21 Jan How Modern Christmas Wound up on December 25th
Biblical records are so contradictory, and archeological evidence so sparse that it is next to impossible to be certain exactly when Jesus was born. In fact, it is not even certain where Jesus was born.
Luke mentions in his Gospel that Joseph and Mary had to travel 90 miles, from Nazareth in Galilee, to Bethlehem, in Judea, a difficult journey even without a pregnant wife. This would’ve been a good weeks travel back then. Supposedly, it was to register for a census, and the persons had to register in their ancestral hometown. There are numerous problems with this.
- Jews had been enslaved by Babylon, the tribes split, and remnants scattered everywhere throughout the Middle East. It is unlikely that anyone would have known their tribal affiliations and original locations at that time.
- Requiring registrants to travel such great distances would’ve drained the public funds, and created huge traffic jams, all for nothing. There would’ve been no reason for such a requirement, and it was never done on any other census.
- Women were 2nd -Class citizens at that time, and never had to register for a census. There would’ve been no reason to bring Mary, especially with her being pregnant.
- There are no records of any such census being taken during the time period in question, and it would’ve been unlikely that it was ordered by Augustus in any case. At that time, Palestine was a ‘Protectorate’ under Herod the Great. Administration was left up to Herod. As long as Rome got it’s taxes, it left everyone alone. Any census would’ve been ordered by Herod, not Augustus.
- The city of Bethlehem was not a very important city nor did it have many facilities for travelers, as it is just 5 miles from Jerusalem.
- Jesus was never referred to as ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’. He was always referred to as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, and even had to be sent there to be judged, because he was not of Judea. He was considered a Galilean. This could not have been the case had he actually been born in Bethlehem.
The plausible explanation is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Galilee, just 6 miles north-east of Nazareth, and an easy days travel. It is possible that a census could’ve been ordered by Herod, and no records exist. Many ancient records have been destroyed by invading forces, and just plain ineptitude, and Herod was a certifiable blood-thirsty Looney Tune. It would make perfect sense that the registration center might be in a nearby town, and Mary might have just come along on the short trip to do some shopping, or just for company. It would not have been the first, or only time that a woman had gone into labor unexpectedly, thinking she still had a few days, or weeks left.
Our next problem is pinning down the year. Since the calendar in use at that time is completely different than what we use to day, only general calculations can be made:
- Jesus could not have been born later than 4 BC, because Herod died in 4 BC, and the Gospels say that Jesus was born “during the time of Herod”.
- No way was Joseph and Mary traveling anywhere in December. The winter weather is unpredictable and harsh. Travel is anywhere around the West Banks, is discouraged in winter, even in modern times. The Gospels state that shepherds were in the fields with their flocks. This could only have been during Spring, Summer, or Fall. Livestock were not turned-out in winter. The Feast of Tabernacles is held in autumn, and was an important Jewish holiday. It is possible than Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem of Galilee to participate in the celebration.
- Using the Julian Calendar, and Gospel accounts which place the crucifixion of Jesus in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, we get a Julian date of 732 AUC (Ab Urbe Condita, or from the year Rome was founded). Assuming that the common belief that Jesus was 30 years old is correct, counting back, we get a Julian date of the 28th year of Augustus’s Reign, or 693 AUC. This calculates out to 5 BC.
Using all available information, and resources we have now, a reasonable birth date for Jesus would be sometime in September, 5 BC in Bethlehem In Galilee. The reason this is so hard to determine is that the Early Christian Church did not regard the birth of Jesus as significant, compared to his Resurrection. It was the Catholic Church, from 325 AD on, that placed importance on a birth date for Jesus.
So how did we wind up with December 25th for Christmas? You can blame the Catholic Church for that one. Around 400 AD, with the rise of Christianity, Bishops and Priests figured that it would be difficult to remove traditional Pagan Holidays without replacing them with a better one. Two of the biggest pagan holidays occurred around December 25th, the Sol Invicta, and the Feast of Mithras. The Catholic administration reasoned that, since an exact date for the birth of Jesus could not be established, they were free to assign any date they wanted, and if they were going to assign a date, why not make it one that may further Christianity? With some help from Roman Christian leaders, they were able to replace these pagan holidays with Christmas. Many of the observances carried over, such as a huge feast, and exchanging gifts.
That’s how modern Christmas wound up on December 25th.