Explaining the Birth of Jesus: Why Was Jesus Born? | Bible History

In the English language, the term Christ-mas refers to the Roman Catholic practice of holding a mass on December 25th to celebrate the birth of Christ—therefore, “the Mass of Christ” or “Christ-Mass.” The Scriptures do not specify on which exact day of the year Jesus was born. Luke 2:8 claims that near the place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock at night.” A plausible suggestion regarding the date of Jesus’s birth is that it cannot be December since the sheep would not survive grazing out in the fields overnight in the winter months like December and January in Bethlehem. Piecing together the evidence found in Matthew chapter one and Luke chapters two and three, some scholars think that Jesus was born in mid-to-late-September. However, the liturgical celebration of Christmas was not set to account for the historical date as much as it was set to manifest deep theological meanings regarding the birth of the creation in Christ’s nativity as we will see in this video.

The birth of Christ has been celebrated by Christians in various parts of the world on dates other than December 25th. Generally speaking, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians currently celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7th. However, the Armenian Apostolic and Evangelical Churches celebrate Christmas on January 6.  The earliest Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ on a specific day of the year. Clement and Origen of Alexandria, for example, bragged that Christians did not try to figure out the anniversary of Jesus’ birth because the practice of remembering a birthday was something only pagans and sinners did. In the early church era, Jesus and Christian martyrs were more likely remembered for the day of the year on which they died as a testimony of their faith. This is why church historians are so often vague in claiming birth years but very definitive in claiming exact dates and years of martyrs’ deaths. This explains why there was a controversy about when to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ in the early church but no controversy about when to celebrate the birth of Christ. While the incarnation of Christ (or Jesus’ becoming a man) is very important to Christian theology, the exact date of His birth was not important to Christians in the earliest era of church history.

How, then, did the Western Church come to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th? By the fourth century, we find the Eastern Church celebrating Jesus’ birth on January 6th and calling it the Day of Epiphany or Three Kings Day. It was said to be the day that the Magi visited Jesus in Bethlehem, and also the day that Jesus was baptized. The Eastern Church celebrates Jesus’ birth on this day of the year. The first mention of the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25th comes from the Chronicon of Hippolytus of Rome, written in about the year 235. 

The week of the winter solstice, which includes the shortest days of the year, had long been celebrated by countries in the northern hemisphere as a natural seasonal turning point after which the days would start to get longer. The Sun would begin to return, so the cycle of life would return with the Sun. Local celebrations of renewed life and light were easily adopted by Christians who celebrated Jesus as the bringer of life and light to all people. Since the Romans were already celebrating their agricultural god, Saturn, on that week, Christians found it fitting to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the same week as the Roman Saturnalia. Insofar as some theologians liked nice, tidy calendars, it also has been suggested that Jesus was conceived on what would become Easter Sunday and was born nine months later. When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early fourth century, many buildings and celebrations that had been in honor of the Roman gods were repurposed for Christian meetings and celebrations. 

The Saturnalia included gift-giving; loosening up of normal dress codes; and role reversals between parents and their youngest children or masters and their lowest slaves. The celebration would end with giving candles as gifts. Jesus Christ being God’s gift to the world was too easy of a theme to assimilate as was the role reversal of the King of Kings becoming a lowly baby born in a manger. 

Then there is Santa Claus. He has several names across Europe: Father Christmas, Grandfather Christmas, Grandfather Frost, Old Man Winter, Kris Kringle, and, of course, St. Nicholas. The term Santa Claus derives from the Dutch word Sinterklass, which is their way of saying St. Nicholas. Some early British Christian groups, such as the Puritans and Pilgrims, who migrated to the northeast coast of what is now the United States of America, were strongly opposed to the celebration of any Catholic saint. However, the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam, later known as New York, were very fond of their celebrations involving Santa Claus. Stories about Santa Claus in Europe and the New World varied greatly but often included Santa Claus’ giving gifts to children, hanging holly wreaths (which were said to be the bush used to form Jesus’ crown of thorns), and putting up Christmas trees (which stayed green all year to celebrate new life). The earliest Christmas trees in Germany were decorated with candles and candy. Some even credit the Reformer, Martin Luther, with the invention of the Christmas tree. 

Was there really a St. Nicholas? Yes, there was. Even though little is known about him, he has been widely and enthusiastically celebrated in both the Eastern and Western Churches. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town in Lycia, Asia Minor, in the early fourth century. Although there is a story told about his punching the heretic Arius in the face at the Council of Nicæa, which has circulated widely as a meme on the internet, Nicholas’s name cannot be found on any list of attendees of that council, nor did any of his contemporaries mention his attendance there. His church was built on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey, and he eventually became known as the patron saint of sailors, children, thieves, and Russia. Nicholas’s legacy includes generosity for children, so when his bones were said to be stolen from his church in Turkey and removed to Bari, Italy; his tradition of providing gifts for children was celebrated widely throughout the west. Even though Nicholas’s day is celebrated by Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians on December 6 and on December 19 by the Eastern Christians using the Julian Calendar, his legend was incorporated into Western Christmas traditions on December 25th.

The birth of Jesus Christ, whether celebrated in Eastern Traditions on January 6th or 7th or as “Christmas Day” in Western Traditions on December 25th, is important to Christians everywhere. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, lived among His people. He became man to bring life, light, and joy into the world; so these themes continue to be a part of Christians’ celebration of the birth of their Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.

  1.  For a contrary view among modern scholars, that Jesus’ birth was precisely on December 25, see Kurt M. Simmons, “The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ’s Birth,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 58:2 (2015): 299-324.
  2. Extensive theories ranging from January through early October have been suggested, but September would fit with the details of John the Baptist’s birth, which was said in Luke 1:26 to have transpired six months before Jesus’ birth, and Elizabeth would have conceived John immediately after the ninth week of the Jewish calendar when her husband, Zacharias, would have been performing his annual duties at the temple according to his order among the Levites.
  3. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1:21; Origen of Alexandria, Homily on Leviticus, 8; Commentary on Matthew, 14:6.
  4. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Quartodecimanism,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  5. Jessica Van Roekel, “What is Epiphany, and Is It a Biblical Holiday?” Christianity.com, accessed December 12, 2021. https://www.christianity.com/wiki/holidays/is-epiphany-three-kings-day-a-biblical-holiday.html
  6. Hippolytus, Chronicon.
  7. Mark Cartwright, World History Encyclopedia, s.v. “Saturnalia,” accessed December 12, 2021, https://www.worldhistory.org/Saturnalia.
  8. For a thorough discussion on Hippolytus of Rome’s claim that Jesus was born on December 25, which was 9 months after Easter or the vernal equinox, see Thomas C. Schmidt, “Calculating December 25 as the Birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’s Canon and Chronicon,” Vigiliae Christianae 69:5 (October 28, 2015).
  9. usto González, The Story of Christianity: Volume One—The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, revised and updated edition (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 140.
  10. Mark Cartwright, World History Encyclopedia, s.v. “Saturnalia,” accessed December 12, 2021, https://www.worldhistory.org/Saturnalia.
  11. “12 Names for Santa Claus from Around the World,” Dictionary.com, accessed December 12, 2021, https://www.dictionary.com/e/what-are-all-of-the-different-names-for-santa-claus/.
  12. Alison Barnes, “The First Christmas Tree,” HistoryToday.com, accessed December 12, 2021, http://historytoday.com/archive/history-matters/first-christmas-tree.
  13. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 62.
  14.  Encyclopedia Britanica, s.v. “St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra,” accessed December 12, 2021.
  15. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Nicholas, St.,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).