, ,

For many years, I thought the Church picked December 25 as Jesus’s birthday to counteract the popular pagan winter festivals. Although that has something to do with the date for the Christian holiday, a peek at the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia reveals the background is more complex.

Madonna and Child, a 1460 painting by the master of the Osservanza

Madonna and Child, a 1460 painting by the master of the Osservanza (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

In Christianity’s first couple of centuries, the birth of Christ was not celebrated. St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, who were second- and third-century fathers of the Church, don’t list Jesus’s birth among Christian festivals. Until the third century, the only universal holidays were Easter and Pentecost.

Third century author and teacher Origen thought birthdays were for sinners, and Christian apologist Arnobius (second and third centuries) ridiculed the birthdays of gods.

Yet others who lived at that time were calculating when Jesus was born, and there were multiple answers. In 200, St. Clement of Alexandria said his fellow theologians in Egypt had Jesus’s birthday at May 20. Other conjectures also have Jesus being born in the spring, April 19 or 20 and March 28. Considering that the Scripture describes shepherds watching their flocks by night, a springtime date might be accurate.

Yet Clement also reports that a sect of Gnostics celebrated Epiphany, along with the Nativity, on the familiar January 6 or 10.

By the fourth century, December 25 was becoming recognized as the date for the Nativity. In 386, St. John Chrysostom, a doctor of the Church, was trying to unite the faithful in Antioch in celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25, a date that had been recognized for 10 years.

But why December 25 instead of the solstice, which occurs four days earlier? The so-called astronomical theory ties Jesus’s birth date with a date some believed to be His death. According to this theory, Jesus died on March 25 (a date the writer of the Catholic Encyclopedia article disputes). A divine life must add up perfectly; therefore he was conceived on March 25 and was born nine months later, December 25.

Regardless of the rationale for the date, the holiday brings beauty, joy, and charity when the days are cold and the nights are long here in the north. And that is reason enough to celebrate.