Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Jesus’ birthday during the winter? Have you ever wondered why we celebrate his birthday at all? It is not as if we know Jesus’ actual date of birth.
All we know is what the gospels reveal. We know that at the first Christmas, “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). Shepherds in the Middle East only pasture their flocks at night when it is warm out. During the winter, it is too cold. Instead of being in the fields, the sheep like being snuggled together toasty warm in a nice pen. This means that more than likely Jesus was born in the warmth of the late spring, the summer, or the early autumn. This is reinforced by the fact that no Roman census would ever be taken in the dead of winter when weather would threaten travel and make the roads impassible.
In 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria postulated a date of birth between April 18 and May 28 and Christians throughout the centuries have added their reasoned (and unreasoned) guesses to the chorus of speculation. Some scholars decided to scour the rabbinic sources and attempt to calculate Jesus’ birthday in relation to the birth of his cousin John. John was conceived shortly after the priestly division of Abijah had performed service in the Temple at Jerusalem. These creative scholars advocated a birthday in the fall.
But does it really matter? Christians did not even celebrated Jesus’ birth for the first three centuries of Christian history. Why then do we celebrate Christmas at the end of December? Quite simply, it is because the story of Christmas is a story of hope.
In the ancient Roman world, several pagan festivals were celebrated on or around December 25. That is because a significant astronomical event occurred every year on that day: the winter solstice. Not to bore you with the fascinating subject of astronomy, but in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice is the single moment in the year when tilt of the Earth is the farthest away from the Sun. Therefore the winter solstice marks both the shortest day and the longest night of the year, what some cultures call midwinter.
Imagine for a moment that you live in a society without electricity and the sun serves your only major light source. As winter progresses, your world gets increasingly gloomy and dark. Light itself is under attack as night dominates more and more hours of the day. By December, your depression is full swing. Irrationally, you wonder what will happen if this conquest of the light continues unchecked. Will the world be swallowed up in unending night? But on the day that the power of darkness seems to reach its height, its power breaks and light begins to again gain ground and reclaim the day.
The ancients attributed much religious and philosophical significance to this triumph of the light over the darkness and thus major winter solstice festivals proliferated in almost every culture and civilization throughout human history. In the Roman Empire, the two most popular were called Saturnalia and the Feast of the Unconquered Sun, Sol Invictus.
Saturnalia was a weeklong festival commemorating of the golden days of the god Saturn’s reign, a time of bliss and happiness. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture and the father of the Roman pantheon, a deity who had been overthrown by his son Jupiter. The Romans believed that one day Saturn would regain power and return to inaugurate another golden age. This was the most popular Roman holiday and those crazy Romans celebrated it with public feasts, gift giving, hanging pine branches in their homes, and singing drunk and naked in the streets.
The second major winter solstice holiday and the more important one in the story of Christmas was the Feast of Sol Invictus, the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. This festival was associated with an eastern sun cult, which honored the Iranian sun god for his battle against the darkness and commemorated the time when he turned the tables on his eternal enemy Night and began to retake the sky.
It is in this context that we return to the early church in the fourth century. As they reflected on their culture and studied the Scriptures, they began to identify fascinating parallels between these pagan winter solstice holidays and the birth of Jesus.
In Luke’s gospel, in one of the first Christmas carols ever sung, a priest named Zechariah sings this line as looks forward to Jesus’ birth: “Because of the tender mercy of our God… the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).
The author of Matthew’s gospel feels moved quote the prophet Isaiah as he begins to recount the story of Jesus: “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).
The Gospel of John celebrates the birth of Jesus with similar words, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:4-5, 9). In a later work, the apostle will encourage the church with these words: “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
What are the gospel writers saying here? They are saying that Jesus is the true light. Jesus is the Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. The birth of a baby in a manger in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago inaugurated a new golden age in which the world would be put to rights.
Christmas is a season of hope because within the darkness of our world, a light has begun to shine. When the darkness seems like it is closing in all around you, when night terrorizes and threatens to extinguish all that is good and warm and worth living for, take heart. In Jesus, light and warmth and life and hope have returned to the world. And there is no going back! The darkness has been defeated. Jesus declared victory over the powers of sin, death, and darkness on the cross, enduring his longest and darkest night. Yet when he rose from the grave three days later, light, life, and wholeness came rushing back into the world.
This is the Easter story retold in the dead of winter! This is the early church sharing the good news of Jesus in fresh and culturally significant ways. But I think there is something else the early church was trying to communicate to their contemporaries and to us.
It is this. Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus, Christmas, on December 25 because in a mysterious and God-ordained way, the spirit and the message of Christmas were already present in the winter solstice festivals that their communities celebrated. Sure, at times the message was obscure, incomplete, or even tainted, but it was there. God was already at work, pointing to the hope, peace, love, and joy that are ultimately found in Jesus through Saturnalia, the Feast of Sol Invictus, and the other winter solstice festivals.
So when you celebrate Christmas this year and you realize that all your beloved traditions and favorite holiday symbols have come from some pagan winter solstice festival, don’t feel guilty or ashamed. Don’t feel compelled to purge Christmas of all its unbiblical paraphernalia. Remember that the gift giving and the Christmas trees and the carols and the Yule logs and mistletoe are all legacies of the early church as they sought to partner with God in the ways that he was already at work in their communities and as they sought to share the gospel in ways that were fresh and significant in their particular context.
So in light of their faithful witness, I give you this charge this holiday season: share the gospel of Christmas in fresh and significant ways in your families, communities, and hometowns. Like the early church, creatively engage both the Scriptures and the culture. Reflect on what makes Christmas and the holidays so special for people and from there think of meaningful ways to share the good news of Jesus with them.
Truly God is speaking even in the midst of our culture’s commercialized, materialistic holiday celebrations. Two examples:
How often have you seen people who, despite facing financial hardship themselves, sacrifice in order to bless a loved one with a gift on Christmas? Don’t you recognize that painful, sacrificial giving is the heart of the gospel? Jesus suffered, sacrificed, and gave his life that we might receive forgiveness, healing, and joy.
What about the inexplicable hope and love that characterizes the “Christmas spirit”? No matter how dysfunctional the family, no matter how war-torn the world, there are some people who earnestly believe that for at least one day a year families should be reconciled, war should cease, and humanity ought to gather around a common table to feast and celebrate. This yearning is a glimpse of the hope that we have as Christians, the hope that Jesus has defeated the powers of evil, brokenness, and strife and is in the process of renewing and setting right the world.
There are other ways God is speaking in this holiday season. Go discover how and share it with those you dearly love who don’t yet know our Savior who was born two thousand years ago. Please use the opportunity that Christmas affords to spread the hope, peace, love, and joy of Jesus Christ in a dark and gloomy world.
Ryan White is a pastor at Petaluma Valley Baptist Church in Petaluma, California and a former campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. He holds a master’s degree in Theological and Biblical Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary and is an inveterate and unabashed student of the Bible, culture, and history. Ryan and his wife Brianna have two children and two miniature poodles. For Christmas, he is asking Santa for loose-leafed tea and a stack of science fiction novels.