So… Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25. But there’s no need to panic.
Christmas as we know it finds its roots in the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. There is no conspiracy theory here. There isn’t a cover up story that cons us into inadvertently worshipping heathen gods.
As far as we know from the records, the church never claimed that the December celebration is the actual date of Jesus’ birth, nor has it hid the idea of deliberately choosing the winter solstice as the day to celebrate Christmas. No self-respecting Christian scholar or historian has ever believed that the current date of celebration is the literal day.
This however brings us to the question: Why? Why not choose a day of celebration that narrows the options to the season when shepherds would have been watching their flock by night; say, sometime between April to June? Why choose a day so unlikely to be accurate? Why associate the birth of Jesus to pagan practice?
Here’s something to consider:
In the first 400 years, the church didn’t formally celebrate the feast of Christmas. Easter was Christianity’s big day. The resurrection is the crux of the story for how God victoriously unarmed the power of sin and death. Easter was the primary focus.
It was only in the fourth century — as the church came out from various periods of persecution — that it began to organize itself and think through the various ways of expressing a communal experience of worship. Part of this period was the creation of the church calendar as a way to establish rhythms of reflection for the community of faith.
Not everything from this period is without controversy nor didn’t have political realities that coloured the way the church had chosen to be the body of Christ. The idea that the church has always been made by imperfect people is an understatement, especially in seasons of history where we seem to have acted in ways diametrically opposed to the compassion and love displayed by Jesus.
But nevertheless, where the feast of Christmas is concerned, there is a beauty about how things came to be the way they are.
As Christianity made its way north from the Mediterranean towards the Celtic regions, the narrative of the Gospel — which was deeply rooted in the Jewish story — didn’t seem to be a fitting starting point that the Celtic people could relate to. They couldn’t care less who Abraham, Moses, and David were.
These people had their own story. It was a story that was deeply rooted in the cycles of the Earth, especially since weather changes were more pronounced in these areas.
The last harvest would pave way to the coming of winter where days got progressively shorter, colder, and darker. Bearing in mind that this was before the age of astronomy, there would be anxiety over whether the sun would even return at all. Eventually, concern over having enough supplies to last them ’til spring would cause their fear to grow, until they got to the day of the winter solstice. Here, in the darkest day of the year — in the bleak mid-winter — people would watch for shifts in the shadows on the mountains. Even if the light wouldn’t break for days, the subtle shifting of the shadows would reveal that on this the darkest day of the year, the light is come.
When the followers of Jesus encountered this people group, instead of forcing their own narrative on them, they chose to look for the story of Christ already present in the culture. They affirmed that they were not bringing God to these tribes, that God had already been there, at work in them. The question was: How can could they be instruments by which the culture could discover the work of Jesus already present in their midst?
The Christians looked at the Celtic narrative of the winter solstice and found the heart of the Gospel story. Thus they reframed the birth of Jesus on the darkest, coldest most barren night of the year to remind us the darkest dark we experience doesn’t mean God’s absence. God’s has not abandoned us. As a matter of fact, it is in this season of intense longing, of crippling doubt and fear, that God is most present and about to bring us the fresh grace that we so need. This is the core of the Christmas story, God is come, our Lord Emmanuel is with us.
Footnote: Based on Alexander Shaia’s The Mythic Power of Christmas