The time and season of Jesus’ birth is largely unknown. The exact date is definitely unknown. There is much about Jesus’ birth that has been lost in antiquity. However, there is a good deal that we do know and it is available in Scripture.
The time of Jesus’ birth has been celebrated at numerous times throughout the year. In light of the biblical account it is likely that He was born in a more moderate season rather than that of winter (December 25th). So the question remains, How did December 25th come to be celebrated as the birth date of Christ?
The early church chose December 25th as the date for Jesus’ birth because it coincided with several pagan festivals. New converts in the 4th century who had embraced Christianity were experiencing discrimination for not celebrating Saturnalia and Kalends. Saturnalia was observed for a week beginning December 17th and honored the Roman god, Saturn. The celebration coincided with the winter solstice and was widely attended. Kalends was observed on January 1st when the new Roman consuls began their time in office. The festivities that accompanied Kalends were much like those that mark our Christmas celebrations. The Romans saved their meager incomes throughout the year so they could indulge in great feasts and lavish themselves and others with gifts.
These pagan celebrations were seen as an opportunity to give hope to mankind for the produce grown in the coming seasons. Saturnalia was a religious feast that offered individuals a chance to share gifts of candles, clay images, and charms that signaled the coming end of winter and the warmth brought by the sun.
The Roman Church saw a need to change the traditional observances to one that would bring a more positive reflection of the times and offer new converts cover for not observing the pagan festivities. December 25th was particularly fitting in that the date fell during Saturnalia and the winter solstice. The celebration of Jesus’ birth on the 25th would be an attempt to re-focus the Roman observance to one that celebrated the coming of the Light of the World rather than the light and warmth of the Sun. Jesus’ birth brought mankind a triumph of light over darkness and life over death.
The early Christian church co-opted many of the pagan celebrations of the day to ensure that Christianity would be received by the masses. The traditions that accompany Christmas are by and large from pagan sources. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, Christmas carols had a secular beginning, Christmas wreaths were a pagan symbol of fertility and life, and seen earlier – gift exchanges came from pagan sources as well. However, the observance of Jesus’ birth is not realized in the trappings of Christmas celebrations. His new birth in us, as Christians, is to be realized each day.
We may not know for certain when Jesus came to us as a new-born babe. But we do know that we are to celebrate His life, death, and resurrection each day as we live our lives for Him. The day of our celebration is inconsequential; the fact that we observe Christ’s coming and His Lordship in our lives is crucial to our salvation. It is not the observance of tradition that makes us worthy, although tradition is useful. “It” is the witness of a life totally given each day to one’s Savior that brings Glory to our Creator.