Isn’t December 25th the day of our Savior’s birth? I don’t want to be a messianic grinch, but the answer is probably not.” We can’t know exactly what day Yeshua (Jesus) was born, so the odds are probably something like 365 to 1 on just about any day you’d care to choose!
We do know that as early as the 2nd century A.D. the church father Hippolytus declared that Jesus was born on December 25th. In the 4th century John Chrysostom confirmed that statement, and December 25th became the official church tradition for the date of Christ’s birth.
Ancient Jewish tradition also seems to recognize that date, albeit from a different perspective. According to Alfred Edersheim, Jewish leaders established a special fast day on the 9th day of the Jewish month of Tevet. Initially, no specific reason was given for this fast day, but later Jewish writers identified the 9th of Tevet with the birth date of Jesus. Edersheim further states that the 9th of Tevet had fallen on the 25th of December numerous times in the past.
There is also the possibility of a Hanukkah-Christmas connection. Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev, the Jewish month that corresponds with December. Could it be that early Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) wanted to connect Hanukkah and the birth of Messiah, and eventually that desire was transposed into the 25th of December? After all, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which Jesus applied to Himself when He said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
Connecting the birth of Jesus and the observance of Hanukkah could certainly be meaningful, particularly for early Jewish believers in Jesus. Nevertheless, some Jewish believers say we would be better off connecting the birth of Jesus to the Feast of Tabernacles which occurs two months earlier. There are many spiritual parallels between Christ’s Advent and the Feast of Tabernacles, including God dwelling in the midst of His people and His coming kingdom. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to prove that Jesus was born during this feast. Since most people seem set on December 25th, why not celebrate then? Some Christians are quick to point out that December 25th was regarded as the birth date of the ancient Iranian mystery god Mithra, whose followers worshiped him as the Sun of Righteousness. The date also corresponds closely with the winter solstice, that day when the sun shines furthest from the equator and the daylight in the northern hemisphere is shortest. Many ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice with traditions of gift giving and merrymaking, as well as decorating their homes with greenery and lights.
Could such traditions in Christmas celebrations be the devil’s plot to sow paganism into the body of Christ? Some believe that destructive pagan roots are so pervasive in the December Advent season that Christians ought not observe Christmas at all.
But we need not hold such a dark view of Christmas. It seems likely that the December celebration was promoted in order to replace pagan celebrations. It would have been a good choice on the part of early Christian leaders who wanted to establish Christ’s preeminence in hearts of people from a wide array of cultures. If some of these people adapted familiar customs to worship Emmanuel rather than the false gods they had rejected, shouldn’t we rejoice? As long as the customs are not immoral, unbiblical or idolatrous, why not worship the Lord in ways that are meaningful within the context of one’s culture? That is what missiologists mean by the word “contextualization.”
If new believers were going to be tempted by their old pagan religions, perhaps their old festivals and life cycle events would present the greatest temptation. By focusing on the birth of Christ at such a time, perhaps those early church leaders were putting a wonderful missions principle to work, sanctifying that which was ungodly and pagan by giving the day a new and wonderful meaning in Christ.
The Lord Himself employed a similar principle when He commanded the children of Israel to observe certain festivals. All three major Jewish feasts found in Deuteronomy 16 corresponded to Middle Eastern harvest times. Pagan nations held festivals of their own during these times, often filled with immoral rituals.…
God knew that Israel might be tempted and drawn into the corruption and idolatry of the surrounding nations, particularly during these harvest times. In His goodness, He gave Israel sanctified holidays to observe during these times. He gave them holidays to reflect His truth and not pagan myths. The Israelites were celebrating God’s provision at the same time the pagans were celebrating and entreating their gods for a good harvest the following year. Yet they were very separate celebrations.
Perhaps we can view Christmas in a similar way—not the exact same way, since it is a man-made tradition, but with the understanding that there is a godly principle at work here. Christmas need not be dismissed as a pagan holiday. Those who choose not to celebrate should have that liberty, and those who do choose to celebrate should have the same liberty. But we still need to exercise some caution.
Some might say that with those ancient mystery religions long gone, the danger of paganism infecting our celebration of Christ’s birth is also past. Unfortunately, that is far from true. A modern paganism poses just as much threat to our celebration of the birth of Christ. We can see this on many levels, but it is particularly evident in the rituals of consumerism and frivolity for its own sake.
Christmas has become a national holiday in an age when religious conviction has become a personal liability. People want Christmas without having to be confronted with the reality of the Incarnation. Don’t you find it incredible that millions of Americans can sing, “Noel, Noel, born is the King of Israel,” and yet refuse, yes even resent the implication that there is a King who may lay claim on their lives? As Christians who have submitted to His claim, what should we do? How should we respond?
While we may never know this side of heaven the actual date that our Savior was born, the world gives tacit recognition to December 25th. Therein lies a great opportunity for us. We can do what the early church leaders sought to do by establishing the preeminence of Christ on Christmas. We can commit ourselves to celebrating the holiday in ways that bear witness to the reality of Christ’s birth, so that God receives all the glory.
Recently one of our supporters sent a letter that made me smile. She wrote,
My husband and I, to counteract what we have felt to be the culture’s insipid overindulgence of Christmas trees, decided on a different kind of tree. It consists of a spartan twig, with many branches. Each branch has a strategically placed scroll of Old Testament and New Testament Scripture that point to the coming of Christ and who He said He was…so when people come over and ask, “What is that?” during the holidays, Ken and I have our opportunity to tell exactly what it is.
That is not to say that all Christians should feel prohibited from enjoying traditions they’ve known and celebrated for years. But perhaps you can create some of your own family traditions which will help make Christ known.
In Jews for Jesus we see a heightened sensitivity to spiritual matters—even within the Jewish community—during the Advent season. For some it may simply be curiosity about the celebrations that are somehow “not for us.” Others wonder about the real reason for the season. Won’t you join us in proclaiming as loudly as we can, “Christmas is a Jewish holiday because we are celebrating the birth of the Jewish Messiah!”?
May God bless you as you contemplate the enormous sacrifice He made to come and dwell among us. May His Spirit dwell in you richly, so that truly, you can rejoice in the God who is with us. And may your joy in Jesus draw many others to Him, during this season and all year long. Let’s make sure that whatever we do or don’t do on December 25th honors the Savior and speaks to others of His great love and grace.