Christmas: Timing, Dates, Myths

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Ethiopian view of the birth of Christ

Christmas is a Christian holy day that marks the birth of Jesus, the son of God. Most Christians — Roman Catholics and Protestants — celebrate Christmas on December 25. Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate it in January 6th according to the Julian Calendar. Armenian Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 6, or, in the Holy Land, on January 18. Christmas Day is the Christian festival most celebrated by non-churchgoers. Churches are often completely full for services Christmas Day and late on Christmas Eve. [Source: BBC]

Christmas takes its name from the old English Christes maesse, literally "Christ's mass." Christians have been celebrating Jesus's birth on December 25 since at least the early fourth century. On this day, Christians are supposed to attend a special mass, listen to a priest read the account of Jesus's birth in the Bible and sing songs in praise. Even for Christians who do not practice their faith daily, Christmas is supposed to be an occasion that will bring them back to the church. [Source:]

In England the festival celebrating the birth of Christ became known as “Christes Masse” (Christ's mass) because a special Mass was held on that day. In 1657 Cromwell outlawed Christmas as part of Puritan effort to stamp out the excessive partying that went along with the holiday. It was also banned in New England from the 1620s through the early 1800s by the Puritans there because there no date for the birth of Christ appears in the Bible and the date that was chosen was taken from the Roman calendar.

Websites and Resources on Christianity BBC on Christianity ;Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Sourcebook ; Christian Denominations: Holy See ; Catholic Online ; Catholic Encyclopedia ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches BBC on Baptists ; BBC on Methodists ; ; Orthodox Church in America ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church

Timing of Christmas

As early as the 2nd century Christ’s birth was celebrated on different days: January 6th, March 25th and December 25th. A feast day for Christ has its origins in Egypt. The fact that no one knew the actual date of his birthday was not so important because people didn't really care much about birthdays at that time. From Rome Christmas moved to Africa, northern Italy and Spain at the end of the forth century.

The idea of fixing the date of Christmas on December 25 was first suggested in Rome in A.D. 337. No date for the birth of Christ appears in the Bible. December 25 was chosen as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ because early Christians wanted it to displace the riotous Roman winter pagan festival of Saturnalia ("Birthday of the Invincible Sun God Mithras), which took place in late December. In the Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated with dancing in the streets, excessive drinking and cross dressing. Dancing and other forms of merry-making were later discouraged because of their association with pagan rituals.

Why is Christmas on December 25?

Valerie Strauss wrote in the Washington Post,“Dec. 25 is not the date mentioned in the Bible as the day of Jesus’s birth; the Bible is actually silent on the day or the time of year when Mary was said to have given birth to him in Bethlehem. The earliest Christians did not celebrate his birth. As a result, there are a number of different accounts as to how and when Dec. 25 became known as Jesus’s birthday. [Source: Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, December 24, 2014 +++]

“By most accounts, the birth was first thought — in around 200 A.D. — to have taken place on Jan. 6. Why? Nobody knows, but it may have been the result of “a calculation based on an assumed date of crucifixion of April 6 coupled with the ancient belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception,” according to By the mid-4th century, the birthday celebration had been moved to Dec. 25. Who made the decision? Some accounts say it was the pope; others say it wasn’t. +++

“The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea … ” So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter.”“ +++

Bronwen Neil wrote: The western date for Jesus’ birth is quite arbitrary. It was chosen by Pope Leo I, bishop of Rome (440-461) to roughly coincide with Roman festivals. Leo thought it would distract his Roman congregation from sun worship by celebrating the feast of Christ’s birth on the same day. He described Jesus as the “new light”; an image of salvation, but timely in that the days began to lengthen from 25 December onwards.The date of the feast varies within Christian denominations. Western Christians celebrate the Nativity on a fixed date, 25 December. Some Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate it on 6 January together with Epiphany, the revelation of the infant Jesus to three wise men. The Greek and Russian Orthodox celebrate Christmas on 7 January and Epiphany on 19 January. [Source: Bronwen Neil, Associate professor, Australian Catholic University, The Conversation, December 13, 2016]

Birth of Jesus

Scholars don't know for sure when Jesus was born. They believe his birth took place sometime between 4 B.C. and 7 B.C. The Gospel of Mathews says that Jesus was born in the last two years of Herod's reign, which would place his birth around 4 B.C. Some scholars believe the reference to Jesus being born at the time of the first registration in Judea around 7 B.C. or 6 B.C. is probably more accurate.

The Birth of Christ by Carlo Saraceni
Jesus was probably born in the spring, summer or the fall, which is when shepherds [are] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks." There is a reference to shepherds watching over their flocks at night, something they usually do in the hottest months of summer or during the lambing season in spring not in winter. In the winter the animals were kept in corrals. The December 25th date was ascribe to Jesus's birth in the 6th century ostensibly to coincide with local winter solstice festivals.

There are a lot of discrepancies in the telling of the Christmas story. In Matthew’s Nativity, the angel’s Annunciation is made to Joseph. In Luke’s it is to Mary (See Annunciation below). Matthew offers the Three Wise and places the baby Jesus on a horse. Luke features shepherds and a manger. Mark and Luke place the birth in Bethlehem but have different stories on how that happened to be.

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark describe the story of Jesus’s birth using different traditions. The “infancy narratives” that describe the Christmas story were prologues added to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark long after the other parts of the Gospels were written.

Although a big deal is made about Christmas and the virgin birth what happens after Jesus died that lies at the heart of Christianity.

When Exactly was Jesus Born

Candida Moss wrote in The Daily Beast: On the date of Jesus’s birth, The Bible isn’t a huge amount of help. Yes, the fact that in the Gospel of Luke shepherds were watching their flocks at night when the angel appeared suggests a date in the Spring, but there’s not a lot of information here. As a result, Christians had to calculate the date of the events and here they exhibited a little bit of creativity, much of it based around the ambiguity in the Greek word genesis used in the Gospel infancy stories. Does it mean conception, or does it mean birth? [Source: Candida Moss, The Daily Beast December 25, 2022]

According to a broad swathe of ancient thinking, a person who lived a perfect life would die on the same day as their birth. Christians, who were more focused on the date of Jesus’s conception than his Nativity and clearly believed that Jesus was perfect, started with the death of Jesus and worked their way backwards. Here they had better evidence.According to the Gospels, it seemed to have taken place on the 14th of Nissan, the day before Passover.

Getting the Jewish lunisolar calendar to correspond to the Julian solar calendar involved some number crunching, but in the mid-third century Hippolytus of Rome calculated the date of Jesus’s death to March 25. This, according to some Roman writers was the date of the Spring Equinox. In an academic article published in 2015, Dr. Thomas Schmidt an assistant professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, compellingly argues that Hippolytus selected March 25 because it also corresponded (in his calculations) to the date of Creation. Thus, March 25 was the date of Creation, the date of Jesus’ conception, the day of his death, and the Spring Equinox. Very tidy and, more importantly, very auspicious.

Assuming a perfect nine-month pregnancy, Hippolytus and others put the date of Jesus’s birth as December 25 and came to celebrate the Nativity on this day.Dr. Dan McClellan, a debunker of myths about the Bible on Instagram and TikTok and scholar of religious studies and theology, told me that the proximity of the key events in Jesus’ life to the Spring Equinox and Winter Solstice “seemed loaded with cosmic significance.” What was more important to Christian theologians wasn’t lining up the date of the Nativity with a pagan festival, but rather lining up the date of Jesus’s conception with his death and the creation of the universe.

Jesus and the Christmas Story

Jesus' birth, known as the nativity, is described in the New Testament of the Bible. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The Christmas story, in its entirety, is not contained in a single book of the New Testament. It is a composite image crafted out of the nativity stories of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and augmented by later Christian tradition, artwork, music, and interpretation. A number of the details that make it onto the canvasses of Renaissance artists, for example the “three kings,” aren’t in the Bible at all. We assume that there are three visitors because they bring three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). But the Bible doesn’t actually specify their number. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 24, 2016]

According to the BBC: “The Gospels of Matthew and Luke give different accounts. It is from them that the nativity story is pieced together. Both accounts tell us that Jesus was born to a woman called Mary who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter. The Gospels state that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

In Luke's account Mary was visited by an angel who brought the message that she would give birth to God's son. According to Matthew's account, Joseph was visited by an angel who persuaded him to marry Mary rather than send her away or expose her pregnancy. Matthew tells us about some wise men who followed a star that led them to Jesus' birthplace and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Luke tells how shepherds were led to Bethlehem by an angel. |::|

Mary and Joseph, Jesus’s Parents

Jesus's parents, Mary and Joseph were Jews from Nazareth. Matthew and Luke refer to Jesus as a descendant of David, who was also born in Bethlehem. Jesus’s father Joseph was a carpenter. According the “Arabic Gospel of the Infancy” Joseph was not known for being a particularly skilled carpenter.

Jesus’s mother Mary was teenager believed to be around 14 when Jesus was born. It was not unusual for Jewish girls like Mary to get married at an early age. There are few mentions of Mary in the Bible. They include: 1) when Mary is told by an angel that she will conceive the son of God even though she was a virgin (Luke 1:26-38); 2) The manger scene when she gives birth to Jesus (Luke 2:15-19). 3) when she and Jesus’s brother appear to Jesus while he is speaking to a crowd (Matthew 12:46-50); 4) when she urges Jesus to perform his first miracle (turning water into wine) (John 2:1-7); and 5) her appearance at the crucifixion (John 19:25-27).

Many Protestants believe that after Jesus was born Mary no longer remained a virgin and had children with Joseph the normal way. They were all born after Jesus, making the virgin birth more plausible. Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe that Mary was virgin her entire life.

Christmas Season

Bethlehem Star
In the United States the Christmas shopping season has traditionally begun the day after Thanksgiving (a day now known as Black Friday) at the end of November and the Christmas Season last until to January 1. In other places The Christmas Season lasts from St. Nicholas Day in early December to Epiphany on January 6th.

According to the BBC: “Advent is the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and begins on Sunday nearest to 30th November. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus meaning coming. Traditionally it is a penitential season but is no longer kept with the strictness of Lent and Christians are no longer required to fast. Advent wreaths are popular especially in churches. They are made with fir branches and four candles. A candle is lit each Sunday during Advent.” [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

In many Latin and Mediterranean countries the heart of the Christmas Season lasts from December 24 or with winter solstice (around December 21 or 22) to Epiphany on January 6th (also known as Twelfth Night). This period closely follows the ancient Roman Saturnalia Festival. In Italy today children receive gifts from La Befana, a witchlike figure, on Epiphany instead of from Santa Clause on Christmas. Gift-giving is attributed to the Christ child and Santa Claus is called Father Christmas. Spaniards also exchange gifts on Epiphany rather than Christmas Day, with presents for children coming from the Three Kings (the Three Wise Men).

The Catholic Christmas cycle begins with Advent on the forth Sunday, and sometimes all the Sundays in December, before December 25th. It is happy time characterized by feelings of anticipation for the upcoming events. For Catholics, Christmas takes place nine months after the Annunciation (March 25), when Mary is informed her pregnancy by the angel Gabriel.

Some people say that January 1st marks the day Jesus was circumcised. Immaculate Conception Day — commemorating is the idea that Mary was exempted from original sin by virtue of a special grace from God — is marked on December 2 or December 8 with processions with an image of the Virgin Mary and other festivities. Kings Day is held on the Sunday before Advent. Is honors Christ as the King who gave his life for us. It’s mark the beginning of the period of preparation for a new year.

Christmas in Bethlehem

Describing Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem in 2006, AP reported: “Thousands of people joined by marching bands clergymen in magenta skullcaps and children dressed as Santa Claus celebrated Christmas Eve in the center of Bethlehem...In an annual tradition, Bethlehem’s residents enacted Christmas rituals that seem out of place in the Middle East, Palestinian Scouts marched through the streets, some wearing kilts and pom-pom-topped berets, playing drums and bagpipes. They passed inflatable Santas, looking forlorn in the West Bank sunshine.”

20120508-Nativity church Bethlehem_BW_2.JPG
Entering the Nativity
Church in Bethlehem
“Manger Square and the surrounding buildings were decorated with bright lights” payed for in part with a $50,000 donation from Hamas. “Bands performed on a stage, and a large screen beams image of Palestinian flags and officials, But few foreign tourists appeared to be among that crowds.”

“To get to town, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Church’s highest official in the Holy Land, rode in his motorcade through the a huge steel gate in the Israeli barrier that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem...The robed clergymen was led into Palestinian-controlled territory by a formal escort of five Israeli policeman mounted on horses, two Israeli Border Police troops closed the gate behind him, Sabbah, wearing a flowing gold and burgundy robe, led a procession into St. Catherine’s Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity.”

The Bethlehem Christmas Eve service televised worldwide is held at the new St. Catherine’s Church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity not the Church of the Nativity itself. AP reported: “Hundreds of worshipers packed the cavernosus hall for the service, as clergymen chanted in Latin amid the sound of bells and organ music. In his homily, Sabbah...appealed to Palestinian to halt their recent “fratricidal struggles”.

Christmas in Sweden and Australia

Bronwen Neil, a professor in Australia, wrote: In northern countries, when the nights are long and cold, the feast of Christmas traditionally gave Christian people something to look forward to: rich food (reindeer if you are in Sweden, pork and lamb if you are in Greece), lots of candles, Catholic Mass at midnight or Protestant services on Christmas morning. Fir trees were brought inside and lit with candles as a symbol of the hope that spring would return with new crops and plentiful food. [Source: Bronwen Neil, Associate professor, Australian Catholic University, The Conversation, December 13, 2016]

A lot of the significance of the original feast is lost when we in the southern hemisphere celebrate it in the middle of summer. A family barbecue at the beach cannot really capture the atmosphere of a cold and dark mid-winter. This seems to be the main reason for the emergence of the alternative “Christmas in July”. Today we give presents to adults as well as kids on the eve or day of 25 December, and usually not anonymously. It would be interesting to see what would change if none of our gifts had name tags attached — Secret Santa at the office is based on the same concept.

Myths About Christmas

The traditional story of Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem to participate in a census, being turned away from an inn, and Jesus being born in a stable and visited by shepherds and three foreign kings, in its entirety, is not contained in a single book of the New Testament. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: It is a composite image crafted out of the nativity stories of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and augmented by later Christian tradition, artwork, music, and interpretation. A number of the details that make it onto the canvasses of Renaissance artists, for example the “three kings,” aren’t in the Bible at all. We assume that there are three visitors because they bring three kinds of gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). But the Bible doesn’t actually specify their number. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 24, 2016]

We think that the magi (as they are called in the New Testament) are kings because of later guesswork. Dr. Brent Landau, author of The Revelation of the Magi, told The Daily Beast that the idea that there were three kings comes to us from the imagination of early Christians. “Matthew’s story about the Magi does not imply that these mysterious visitors are kings; Matthew either regards them as magicians/astrologers or Zoroastrian priests. But early Christians noticed passages like Psalm 72:10-11, about kings from far-off lands rendering tribute to the King of Israel, and wondered whether this might have been a prophecy about the Magi. Tertullian in the third century describes the Magi as ‘almost kings,’ and almost two hundred years later, Augustine flatly calls them kings. From there, the belief became commonplace.” All of which means that the magi were wise men, likely schooled in astrology or even Zoroastrianism. Sorry to ruin the carol.

Some people think that Christmas is linked somehow to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Moss writes: Hanukkah is the celebration of a Jewish military victory in the second century BCE. Neither the ancient victory nor the modern celebration of it has anything to do with Christmas. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 13, 2013]

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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