Sunday, December 25, 2005

When was Jesus born?

It seems like that's one question that my elementary school religion students always ask about this time of year. While we celebrate the occasion on December 25th (and keep celebrating until January 6th), most of them understand that it is not a historical affirmation about Jesus' exact birth day. Or is it?

For those who love celebrating birthdays, it is an interesting question. A few early Church fathers mention it. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria reported that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, though they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar. Others reached the date of 24 or 25 Pharmuthi (19 or 20 April).

I recommend William Tighe's article in Touchtone magazine rebuking the popular myth about the origin of a December Christmas. In his article, he observes:
It is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus' birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals. Rather, the pagan festival of the "Birth of the Unconquered Son" instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the "pagan origins of Christmas" is a myth without historical substance.

It is important to note also that December 25th is not the winter solstice. I also recommend the fascinating article on Christmas from the old Catholic Encyclopedia.

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