In about 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria mentioned that a purely religious commemoration of the birth of Christ was included in the Feast of the Epiphany. This festival is observed on 6th January and commemorates the visit of the Magi to Jesus. This date is also celebrated as the date of the baptism of Jesus, the birth of Jesus (in the Eastern Orthodox Church from the fourth century), and the miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding feast of Cana.

The earliest record supporting the 25th December dating of the birth of Jesus was written by Hippolytus (c. 165-235 AD) in the early third century: “The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January, or Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, 5500 years from Adam.”[i]

Reckoning the forty-second year of Augustus from August, 44 BC, this date would fall in 2, when 25th December fell on a Wednesday, or 3 BC, when it fell on Tuesday. It would appear that Hippolytus’ date for the Nativity was Wednesday, 25th December, 2 BC. The difficulty with Hippolytus’ dating, as Kenneth F. Doig, in his book, Doig’s Biblical Chronology, acknowledges, is that it is unknown if part or all of his date is from an earlier tradition or from his own calculation.

“The earliest known Roman reference to the 25 December nativity,” Doig says, “is on a Roman city calendar of 354 CE. This contained a ‘Depositio Martyrium’ from about 336 CE that said Jesus was born on the eighth day before the Kalends of January, or December 25. This appears derived from an earlier tradition that the Annunciation or conception of Jesus occurred on March 25. This was later supported in 532 by the Abbot of Rome, Dionysius Exiguus, who acknowledged the tradition of March being the month of the Annunciation to Mary. He officially named March 25 as the date of the conception of Jesus. Nine months later was December 25. Back to Christmas, Pope Liberius had moved the birth of Jesus from January 6 in 353 CE to December 25 in 354 CE. Liberius must have had strong evidence not available to us today to have made such a move, something beyond the supposed intent to coincide with the pagan festival all the calculation of the few theologians. Of particular note, Liberius moved the birth of Jesus from an early January date, not from a spring month. Besides, by 354 CE the winter solstice had retreated from December 25 to December 21. Even the pagan festivals did not fall in the same relationship to the solstice. From Rome the traditional use of the December 25 date for Christmas spread and grew.”

Doig, who favours the traditional date of the birth of Jesus, also notes: “In 5 BCE the day of December 25 happened to fall on the Jewish date of Kislev 25. This is the date of Hanukkah (“dedication”), also known as the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication. The lighting of the candles by Judas Maccabee was the cult act that expressed the hope of a miraculous return of the Shekinah glory of God. The Shekinah light of God was seen by the shepherds who attended the birth of Jesus. The Messiah was born.”[ii]

A bone of contention

The traditional date of the Nativity is by no means universally accepted.

Hislop

In his remarkable book, The Two Babylons, the nineteenth-century Scottish Free Church minister, Alexander Hislop, rejected a winter Nativity on the grounds that, in Palestine, “the cold of the night, from December to February is very piercing, and it was not the custom for the shepherds of Judea to watch their flocks in the open fields later than about the end of October”.[iii]

As to why the Church came to adopt 25th December as the birthday of Christ, he says: “Long before the fourth century, and long before the Christian era itself, a festival was celebrated among the heathen, at that precise time of the year, in honour of the birth of the son of the Babylonian queen of heaven; and it may fairly be presumed that, in order to conciliate the heathen, and to swell the number of the nominal adherents of Christianity, the same festival was adopted by the Roman Church, giving it only the name of Christ.” The reference is to Tammuz, son of Semiramis, the beautiful but abandoned wife of Nimrod, whose worship spread from Babylon to the four corners of the earth.

 Hislop continues: “That Christmas was originally a Pagan festival, is beyond all doubt. The time of the year, and the ceremonies with which it is still celebrated, prove its origin. In Egypt, the son of Isis, the Egyptian title for the queen of heaven, was born at this very time, ‘about the time of the winter solstice.’ The very name by which Christmas is popularly known among ourselves—Yule-day—proves at once its Pagan and Babylonian origin. ‘Yule’ is the Chaldee name for an ‘infant’ or ‘little child’; and as 25th of December was called by our Pagan Anglo-Saxon ancestors, ‘Yule-day,’ or the ‘Child’s day,’ and the night that preceded it, ‘Mother-night,’ long before they came in contact with Christianity, that sufficiently proves its real character. Far and wide, in the realms of Paganism, was this birth-day observed. This festival has been commonly believed to have had only an astronomical character, referring simply to the completion of the sun’s yearly course, and the commencement of a new cycle. But there is indubitable evidence that the festival in question had a much higher reference than this – that it commemorated not merely the figurative birth-day of the sun in the renewal of its course, but the birth-day of the grand Deliverer. …Even where the sun was the favourite object of worship, as in Babylon itself and elsewhere, at this festival he was worshipped not merely as the orb of day, but as God incarnate. It was an essential principle of the Babylonian system, that the Sun or Baal was the one only God. When, therefore, Tammuz was worshipped as God incarnate, that implied also that he was an incarnation of the Sun. …It was no mere astronomical festival, then, that the Pagans celebrated at the winter solstice.”[iv]

The inference is that the Church merely “baptised” an already existing pagan festival, adopting the date on which the birthday of Tammuz was celebrated as that of our Lord’s own Nativity.

Doig’s rejoinder

That shepherds would not have been keeping watch over their flocks by night in the middle of winter is contested by Doig, who argues: “First, sheep would have been found in the fields. It could have been a mild winter. The average December temperatures at Jerusalem are 45-59˚ F., comparable to Houston or San Francisco, but with less rain. The night temperatures are lower. Rainfall averages 3-4 inches, comparable to Athens or Rome, with occasional light snow. By the end of December the first grass can be sprouting from early rains. Poor shepherds would have had their flocks out to glean the first fodder from the rains. Also, semi-nomads will often leave a belt of grass ungrazed around permanent winter settlements during summer to provide winter fodder. Jewish shepherds may have practised such in earlier days. The sheep would not necessarily have been kept under cover. Uncorraled sheep would have to be watched at night, whether at lambing, or any other time of the year. Sheep were brought in from the wilderness during the winter, and these flocks could be found in the area of Bethlehem/Jerusalem. The presence of flocks around Bethlehem may indeed indicate that it was winter. The Mishna records that cattle, including sheep, were around Jerusalem, including Bethlehem, year-round. Many of these animals were required for the daily sacrifices at the Temple, and they were always available. There also would be a large daily requirement for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The presence of sheep in the fields around Bethlehem in the early evening of December 25 BCE would be expected.”[v]


[i] Commentary on Daniel 4:23. Quoted in Doig, chapter 9. 

[ii] Doig, chapter 9.

[iii] Hislop, p. 91.

[iv] Ibid., p. 93-4.

[v] Doig.

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