For many people, December 25 is the most important date of the whole year because it is the date on which Jesus was born. Interestingly enough, most early Christians would disagree.
For one, the celebration of Jesus’ birth was not celebrated for at least 150 years after his death. The idea of commemorating someone’s birth, rather than death, was a particularly pagan practice. Christians, keeping with Jewish tradition, were more interested in commemorating Jesus’ death (because, you know, the whole rising from the dead thing) and have continued the practice til today: we do not remember the birthdays of saints, but rather the day they entered eternal life through death.
For those that did celebrate Christmas early on, the date was highly flexible. Some celebrated it in December, others in January, even others in May. While some will contend that December 25 is the actual date of Jesus’ birth, the early Christians almost universally deny this: they recognized even then that the date was lost to history, and that whatever date was chosen was not the real one. A simple look to its description in scripture shows that it was far more likely to have taken place in the spring.
Far more interesting to early Christians was the Annunciation, the time when Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit. A somewhat lesser feast for us today, it should give us pause: if we believe that life begins at conception, wouldn’t the true celebration of the Incarnation—God becoming part of creation—be the Annunciation, not Christmas? While the feast did not become a universal celebration of the Church until centuries later, the recognition of its date on March 25 preceded, and ultimately inspired, the date for Christmas.
So, how do we get the date of December 25 if it is not the actual date on which Jesus was born and early Christians didn’t seem to care that much? This week’s Catholicism In Focus looks to answer just that.