Dear Fr. Joe: I heard that Christmas is simply a pagan feast that Christians took and made about Jesus. Is that true? Does that mean Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas Day? If he wasn’t, what are we celebrating?
It’s a great time for these questions – with all the information out there, how do we know what’s true?
Truth be told, there is a lot of debate about the actual date of Jesus’ birth. The amount of information out there on this is pretty substantial. What I hope to do here is talk about what we celebrate on Christmas and then talk about the different theories about Dec. 25 as the date we celebrate Christ’s birth.
So – what do we celebrate on Christmas? I think a good way to think of it is this: On Christmas, we celebrate the fact that Christ was born, not necessarily the exact anniversary of that birth. Here is what we are sure of: God saw our plight and came to our rescue. He took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus came to us, fully God and fully man as a little child who had to be cared for, nurtured and protected. Just like the mystery of the Eucharist, our God became small so that we could be holy and close to him. What an amazing thing!
On Christmas Day, we celebrate God taking flesh and living among us: this is what we call the incarnation. The incarnation is so important to us as Catholics that we actually bow every time we mention it in the Creed. This incarnation changed everything about our human experience as Jesus entering into our lives changed the experience of our lives from simply human to divine. Here is a great quote from a Dr. Kreeft lecture called “Suffering”:
God’s answer to our pain was not a philosophy, but a person. I like to see Christ as the tears of God. Instead of telling us why not to weep, he wept, and transformed human tears into divine tears. … He suffered for us not to make our sufferings go away, but to make them enter him – to make them his own. He changed not the existence, but the essence, of suffering. Not the quantity, but the quality.
This is a great and beautiful mystery that we celebrate on Christmas Day. Beyond that, you have the incredible reality that Jesus, fully God and fully human, was able through his humanity to take on our sins and, because of his divinity, he was able to overcome them!
Why didn’t our early Christians mark the date of Christ’s birth? Honestly, marking birth dates just wasn’t important to them: I even found quotes from early Church Fathers more or less sneering at those who attempted to figure out the date. To them, (and hopefully to us!) the big thing was the fact that Christ was born and how that changed everything for us.
So, why do some people say Christ was not born on Dec. 25? Well, the Bible gives us some information, but we don’t know what to make of it. For example, Luke tells us that Jesus was born during a census, so some people have used this knowledge to try to figure out when his birth would have occurred. There are reasons why a census in winter would have been a bad idea and reasons why it would have been a good idea – but here is a key point: The Romans would not have cared whether or not it was convenient for the Jews. They simply didn’t care about such things.
Others have looked at the fact that Luke specifically mentions the priest Zachary working in the Temple at the time of Jesus birth and tried to draw a date from there. This is an exceptionally complex equation that seems to point us to October as the month for Jesus’ birth, but frankly, there is a lot of guesswork in there.
Probably the strongest theories about why we picked Dec.25 as the date to celebrate the fact that God took flesh in Jesus revolves around pagan feasts. The Roman pagans had a lot of feasts around December, the most notable being the Feast of the Unconquered Sun (Invictus Sol), when they noted that Dec. 25 was the first day when the hours of sunlight were noticeably longer. Remember, Christianity was illegal for a long time and, as a result, we got into the habit of gathering as Christians secretly when pagans were gathering for “their” feasts –it was a sound strategic move! Once Christianity became legal, Romans continued the practice of picking dates of pagan feasts to celebrate Christian ones to show their surrender to the old ways and their embracing of the truth.
This Christmas season, amidst all the hustle and bustle, we simply must pause and recognize the gift that God has given us in the birth of Christ and thank him for it. We are so blessed to love and be loved by our God!
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!
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