Christmas Day, December 25th, is the most well-known date and event in the Christian calendar, and it doesn’t occur to most people to ask whether there’s any historical basis for placing Christ’s birth on that exact date. Do we actually _know_ that Christ was born on December 25th, over 2000 years ago? Well, let me put it this way: Buzzkill Institute historians estimate that the chances are about three-tenths of one percent – or one out of 365. In other words, December 25th is as good a candidate for Jesus’s birthday as any other day of the year, but it is certainly no better than the other 364 possibilities.
The earliest Christians apparently took very little interest in the exact date of Jesus’s birth. None of the gospels mention it, nor do St. Paul’s letters or any other part of the New Testament. In fact, the earliest record we have of any serious interest in the question of Christ’s exact birth date comes from Clement of Alexandria, a Christian teacher in Egypt who wrote during the second century of the Common Era, long after the event in question.
Clement gives us two possible dates for Christ’s birthday that were debated and discussed in his time – May 20th and April 21st – but he never mentions December 25th. That he bothered to bring up the subject at all clearly suggests a growing interest in Jesus’s birthdate by the late second century. But it wasn’t until at least 400 years after Christ’s birth that we find the first reference, in a Roman almanac, to December 25th as the big day. Given that it took so long for December 25th to emerge as the birthday of Jesus, how did it become the most widely-accepted date for the Christmas celebration? Two possible historical scenarios are most likely:
- Scenario one is that the early Christians semi-consciously smoothed the way for their burgeoning religion by coinciding Christmas with Saturnalia and the feast of Sol Invictus, two pagan festivals already practiced throughout the Roman Empire. Saturnalia was celebrated in late December.
- Scenario two is a little more involved. A tradition going back to the early church holds that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same calendar date. This notion is theologically significant, because it suggests a strong link between salvation and Christ’s birth. In about the year 200, Tertullian of Carthage estimated that the day of Christ’s crucifixion, as recorded in the Gospel of John, corresponded to March 25th in the Roman calendar. By the tradition that associates the day of crucifixion with the day of conception, this would naturally mean that Jesus was also conceived on March 25th, and born nine months later – on (you guessed it!) December 25th.
But neither one is certain, and we can’t tie down Jesus’s birth date with anything like the certainty we insist on at the Buzzkill Institute. Until solid historical evidence points to a specific date on the calendar, let’s just say that, as December 25th gets closer to us, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”