When I was a little boy, my mom would bake a birthday cake for Jesus. At Christmas, we would sing happy birthday to Jesus, and have cake and ice cream to celebrate his birth. It was a fun tradition and memory, but as I got older and became a Christian, I learned that we actually do not know when Jesus was born.
The Bible does not clearly tell us when Jesus was born. In Luke 2, the birth story of Jesus simply says that, at the time of Jesus’ birth, the flocks were in the fields. This likely means that Jesus was not born in December. Why? Because that time of year experiences a lot of rain and cold, which would cause a shepherd to keep their flock safe, warm, and not roaming in the open fields. Those who defend the Christmas date as the potential time of Jesus’ birth respond by saying that there are often weeks during the winter when the weather warms up and would allow sheep to roam freely in the fields.
Arguments against Jesus being born in December are many.
One, during the winter months, many roads are impassable, which would mean that the government would be unlikely to require citizens to travel to their city of family origin to register for a census at that time due to potential danger.
Two, the December 25th date for celebrating Jesus’ birthday is connected to the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia. History Magazine says, “Saturnalia, held in mid-December, is an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn. Because of when the holiday occurred—near the winter solstice—Saturnalia celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas, such as wreaths, candles, feasting and gift-giving…Saturnalia, the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar, derived from older farming-related rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice, especially the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season. The pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, began as a single day, but by the late Republic (133-31 B.C.) it had expanded to a weeklong festival beginning December 17. (On the Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, the winter solstice fell on December 25.). During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended. People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery…Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts…Saturnalia was by far the jolliest Roman holiday; the Roman poet Catullus famously described it as ‘the best of times.’” (1)
During the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-337), Christianity became legalized and supported. It seems that, during this time, Christians began celebrating Jesus’ birth during their days off to redeem the unholy day into a holiday. In the next daily devotion, we will explore if this is a good or bad idea. However, without a clear date for Jesus’ birth, it seems the early church simply took the opportunity that the pagan feast of Saturnalia provided. The feast celebrated the return of the sun after weeks of ever-increasing darkness, which parallels the biblical metaphor of Jesus illuminating our dark world. Furthermore, Saturnalia included the sharing of gifts, which corresponds to the gifts given to Jesus by the Magi and the gift of salvation Jesus gives.