantine, and to be sure, he had a hand in it, but the story is yet more complex and (yes) interesting than that.

One of the most detailed and accurate accounts I have read of how we got Christmas is an essay by Prof. Oscar Cullmann, "The Origin of Christmas" in his book The Early Church: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology (Wesminster, 1956).  Much of the information in this article comes from that chapter, and has been compared and supplemented by more recent studies and discoveries.

In this article you will see that before the Church celebrated Jesus’ birth, it commemorated his baptism; and before Christmas came Ephiphany. And originally it was celebrated on January 6.

You will see that there was a complex interweaving of theology, politics, and evangelism that led to the celebration of our Lord’s birth on December 25, that it was a long and drawn out process over many, many decades, and even then some did not join the movement (looking at you, Church of Armenia).

At the end, Prof. Cullmann draws three important conclusions:

  1. The Church has never celebrated Christmas on a historically accurate date. 
  2. The dates were chosen to preach a message.

  3. Christianity, not paganism, created Christmas. “The impulse to celebrate Christ’s birth did not come from outside, but was a consequence of theological reflection on the fact of our redemption, the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ, and condescended to our estate.”

Read the full article here: How We Got Christmas

The complete series on the Gospel of John has now been posted in the Media D.epartment. Find them in the Video Bible Class