Christmas. A time of joy and festivity. Generosity (or greed) and family. And, to a great many, a time to celebrate the birth of their beloved Messiah known to most as Jesus Christ. But why do they choose Christmas day to celebrate? Was Jesus born on December 25th? Most who celebrate would say yes. But they would be wrong. A bit of deeper study into Scripture (and a touch of supplementary non-Biblical historical knowledge) shows a rather different origin to the holiday. An origin that, like so many things today, was motivated by none other than politics. In Luke 1:5 through 2:8, Luke writes about a series of events which we may study to determine the truth of this holiday. The true reason for the season.
In Luke 1:5-24, he tells us the story of Zacharias, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth, who were childless. While administering his priestly duties during the course of Abijah, Zacharias was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him that his prayers had been answered and that he and Elizabeth would have a son. They were to name him John. Because Zacharias doubted that this would happen, Gabriel informed him that he would not be able to speak until the birth of his son. As soon as his service in the Temple was completed, he returned to his own house. Elizabeth soon conceived and hid herself five months, unsure of how her pregnancy would be viewed.
In Luke 1:26-60, we find that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel visited Mary and informed her, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a son, and shall call His name Jesus” (verse 31). Soon thereafter, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth and stayed with her until the latter’s ninth month, leaving just prior to John’s birth. Jesus, then, was born approximately six months after John.
These verses provide quite a bit of relevant information:
- Zacharias, a priest, performed his duties during the course of Abijah.
- After he returned home from Jerusalem, Elizabeth conceived.
- Mary conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
- John was born approximately six months before Jesus.
All of this is important to calculate the exact timing of events but first and foremost, let’s look at “the course of Abijah.”
I Chronicles 24 (Verses 7-18) lists the courses, divisions or shifts of the priesthood that served in the Temple throughout the year. Verse 1 states, “These are the divisions of the sons of Aaron.” Among the sons of Eleazar were sixteen heads of their father’s house, while among the sons of Ithamar were eight additional heads of house, making twenty-four courses (verse 4). These courses of priests were divided by lot to be officials of the sanctuary and of the house of God (verse 5). Beginning on Nisan 1, these courses rotated throughout the year, serving in the Temple for one week (8 days) apiece. The course of Abijah, the course during which Zacharias was responsible to work, was the eighth shift (verse 10).
The Talmud (Hebrew scripture) describes the details of the rotation of courses, beginning on Nisan 1. With only twenty-four courses, eight days each, obviously each course was required to work twice a year, leaving three extra weeks. (The Hebrew year normally has fifty-one weeks. Intercalary, or leap, years have an additional four weeks.) The three holy day seasons, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, during which all the courses were required to serve, made up these three extra weeks. Thus, each of the courses worked five weeks out of the year: two in their specific courses and three during the holy day seasons.
In Luke 1:13-17, John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Messiah. The gospel accounts make it very clear that he was born about half a year before Jesus was born. From historical details in Luke’s account especially, as well as the accuracy of the Seventy Weeks prophecy (Daniel 9:22-27), it is clear that Jesus was born sometime in 4 BC. This means, counting back the nine months of gestation and the six-month difference in age, John must have been conceived in the first half of 5 BC. This fact forces us to choose the first shift of the course of Abijah as the time when Gabriel visited Zacharias in the Temple.
In the year 5 BC, the first day of the first month, the month of Nisan, according to the Hebrew Calendar, was a Sabbath. By synchronizing the Hebrew Calendar and the more modern stylized Julian Calendar, we can determine it was April 8. Projecting forward, the assignments course by course, and week by week, were: Course 1, the first week; Course 2, the second week; all Courses for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, the third week; Course 3, the fourth week; Course 4, the fifth week; Course 5, the sixth week; Course 6, the seventh week; Course 7, the eighth week; Course 8, the ninth week; and all courses the tenth week, which was the week of Pentecost.
Zacharias of the course of Abijah worked the ninth week in his assigned course and the tenth week in the Pentecost course, and this period ran from Iyar 27 through Sivan 12 (Hebrew calendar) or June 3 through 17 (Julian calendar). He probably returned home immediately after his shifts were completed, and Elizabeth most likely conceived in the following two-week period, June 18 through July 1, 5 BC.
With this information we can calculate Elizabeth’s sixth month as December, during which Mary also conceived (Luke 1:26-38). It is probable, because of the circumstances shown in Luke 1, that Mary conceived during the last two weeks of Elizabeth’s sixth month. Thus, John was born in the spring of 4 BC, probably between March 18 and 31. By projecting forward another six months to Jesus’ birth, the most probable time for His birth occurred between September 16 and 29. Depending on which hemisphere of Earth his birth took place in, that would be roughly the end of summer (northern hemisphere) or the beginning of spring (southern hemisphere).
But if indeed Jesus was brought into this world not in the winter of December, but in the springtime of September, why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th? The answer is, unfortunately, politics. It is time for a history lesson…
Christianity first became legalized/widespread under the rule of the emperor Constantine I (also called Constantine The Great or Saint Constantine). During his rule, various forms of Paganism were still a commonplace practice with very devoted religions. During the month of December, a Pagan festival called Saturnalia occurred which celebrated Saturn, a Pagan deity who was said to watch over the harvest. The peak of these holidays was on December 23. Eventually, Saturnalia was compressed from a full month of festivities into a single unique day of celebration. This holiday from that point on took place on none other than today’s modern Christmas: December 25.
Now, when Constantine made Christianity an official faith, he had trouble getting these devout Pagans to convert to the new ways. To aid in the conversion, he decided to place Christmas upon December 25, in order to overshadow and assimilate the Pagan holiday of Saturnalia. This is why we celebrate Christmas, not on Jesus’ birthday, but in the cold of December.
Furthermore, to ease the reluctance of Pagans to convert to Christendom, he chose to incorporate many elements of Saturnalia into the then-new holiday of Christmas. This was done, of course, so that the Pagans might be put at ease by familiarity. Just a few of the most well-known elements he borrowed from Saturnalia are detailed below:
- Santa Claus. This mythical holiday figure was inspired in part by a pre-Christian folk figure Sinterklaas, who was himself inspired by Germanic Pagan deities. However, the other part of his inspiration was the very Christian figure known as Saint Nicholas, who is often also called Sinterklaas.
- During Saturnalia, feasts were much enjoyed and gifts given. Both of these traditions were brought over into Christmas (the Christmas feast many families enjoy, and the tradition of Christmas presents).
- The Christmas tree. During Saturnalia, trees were brought into the home in a Pagan ritual act known as “sympathetic magic”. This “magic” was a form of ritualistic imitation in which they imitated the warmth of Springtime by keeping trees inside their warm homes, an act which they believed would reflect itself in the coming of Spring. Also, trees were a Pagan symbol of fertility and evergreens in particular (the commonly-depicted Christmas tree) were revered for their year-round life.
- Mistletoe. Pagan druids would harvest this plant during their festivals for decoration and religious herbal uses. In addition, the Pagan faiths believed mistletoe to be a symbol of romance and fertility. This symbolism was also brought over into the Christmas tradition of mistletoe, as any two who meet beneath it are intended to kiss.
And so we come to the heart of Christmas. In overshadowing the old Pagan festival by placing Christmas on the same date, and by incorporating and assimilating familiar Pagan elements into the Christian holiday, Constantine successfully gained converts and in time, nearly eradicated Paganism as his then-relatively-new Christianity spread to become a major religion.
But a holiday with political foundations is still a holiday. If you prefer to throw out the political origin in favor of religion, do so. If you rather disregard the religious trappings in favor of a secular celebration, you have that right. Whatever your own personal reason for the season, enjoy it to its fullest. This is, after all, only meant as an education. Do with it what you will. Happy Holidays.