For many centuries now, December 25th has been celebrated as one of the most insignificant solemnities of Christianity. But after all: was it really on this day that the Child God was born?
Newsroom (December 27, 2022, 8:30 PM, Gaudium Press) Even though it is celebrated on December 25 in almost the whole world – with the exception of some eastern communities – the feast of Christmas and its date have involved great discussions and controversies in the history of the Church.
Some hypotheses began to emerge…
Among the first Christians there was not the custom of celebrating the day of birth into this life – our well-known “birthday” – but only the “dies natalis”, that is, the day when one entered the definitive homeland, remembering the victory of Jesus Christ over death and sin. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the origin of Christmas celebrations is unknown to us. We only know that it was spread around the middle of the fourth century.
The first official celebration of Christmas on December 25 took place in 354 by Pope Liberius, influenced by St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzen. However, the definitive establishment of this date only occurred in 529, when Emperor Justinian declared it a feast day. Due to the lack of precise information about the day in which Christ’s Christmas actually took place, hypotheses began to emerge…
The day of the “Undefeated Sun”?
One of the widely spread theories was that of the day of the “Undefeated Sun”. In 274, the emperor Aurelianus had erected in Rome a temple to the Invincible Sun – Mithra, the conqueror of darkness – which was inaugurated on December 25. The Church, as it did on several occasions, would have indicated to the pagans that on this day they should celebrate the birth of another sun: the “Sol iustitiae”, prophesied by Malachi (cf. Mal 14:2), who came into the world to illuminate the days of darkness in which humanity lived.
There are, however, objections to this hypothesis. In the first place, the lack of reports from the ecclesiastics of the time, who would certainly comment on this great novelty in the Church, casts doubt on the theory. Furthermore, the psychology of the early Christians does not lead us to deduce that they would transform a pagan feast day into a day that would mark the solemnity of a central mystery in Christianity. For these and other reasons, several authors, including Joseph Ratzinger, claim that these theories are untenable today and advocate a more symbolic one.
From Creation to Redemption
In ancient times, the symbolism surrounding mysteries of human history was taken with great attention by the people. Among the early Christians, the tradition remained. They believed that the Creation of the universe took place on March 25; therefore, the new Creation, consummated on Calvary through the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, should also take place on March 25. In the perfection of His nature, He could only have lived in this world a perfect number of years, and therefore could also have become incarnate on March 25. Taking into consideration that His gestation took place in a perfect number of months, we conclude that His birth occurred on December 25.
This theory supported by Benedict XVI is much more beautiful. However, the lack of data that historically prove these dates can lead to uncertainty. Thus, more precise data would be found and proven in 20th century studies.
A truly historical date
Taking the four Gospels as the basis of their investigations, the exegetes looked for some date indicating the birth of the Messiah, information that is lacking in all of them. The only mention we have are the words of the Archangel at the Annunciation: “Elizabeth also, your kinswoman, even she herself has conceived a child in her old age, and she who was considered barren is in her sixth month” (Lk 1:36). And it was from this data that the calculations began.
Adding to the six months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy the nine months since the Annunciation of the Angel, we conclude that Jesus came into the world fifteen months after the conception of St. John the Baptist. Thus, by finding out when this conception took place, we would find the date of the Saviour’s birth. Now, from Scripture we can intuit this date.
While Zacharias was in the temple, “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of perfume. [The angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard: Elizabeth your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John'” (Lk 1:11, 13). The priests served in the Temple twice a year for one week, and Zacharias belonged to the shift of Abijah, that is, the eighth shift. His service therefore took place at the end of September, when the festivities of Yom Kippur – the “day of atonement” – also took place, and which tradition says is the feast during which Zacharias helped in the Temple.
So, adding to this fact six months, we get the time of the Annunciation to Our Lady (probably March 25); nine months, the Birth of St. John the Baptist (June 24) and fifteen months, the Birth of Jesus in late December.
Even in the face of various theses and hypotheses, we can see that two thousand long years have not managed to erase the memory of the only fact that has divided History. Every Christmas we are given not only to remember, but actually to relive that sublime night when a “light shone into the world” (cf. Jn 1:9).
Let us pray to the Divine Infant that, through his Most Holy Mother, he makes this Light overcome all the darkness that dominates our world of uncertainties and apprehensions.
By Henrique Soares
 Where Christmas is celebrated on January 6 – solemnity of the Epiphany – by an ancient oriental tradition. Cf. BRADSHAW, Paul. La liturgie chrétienne en ses origines: sources e méthodes. Trad. Jean Laporte. Paris: Du Cerf, 1995, p. 227.
 Cf. RIGHETTI, Mario. Historia de la liturgia. 2. ed. Madrid: BAC, 1955, v. 1, p. 689.
 Cf. RATZINGER, Joseph. The Spirit of the Liturgy: an introduction. Trad. Raquel Canas. Madrid: Cristiandad, 2001, p. 130.
 Ibid, p. 131.
 Cf. LEAL, Juan. PARAMO, Severiano del. ALONSO, José. La Sagrada Escritura. Madrid: BAC, 1964, v. 1, p. 536.
Compiled by Zephania Gangl