My plan when I started this blog was to write about how the turning of the year reflects Christ’s birth among us just when our yearning for light and life is most pointed. I was going to start like this . . .
Today is the shortest day of the year, with the sun barely making it over the treetops by noon. Then, before we know it, night falls—and it stays. Tonight is the longest night of the year.
Pretty, huh? Then I started thinking about it.
Maybe I should double-check the Bible to make sure it says he was born in the bleak midwinter, as the Christmas carols tell us. But the Bible doesn’t say that! Only two of the four Gospels include nativity stories (Matthew and Luke), and they disagree at many points. Their only point of agreement on the date is—to not say a thing about it! Clearly, the first believers weren’t especially interested in recording the details of Jesus’ birth.
So how did we wind up with December 25 for Christmas?
According to biblical scholars, there’s an ancient Jewish tradition that a prophet’s death falls on the same date as the prophet’s conception. Christian theologians took up that line of thought and applied it to the gospels’ agreement that Christ died at Passover.
In particular, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus was crucified on 14 Nisan in the lunar Jewish calendar. In about the year 200, the Christian writer Tertullian reported that 14 Nisan in the year Jesus died corresponded to March 25 in the solar Roman calendar. According to the ancient tradition, therefore, Jesus was also conceived on that date (we still observe the Annunciation to Mary on March 25). Count forward nine months, and there we have it: December 25. Before the year 400, that date was observed as Christmas in the church’s official calendar.
So the date of the nativity has a lot more to do with Good Friday than with the winter solstice. Oh, well, there goes my pretty paragraph about the shortest day and longest night—but the truth is a lot richer, wouldn’t you agree? (Read more for the details.)
I learned—or re-learned—something important about myself in this little visit with the Scripture scholars. I know that I can persuade myself to believe just about anything if I want to badly enough—for example, I wanted to believe that the winter solstice was related to Christmas so I could write about it. Because I know this about myself, I also know that I need to check things out with people who really know what they’re talking about before I write or speak.
I depend on the wisdom of the community to keep me on the right path. And for that community, guided by the Spirit of truth, I give thanks to God.
Audrey Riley is director for stewardship for Women of the ELCA and a self-proclaimed liturgy nerd. Do you want a daily devotional sent directly to your email? Sign up for a little Daily Grace.
Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Census of Bethlehem (1566, oil on wood) in public domain