Christ’s Birth in December
In recent years, the skepticism concerning the accuracy of the December birth of Christ has increased. More and more we hear that December is arbitrary or that it was instituted by the church without any real proof, or further still that it was chosen to challenge an established pagan celebration. After all, some say, where does it say this date in the Bible?There is ample proof, according to both historical record as well as Tradition.
Note: The date date of Christmas, December 25th, falls on Jan. 7th when calculated using the Julian calendar due to the 13 day difference. A discussion concerning the Julian calendar and so-called Revised Julian calendar is beyond the scope of this article.
Understanding The Tradition
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, provenance concerning the time of Christ’s birth can be traced to the early years of the third century.
Saint Clement of Alexandria,(c. 150-215) stating in his famous work the Stromata:
And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day;
In the dawn of the Third Century (circa 170-240) Saint Hippolytus of Rome offers December 25th as the actual date. This information is gleaned from the fourth book of commentary of Hippolytus on the Prophetic Book of Daniel in the passage n 4.23.3:
For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the kalends of January [December 25th], the 4th day of the week [Wednesday], while Augustus was in his forty-second year, [2 or 3BC] but from Adam five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty third year, 8 days before the kalends of April [March 25th], the Day of Preparation, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar [29 or 30 AD], while Rufus and Roubellion and Gaius Caesar, for the 4th time, and Gaius Cestius Saturninus were Consuls.” (tr. Tom Schmidt).
One may certainly question how the Saint derived this date. Clearly other extant writings from that time make similar claim, from which we may reason that the date was known amongst the Christians in Rome and in the west.
There are others offering additional evidence of this date of the Nativity of our Lord. Saint Justin Martyr (100-165), lends further testimony to the existence of historical data in his noted Apology (a detailed explanation of the Christian faith addressed to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius), which stated that Jesus was born at Bethlehem according the record of the census:
as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing (Apol. I, 34).
Another writer of the early Christian era was Tertullian (160-250), who wrote concerning the census:
the census of Augustus: that most faithful witness of the Lord’s nativity, kept in the archives of Rome” (Against Marcion, Bk. 4, 7).
The first of the Eastern Fathers to support to December birth date was Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), the Archbishop of Constantinople. Saint John was a prolific author whose writings on the Bible and the Christian faith are still widely read.
Saint John Chrysostom claimed the December 25th date was supported by the actual census/tax records of the Holy Family when they registered in Bethlehem. Saint John was not the only one who referred to these tax records. As mentioned above, he had reliable sources from which to lay his claim. Further, that others refer to the similar source gives evidence that the records were in existence at that time. This is significant as it ties the date to a historic record – the event of the census, the records of which would have been available in Rome at that time.
The institution of the Feast was a new custom in the East during Saint John’s time of service and he defended it as something providential and God-pleasing. To paraphrase Saint John, this feast was no novelty:
from Thrace to Cadiz this feast was observed rightly, since its miraculously rapid diffusion proved its genuineness.
It was not long after when Saint Gregory Nazianzen also championed the great feast in Constantinople.
On the basis of these testimonies, the evidence is difficult to dismiss concerning the antiquity of the December birth. As we see with many things in the Church, things blessed by God will not remain hidden, for as the divine Psalmist hath said:
Many, O Lord my God, are Thy wonders which Thou hast wrought, and Thy thoughts there is none that shall be likened unto Thee.
THE ROMAN / PAGAN CONNECTION
Some contemporary scholars have argued that December 25th was initially set forth as a pagan festival, which was dedicated in 274 by the Roman emperor Aurelian to celebrate the birth of the Sun god, Sol Invictus. They further claim that the Church sought to “Christianize” this pagan celebration. Looking at previous practice among the pagan Emperors, we may infer with reason that it may have been quite the contrary. A prime example may be seen in the early 2nd century AD when the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a temple to Venus over the site of Golgotha. The early Christian author Eusebius claims, in his Life of Constantine, that the site of the Church had originally been a Christian place of veneration, but that Hadrian had deliberately covered these Christian sites with earth, and built his own temple on top, due to his hatred for Christianity.
As noted earlier, the assertion of Saint Hippolytus of Rome for a December 25th date predates the pagan celebration by approximately 60 years.
It is perfectly reasonable to accept the possibility that a pagan holiday could have been instituted to cover over a feast of the Lord.
This article was not meant to be an exhaustive study on this topic but rather a chance to provide record supporting the long held Christian Tradition for the Birth of Christ. In a time when the love of God has grown cold in the hearts of men, it is no small wonder that any still cling to this sacred Feast in its true solemnity as a joyous celebration of the salvation of mankind.