LET'S REMINISCE: Celebrating the birth of Jesus

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

Have you ever wondered why Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25? Maybe you have been taught that Jesus was born on that day, but that is wrong. By the way, he wasn’t born in the year AD zero. So when was he born?

He was probably born in 6 BC—six years “Before Christ.” How do we know that? The Bible tells us that Jesus was born at the time of a Roman census: when “a decree went out from the Emperor Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The Romans were meticulous about record-keeping, as well as making sure their taxes were collected. So we know they carried out censuses of the Empire in 20 BC, 6 BC and 8 AD. By cross-referencing these dates with other historical facts, such as the reign of King Herod, it is most likely that 6 BC was the year of Christ’s birth.

But what about the time of year? The best guess scholars can make is that Jesus was born in the spring. The Gospel of Luke says that when the shepherds were told of Christ’s birth, they were “out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Even in the holy land, you would not want to be out in the open keeping an eye on your sheep in the middle of winter. This was the sort of thing that would happen in the spring, at lambing time.

It might seem hard to believe now, when Dec. 25 is so closely tied to celebrating the birth of Christ, but for early Christians Christmas itself was not celebrated. Little recognition was made of the date, which wasn’t even fixed at any particular time of year. The most important time in the Christian calendar was Easter, when Christ’s resurrection was celebrated.

In fact, early Christians proposed two entirely different dates for celebrating Christ’s birth. In keeping with the tradition of adapting existing pagan festivals to become Christian celebrations, some early Christians wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Jan. 6. This was when the Egyptians observed the festival of Osiris, god of the underworld.

However, another group wanted to make March 25 the special day for commemoration of Christ’s birth because it was the date of the spring equinox, symbolizing the rebirth of the earth. One Roman writer has even worked that date out to be the anniversary of God’s creation of the world.

One of the earliest documents that refers to Dec. 25 as the birthday of Christ was written in the second century AD, but it was only in AD 350 that Pope Julius made it official. He decreed that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on Dec. 25 because that would make it easy for those Romans who celebrated the birth of the sun god Mithros on that day to make the change to the new rituals.

The first official mention of there being a Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25 is in a document dating from AD 354. So we at least know that by that date the celebration of Christmas had become an annual event.

But what about our name for this festival: where did that come from? The first written reference we have to the word “Christmas” being used comes from a Saxon book dating from 1038; it mentions “Cristes Maesse,” meaning “Christ’s Mass,” from which we get “Christmas.”

Christmas itself is predated by two major pagan festivals, the Roman Saturnalia and the Viking Yule. It appears that these midwinter festivals were transformed into Christmas celebrations after the arrival of Saint Augustine in England (at the end of the sixth century). We know that Christmas Day in AD 598 was marked by a spectacular event, when more than 10,000 Englishmen were baptized as Christians.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.