The exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown. December 25 was chosen by the early church as the date to celebrate his birth, but there are several theories as to why this date was picked. In this article, we’ll explore the origins of celebrating Christmas on December 25 and the biblical and historical evidence surrounding when Jesus may have actually been born.
When was Jesus actually born?
The gospels don’t specify a date for Jesus’ birth. However, there are some clues that point to Jesus likely being born in the spring or summer rather than winter:
- The shepherds were staying out in the fields near Bethlehem, watching over their flocks at night (Luke 2:8). This would most likely happen in the spring lambing season when the weather was mild, not the cold winter.
- Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). These were typically conducted after the harvest season, in the fall. It’s unlikely a census would have been held in winter.
- Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, was a priest serving in the temple during the course of Abijah (Luke 1:5). This two-week shift fell in late spring or early summer.
Based on these details, most scholars believe Jesus’ actual birth was more likely in the spring or summer months rather than December.
When did the church start celebrating Christmas in December?
Early Christians did not widely celebrate the birth of Jesus. The precise origins of a December religious feast celebrating Jesus’ birth are unclear, but evidence suggests the church in Rome started celebrating Christmas on December 25 in the 4th century. Several theories help explain the church’s rationale:
- Replacing pagan festivals – In the Roman Empire, December 25 was the date of the popular pagan festival honoring the sun god Mithra and the beginning of the winter solstice. Adopting this date helped convince pagans to accept Christianity.
- Replacing Roman festivals – The Roman winter solstice festival called Saturnalia and the birth anniversary of the unconquered sun (natalis solis invicti) also occurred in late December. Choosing this season counteracted these pagan celebrations.
- Date of the Passover – Some scholars believe the timing was selected to correspond with the Passover season since the gospels portray Jesus as the new Passover lamb.
- Date of the Annunciation – December 25 is nine months after March 25, which was held as the date of the Annunciation (when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus). So Jesus’ conception was tied to the date of his birth.
These theories help explain why the church landed on December 25 for the celebration of Christmas relatively early in church history.
When did December 25 become widely celebrated as Christmas?
December 25 was adopted as the official date of Christmas by important churches by the end of the 4th century:
- 336 CE – The earliest record of Rome officially celebrating December 25 as Christ’s birth
- 350 CE – Pope Julius I declared December 25 as the official date and declared it a civic holiday
- 380 CE – The Nicene Church adopted December 25 Christmas as an immovable feast
- 395 CE – St. John Chrysostom introduced Christmas Day liturgies in Antioch on December 25
Despite some adoption by the mid 4th century, it took centuries for Christmas on December 25 to become universally established. England adopted December 25 Christmas around the turn of the 7th century, while eastern churches observed January 6 as the date of Jesus’ birth into the 8th century.
Why wasn’t Jesus’ birth recorded in the Bible?
The exact date of Jesus’ birth isn’t celebrated or emphasized in the Bible:
- Only two gospels – Matthew and Luke – include a narrative about Jesus’ birth
- The focus is on the events confirming Jesus as the promised Messiah, not the specific date
- The earliest Christians were more interested in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the basis of salvation
For the gospel writers and early church, the theological significance of what Jesus’ birth meant for salvation was more important than recording the specific date it happened. The exact timing was not considered essential to Christian faith.
Does celebrating Christmas on December 25 have pagan origins?
Some claim that Christmas originated as a pagan holiday due to things like:
- Christmas trees and decorations – Have origins in Roman and Norse pagan traditions
- Santa Claus – Derived from the figure Odin, a Norse god
- Gift giving and feasting – Similar to Roman Saturnalia celebrations
- Yule logs – Come from Norse Yule winter solstice rituals
However, while some customs do have pagan roots, there are good arguments to consider:
- Early Christians intentionally sought to redeem these traditions and invest them with new, Christian meaning
- The pagan associations are often exaggerated or inaccurate – gift giving did not originate in Rome
- Modern Christmas traditions also have various secular, religious, and cultural influences
- Most Christians focus on Jesus during the season, not these peripheral traditions
Rather than rejecting all Christmas traditions as pagan, a balanced view contextualizes their origins and evolution over time. Their meanings today are complex.
Does the Bible condemn celebrating Jesus’ birth?
Some believe celebrating religious holidays like Christmas is condemned in Bible verses like:
Colossians 2:8 ESV
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Galatians 4:9-11 ESV
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
However, celebrating Jesus’ birth has significant differences from the concerns addressed in these passages:
- Christmas celebrates an event – Jesus’ incarnation – not a philosophical system or elemental spirit
- Jesus’ birth has theological and historical importance for salvation, unlike the weak principles Paul referenced
- The regulated observances condemned differ from freely celebrating Christmas without requiring its observance
When kept in proper perspective, celebrating Christmas as a way to worship Jesus does not conflict with Scripture.
Should Christians celebrate Christmas if it has pagan roots?
For Christians who realize December 25 has pagan origins, several factors should guide whether to celebrate Christmas:
- Bible does not prohibit it – Scripture nowhere commands against celebrating Jesus’ birth or a winter holiday.
- History and tradition – The longstanding tradition of celebrating on December 25 has significance.
- Commonality with culture – Can build bridges by participating in a well-known public holiday.
- Freedom in Christ – Mature faith gives freedom to celebrate, or not, in a way that honors Christ.
In the end, Christians have liberty in deciding whether to commemorate Jesus’ birth on December 25. If chosen as a matter of personal conviction and faith, it can be celebrated to the glory of God.
December 25 does not match the actual date of Jesus’ birth, which likely occurred in spring or summer. But the early church had reasonable motivations for choosing this date to widely celebrate his birth by the 4th century. While some origins connect to pagan traditions, Christmas today represents a diverse mix of cultural and religious influences. The Bible neither prohibits winter holidays nor provides definitive proof of Jesus’ exact birthdate. So Christians have freedom before God to celebrate Christmas, or not, in ways that honor Christ without improperly elevating the day.