Why December 25 is Christmas Day in the Western Church

Above:  Adoration of the Shepherds, by Charles Le Brun

Image in the Public Domain

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As Luther D. Reed admitted in both editions (1947 and 1959) of The Lutheran Liturgy, we do not know the date of the birth of Jesus.  We can fix the year at 6 or 7 B.C.E., but we do not know either the month or the day.  One who reads liturgical reference works encounters two proposed dates, however; those are December 25 and January 6.

Those dates seem to have more to do with theology than biography.  The theology falls into competing yet not mutually exclusive hypotheses.  Some scholars, following the lead of Louis Duchesne, from 1899, emphasize the Computation Hypothesis Frank C. Senn, influenced by Duchesne, points to the dates of March 25 (in the West) and April 6 (in the East), traditional dates for the conception of Jesus.  Adding nine months to each date gets one to December 25 and January 6, respectively.  With  March 25 (in the vicinity of the Vernal Equinox) being a traditional date for both the creation of the world and the crucifixion of Jesus, that date is also the Feast of the Annunciation.  Having the death of Jesus occur on the anniversary of his conception is certainly symmetrical.  Placing the beginning of the salvation of the world on the supposed birthday of the world is theologically significant, if biographically suspect.  For this we can thank, among others, Hippolytus (circa 220 C.E.), who apparently considered fractions imperfect, and therefore tried to avoid them as he plotted the life of Christ.  In the East, one reads, April 6 was apparently an accepted date for both the conception of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus.

The other hypothesis emphasizes the Winter Solstice and competition with pagan festivals commemorating various sun gods.  December 25 does occur shortly after the Winter Solstice.  January 6 falls on an Egyptian date for the Winter Solstice.  We know from historical evidence that, in 264, the Roman Emperor Gallienus introduced the feast of the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun (Sol Invictus) at Rome.  If one were to assume that the conception of Jesus occurred near the Vernal Equinox, that fractions were imperfect, and that the gestation period of Jesus was therefore nine months to the day, celebrating his birth at December 25, near the Winter Solstice, would be logical.  And how could competing with the celebrations of imaginary deities be negative?

Thus it came to pass that two similar yet different feasts of Christ’s birth developed.  In the East, where devotees of the sun god honored him with light, water, and wine, January 6 became a date associated with the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the miracle at Cana.  At the end of the 300s, the December 25 date remained unknown in Gaul, where Christians kept the date of January 6.  Nevertheless, December 25 had become the beginning of the Church year at Rome by 336.  (Advent had not developed yet.)  The Chronograph (354), the earliest known Christian calendar, listed December 25 as the date of the birth of Jesus.  In 376 or so, as part of an anti-Arian campaign, Christians in Antioch began to keep the December 25 date for the birth of Christ.  In 379 Christmas celebrations (on December 25) began in Constantinople.

It is possible that the birth of Jesus occurred somewhere in the temporal vicinity of December 25 and January 6; this I concede readily.  Nevertheless, I acknowledge that reasons for these dates seem to be mostly theological.  Really, I ask, would Jesus have not been the Son of the God, the Redeemer of the world, and Messiah had his conception not occurred about the time of the Vernal Equinox and his gestation period not been exactly nine months long?  Of course not!  The theology pertinent to the birth of Jesus that matters most for the purpose of this weblog page is that the Second Person of the Trinity did become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 11, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT, YEAR B

THE FEAST OF JOHN SWERTNER, DUTCH-GERMAN MORAVIAN MINISTER, HYMN WRITER, HYMN TRANSLATOR, AND HYMNAL EDITOR; AND HIS COLLABORATOR, JOHN MUELLER, GERMAN-ENGLISH MORAVIAN MINISTER, HYMN WRITER, AND HYMNAL EDITOR

THE FEAST OF SAINT AENGUS THE CULDEE, HERMIT AND MONK; AND SAINT MAELRUAN, ABBOT

THE FEAST OF SAINT EULOGIUS OF SPAIN, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP OF TOLEDO, CORBOBA; AND SAINT LEOCRITA; MARTYRS

THE FEAST  OF FOLLIOT SANDFORD PIERPOINT, ANGLICAN EDUCATOR, POET, AND HYMN WRITER

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hatchett, Marion J.  Commentary on the American Prayer Book.  New York:  The Seabury Press, 1980.

Pfatteicher, Philip H.  Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship:  Lutheran Liturgy in Its Ecumenical Context.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 1990.

Reed, Luther D.  The Lutheran Liturgy:  A Study of the Common Liturgy of the Lutheran Church in America.  Philadelphia, PA:  Muhlenberg Press, 1959.

__________.  The Lutheran Liturgy:  A Study of the Common Service of the Lutheran Church in America.  Philadelphia, PA:  Muhlenberg Press, 1947.

Senn, Frank C.  Christian Liturgy:  Catholic and Evangelical.  Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1997.

Talley, Thomas J.  The Origins of the Liturgical Year.  2d. ed.  Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1986.

Wainwright, Geoffrey, and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, eds.  The Oxford History of Christian Worship.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006.

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Posted March 11, 2018 by neatnik2009

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