Saturday, December 8, 2018

When is Christmas?

No, I am not getting forgetful. Well, actually I am getting forgetful, but I haven’t forgotten when Christmas is. Even though Christians will celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas Day, Jesus was not really born on December 25. That date was chosen three hundred years later by Emperor Constantine and confirmed a few years after that by Pope Julius the First.

Why was December 25 chosen? Did they track down Jesus’ birth certificate at the Bethlehem town hall to refute a birther conspiracy? No, it was chosen because that was the date of the winter solstice on the Julian calendar in use at the time. These days the solstice falls a few days before Christmas on December 21 (most years). The solstice is the original reason for the season.

We don’t know when Jesus was really born. We don’t even know the year he was born. The only reference to his age in the New Testament is Luke 3:23, which says that Jesus was “about thirty years old” when he began his ministry. Jesus’ birth date is normally thought to be sometime before 4 BC, but the truth is we don’t have a clue what year Jesus was born. Neither do we know the month or the day.

If the Lukan Christmas account is accurate, then the only thing we can say for sure is that it wasn’t anytime near December 25. If there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, then it wasn’t “in the bleak midwinter.” Shepherds did that only in the warm months. It gets cold (Brrr!) in Bethlehem in December. Believe me. I have been there in December in a cold apartment. Jesus was more likely born in the summer. Think Christmas in July.

Christmas is celebrated on December 25 because it was the winter solstice, which was already celebrated as a holiday by pre-Christian religions throughout the Roman Empire. In order to establish Christianity as his new state religion, it was easier for the newly converted emperor to refurbish an old holiday than create a new one. So the solstice was given a Christian name.

Some Christians don’t like the fact that Christmas is an adaptation of pagan solstice celebrations. For that reason some fringe Christian groups will not celebrate Christmas. Personally I like the linking of the winter solstice and the birth of Christ. It reinforces the cosmic significance of the religious holiday.

The winter solstice is the turning point of the year. During the dark days of Advent, the daylight hours grow shorter and shorter until the solstice. From that moment on, the days grow longer. The winter solstice is the victory of light over darkness. Although it doesn’t feel that way, it is a sign that spring is coming. Winter does not officially begin until the solstice, but the first day of winter already contains the promise of spring.

I think that is why the winter solstice was originally chosen for Christmas. When the world was darkest, light came into the darkness. As the apostle John’s Christmas account puts it, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) In the deepest darkness of our lives, there is hope. The name that Christians give to this hope is Jesus Christ.

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