A common view about the date of Christmas goes something like this:
“Well, it was a pagan festival, something to do with the sun, and the Christians pinched it to try to make their religion more popular.”
This is one of those things people just ‘know’. But like many things everyone ‘just knew’ at one time (eg, the Sun goes round the earth, older women with moles are witches), we now know this to be false.
The belief that Christians appropriated a pagan festival and made it into Christmas started with Paul Jablonski, a German historian writing in the 17th century.
A radical protestant, Jablonski wanted to show that the Catholic faith was unreliable because it had almost immediately started absorbing pagan beliefs and customs. Jablonski believed, and wanted to prove, that ‘Sola Scriptura’ (Scripture alone) was the only safe foundation for faith.
In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. the winter solstice fell on December 25th. It seemed obvious to Jablonski that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one.
He was wrong.
In fact the feast of Sol Invictus, or the invincible sun, was instituted by the emperor Aurelian in 274AD. By this time Christians had been celebrating the birth of Jesus on that date for many years.
Hippolytus, a priest in Rome, wrote thirty years before this that Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, on December 25th. St John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, also confirms that Christians had celebrated the birth of Christ on this date from the early days of the Church.
It was the pagans who attempted to bolster their falling numbers by appropriating a Christian festival, not the other way around.
How could the Church have known when Jesus was born? The simplest explanation is that Mary, Jesus’ mother, told His disciples what had happened, and they remembered and told those who came after, just as they related the other facts of Jesus’ life and teaching.
A little additional confirmation comes from John Chrysostom. He explains that the date is confirmed by Luke 1 which says Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told him his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist.
During the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary was also visited by an angel and Jesus was conceived. She then went immediately to visit Elizabeth, who was her cousin.
The 24 classes of Jewish priests served by roster in the Temple. Zechariah was in the eighth class. Jewish tradition tells us the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.
Calculating back from that, Zechariah’s class would have been serving in October in the year before Jesus’ birth. That is when Elizabeth became pregnant.
Mary visited Elizabeth six months later, just after her visit from the angel Gabriel. That is, in March. Jesus was born nine months later – in December.
So Happy Christmas!