For centuries, most believing Christians would have said that they celebrated the Nativity of Jesus on December 25 because this day was the actual date of His birth. When historically-minded scholars began to study the feast’s genesis in the eighteenth century, the belief that Jesus was born in late December came into serious doubt. As with so much of post-Enlightenment historical inquiry into Christian origins, doubts about the date of Christmas contributed to skepticism as regards the veracity of the larger Christian narrative.
In the centuries since, the celebration of Christ’s birth in the Western world has continued, largely as a family and commercial holiday, but personal commitment to Christian practice has declined significantly. Many practicing Christians try to center their Christmas celebrations on the specifically religious content of the feast, but often struggle to identify what exactly such content is.
Most scholars today maintain that Jesus’ birthday cannot be established with any degree of historical certainty. The common opinion is that Church leaders elected to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25 in an attempt to displace a popular pagan winter festival. Proponents of the Christmas as a baptized pagan feast theory imply that self-promoting churchmen invented the feast to keep converts from sliding back into paganism.
Early Christian sources point to another possibility. Even in the third century, more than a century before any evidence that Christians celebrated Jesus’ birthday, ecclesiastical writers began to postulate March 25 as an appropriate date to mark the conception of the Son of God in womb of the Virgin Mary. Early theologians made these proposals in order to highlight the theological link between Jesus’ Conception and His Resurrection.
Christianity’s central events, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus almost certainly took place during the Passover feast about 30 to 33 A.D. This means that the Resurrection occurred close to March 25. With time this date came to be considered not only the day that Jesus rose from the dead, but also the date of the creation of the universe and the Annunciation by Gabriel to Mary of her virginal Conception of the Messiah. By associating the creation and Annunciation with March 25, the early Church professed that God’s greatest works are ordered toward and find their ultimate meaning in the Resurrection of Jesus.
The rest follows quite logically. If Mary conceived on March 25, she would have given birth on around December 25.
What might all of this mean for Christians today?
While there are numerous possibilities, perhaps a good place to start would be focusing on the link between the Conception of Jesus and His Resurrection. If both bring the promise of new life in abundance, then Christmas is a visible manifestation of the fruit of this new life, the joyous revelation of the God Who loved the human race so much that He chose to become one of them in order to give the gift of eternal life and joy without measure in Heaven. Christmas affords the Christian an opportunity to count blessings and to recognize them as the fruit of God’s goodness and a foretaste of the celestial banquet in the world to come.
That is definitely something worth celebrating.