Winter is working its way upon us and the start of this season marks the arrival of Christmas. Originally celebrated in Northern Africa and Europe many centuries ago, Christmas has now become a holiday celebrated in many nations across the world, including India and Sri Lanka where a sizeable practicing Tamil Christian population exists.
Many Christians celebrate this holiday to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christmas is preceded by the Advent season – four weeks dedicated for anticipation and preparation. Christmas celebrations last for about twelve days, the first celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and the last celebrating the Epiphany, the day when the Magi (wise-men) from the East have visited to render homage.
The celebration of Christmas was not always the same year after year. The Christmas holiday adopted traditions that were outside the norm of its original practice overtime. It adapted elements from pagan traditions such as the use of a tree and gift giving. Christmas was also conveniently celebrated during the period of other holidays that were then observed by the Roman Empire and the pagans of Northern and Western Europe, the most notable being the Winter Solstice, enabling converts to the Christian faith to celebrate during this period as they are accustomed. Christmas became a holiday of adaptability, and this is clearly seen in the present with the minute differences on how it is celebrated by the different nations of the world.
Some of you probably knew this beforehand. The meaning of Christmas basically comes from celebrating a miraculous event that occurred many years ago. This article, however, is not so much interested in why Christmas is celebrated or its adaptability. Rather, this article seeks to understand why it is celebrated on the 25th of December.
For Christians, the Bible contains the scripture of the religion. It contains texts that come directly from Judaism known as the Old Testament, as well as written accounts of the life of Jesus Christ with his teachings and interpretations thereof known as the New Testament. In the New Testament, there are detailed written accounts about the events of the birth and death of Jesus Christ. External written accounts can go even further and explain Jesus’ lineage and education. It is noteworthy that those who have documented these events have lived in strikingly different time periods (the book written by John comes from someone who was born after Jesus’ life on earth), yet their recollection of events is similar. However, a particular date of birth or date of death is not noted.
There is much speculation as to how a date was chosen. Some theories are greatly accepted in the Christian world whereas others are considered preposterous. I have stumbled across a theory that is seldom known, yet it seems to explain the chosen date quite effectively. It has convinced me, and I hope that it will do so for you.
After the acceptance of Christianity, the early followers of the religion spent a few centuries developing the appropriate rites, practices and ceremonies to practice the faith. This was all done during a time when prosecution was imminent if one openly professed fidelity to the religion. There were also two distinct churches that were formed – the East and the West. Both churches are in existence today and contain millions of followers.
In the first few centuries, the thought of celebrating Jesus’ birthday was barbaric since only the birthdays of emperors were celebrated. Such a celebration would imply that Jesus was only human, which the Christians do not believe. This changed, however, when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the dominant religion.
A notion existed during this time that there is a relationship between the day Christ entered life and the day his life ended. The origins of this notion are unknown but it may have been derived from superstition or mythology. Nonetheless, both churches have determined the death date of Christ through methods that are beyond the scope of this article. The Eastern Church determined it to be April 6 and the Western Church deemed it March 25. The main reason behind this was to put the date in context with the Jewish holiday of the Passover, which was when Jesus passed away.
Since April 6 and March 25 were taken as the days of death, these dates then represent the days when Jesus entered life. The beginning of life in this sense is not the actual birth date itself; rather it is the date when it became known that Mary, Mother of God, would bear a child. This date is known as the day of Annunciation and is a known account in the Bible. If this is therefore the date of conception, the date of birth would be nine months later, January 6 or December 25.
The problem now occurs with the arrival of two birth dates. During the days of early Christianity, different calendars were followed depending on where a person lived. This was due to the various empires that existed at that time. Once uniformity was established and a common calendar was chosen, the dates of the other calendars had to be adjusted accordingly. This calendar favoured December 25 and as a result, the adjusted date for January 6 also turned out to be around December 25. Most of the Christian world today accepts December 25 as Christmas, but a few segments of the Eastern Church still celebrate Christmas on January 6.
Really, the date is an educated guess and it couldn’t matter less when Christmas is celebrated. The writers of the Bible were more concerned with spreading the news of the miracles of Jesus and less about documenting his biography. Truly, this applies to all of us since we leave a profound mark in the world by our actions and not through bio-data. So, when you celebrate this wonderful holiday, remember that the meaning of what is being celebrated is the most important aspect of all.