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Today is why Christmas is on December 25

Have you ever wondered Christians celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ on December 25?

A common answer is that Emperor Constantine decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25 in order to consolidate his power with pagans who were accustomed to celebrating a winter pagan festival on that date. Thus he “Christianized” the pagan holiday.

There are two problems with this theory: first, there is little evidence to support the assertion that there was a pagan festival on this date in the time of Constantine.

Second, the actual reason Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25 has more to do with Christ’s death than it has to do with anything pagan. Allow me to explain.

Additional 44949 f.5Today is Good Friday, the day on which Christians celebrate the death of Jesus Christ. March 25 also happens to be the traditional day of observing the Annunciation, the day on which Gabriel announced to Mary her conception of the Son of God. These two days rarely line up; in fact, they won’t align again until 2157.

However, there is a reason the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25, and it has to do with the fact that Jesus died on March 25 (by our current western calendar reckoning).

Early Christians had a fairly good idea of the exact date of Christ’s death because they knew that his death fell on Passover that year. Passover, of course, is a movable Feast; it corresponds to the vernal equinox. The year of Christ’s death, Passover fell on March 25 (again, by our modern reckoning).

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However, Christians wanted to continue to remember Christ’s death on a Friday since Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, became of special significance to them. So, Good Friday from that point forward did not always fall on Passover (since Passover isn’t always on Friday). Easter is always celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and Good Friday is the Friday before that.

Later, when Christians were deciding when to celebrate Christ’s incarnation, they didn’t know for sure what date he was born. However, in that time there was a common belief that individuals of great importance died on the same date as they were conceived. Strange superstition, isn’t it?

But with this odd belief, it was fairly simple, then, to settle on a date for the birth of Christ. Since they knew he was conceived by the Holy Spirit on March 25 (celebrated by the Annunciation), all they had to do was go forward 9 months, and December 25 became the date to celebrate Christ’s Incarnation.

So today, a March 25 on which both Good Friday and Annunciation fall, is a very rare day that explains why we celebrate Christmas on December 25. It is perhaps an odd reason, but far less sinister than the common belief that Constantine was simply attempting to “Christianize” a pagan festival.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

2 Responses to Today is why Christmas is on December 25

  1. Actually, a strong case can be made for Christ’s birth in the winter late in 5 BC or early in 4 BC. In other words, the date of Christmas is not as arbitrary as many make it out to be. There are reasons.

    Almost all Bible teachers agree that Herod died in March or April of 4 BC. Since Herod died in 4 BC, and Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king, this means that Jesus was born sometime before 4 BC. Furthermore, the Scriptures record several events between Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death: Mary’s purification, the wise men, Jesus and his family’s flight to Egypt, and the murder of the innocents, all of which probably took at least two to four months.

    Some argue that because Herod asks the magi when they first saw the star (Matt 2:4) and Herod ruthlessly slaughters all baby boys two years and younger (Matt 2:16) that therefore Jesus and his family were in Bethlehem for two years. This is a possibility, but Herod could have chosen the upper limit of 2 to ensure that his genocide was thorough. Furthermore, the star might have appeared before Jesus was born. All this is to say that Jesus could have been born at the latest in late 5 BC—say November or December—or January in 4 BC.

    Other historical research points to this as well. For various reasons, we can’t date Jesus’ birth earlier than 7 or 6 BC. The western church celebrates Christmas on the 25th of December, but the Eastern church celebrates it on January 6th. Hippolytus, one of the earliest post-apostolic Christian writers who lived from around 165 to around 235, said that Jesus was born on December 25th. He was the first to date Christmas as December 25th. Chrysostom in the 4th cen. also advocated the December 25th date. This does not confirm or deny the date of Christ’s birth, and another Christian writing in the 2nd century gave Nov 18th as Christ’s birth.

    We can at least conclude that there are very old traditions that give December 25th or at least sometime in midwinter as the birth of Jesus, and that was likely in late 5 BC or January of 4 BC, in the days of Herod the King.

    If this is the case, we must back up 9 mos from winter 5 BC/4BC for Christ’s conception (and the Annunciation). Why not pick 9 mos from Christmas, which is March 25th?

    For more on this, see Harold Hoehner’s Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ.

  2. Yeah, that’s interesting. I think, as you’ve shown, that a winter birth is certainly plausible.

    I will also note that Hippolytus and Chrysostom, both of whom you cite, and even Tertullian, connected their December 25 date to the March 25 death date, so I think there is correlation between what you’ve written and what I’ve written. :)

    Here’s Hippolytus: “For the first appearance of our Lord, in the flesh, in which he was born in Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January [December 25], on a Wednesday, while Augustus was reigning in his forty-second year, and from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in his thirty-third year, eight days before the Kalends of April [March 25], on a Friday, in the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Fufius and Rubellius were Consuls.”

    And here’s Clement, too: “Regarding his passion, some with very great accuracy say it was in the sixteenth year of Tiberius Caesar on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth; others say the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi and still others say the Savior suffered on the nineteenth of Pharmuthi. Further, some of them say that he was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi.”

    McGownan’s Ancient Christian Worship gives some of this background, as well as several other sources I’ve encountered.

    Here’s Tertullian: “And this passion of Christ was completed within the times of the seventy weeks, under Tiberius Caesar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of Pascha, on the eighth day before the calends of April, on the first day of unleavened bread on which they slaughtered the lamb at evening, just as it was prescribed by Moses.”

    McGowen comments on this: “This “eighth day before the calends of April” of course means March 25. Although Tertullian does not mention Jesus’ birth, he draws on the same kind of tradition as Clement, Hippolytus, and On the Dating of Pascha in calculating Jesus’ death on or about March 25— meaning that the date of Jesus’ conception was also the date of his death. 83 Even the differences between these texts underscore that there was a tradition of calculating Jesus’ birth and death in the West as well as the East, well beyond the peculiar mathematical labors of one or two Christian authors with too much time on their hands.”

    Interesting stuff!

    Thanks!

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