Commonly referred to as “The most wonderful time of the year”, Christmas sees an increase in generosity, families and friends gathering together, and Jesus celebrated. Yet some Christians have difficulty with this day.
In the mid-19th century, a Protestant minister, Alexander Hislop wrote a book called, The Two Babylons, in which he compared the Roman Catholic Church to ancient Babylon. In his zeal to prove such a connection, he jumped over a few facts on several occasions.1
The idea of Christmas being pagan was one such leap. Protestant preachers since have perpetuated several myths that need to be examined.
It is claimed that December 25 was a celebration of Nimrod or Mithra. This claim cannot be supported as ancient calendars do not perfectly align with our modern calendar and the Babylonian one certainly does not. This is because the months in most ancient calendars were determined by a lunar cycle which is, on average, 29.5 days. Twelve such cycles give 354 days in a year, which is around 11 days short of a solar cycle. Our modern calendar year is also short, but only by a few hours. We bring it in line with the solar cycle by adding an extra day every four years. In a similar way, some ancient calendars were adjusted periodically to line them up with the solar cycle. The Jewish calendar does this by adding an extra month every few years. Alignment with the solar cycle is necessary for the Jewish calendar as it is tied to agricultural events. Because there are different methods of bringing calendars in line with the solar cycle, a particular day on an ancient calendar would not be the same day in our calendar every year. If an ancient pagan festival like Mithra’s birthday happened to fall on December 25 one year, it will most certainly fall on a different day in our calendar the following year.
Some say that December 25 is connected with sun worship. The winter solstice—when the daylight is shortest in the Northern Hemisphere—falls on December 21 or 22 in our calendar. It is never on December 25. If one were to celebrate the daylight becoming longer, they would do so on December 22 or 23. Babylonians studied astronomical movements meticulously and predicted solstices. They did not need to wait several days till December 25 to figure out that the daylight was getting longer.
The pagan celebration of the Unconquerable Sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25 was instituted by Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD. The Mithra connection to that day was first recorded in 336 AD by Philocalus, who added it to his Codex-Calendar in 354 AD. But the Christians commemoration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 was prior to all this. The earliest record discovered so far is from 202 AD.2 This means that Christians were not influenced by pagan dates. Christians chose December 25 based on the Integral Year concept. According to Jewish tradition, a prophet’s lifespan is exact in number of years, meaning that a prophet dies on the anniversary of their conception. Christ was considered to have died on March 25, so it was thought that this was the day of His conception. Adding nine months from conception to birth results in a birth day of December 25. This Jewish tradition does not have biblical support, but it did provide the basis upon which early Christians used to celebrate Christ’s advent on December 25. The Christian celebration predates pagan celebrations on that day by at least 70 years.
Some people get hung up on the term “Christmas”. This, of course, is only an issue for English speakers as other languages refer to the celebration in different ways with different meanings, such as “Birthday”, “Holy Night” or “God’s gift”. The name “Christmas” comes from the Latin words for “Christ” and “sent”3. It reminds us of Jesus’ prayer to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them (the disciples) into the world” (John 17:18). “Christmas” is, therefore, a very fitting term because this is what is celebrated; Christ sent as a human on a mission to save us and His sending of us to spread it to the world.
The question arises: is there any biblical support to celebrate Christ becoming a human in His mission to save us at the end of December? There is certainly evidence to point that way. It is unlikely that He was born at the end of December, but it is likely that He was conceived then. [pullquote]
In Luke 1:5, Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, is mentioned as a priest of the course of Abijah. Priests did not serve continually but took turns serving for one week, twice a year and also during the Pilgrimage Feasts. There were 24 divisions of priests and they rotated from noon on Sabbath until noon the following Sabbath (1 Chronicles 24:10). The course of Abijah was the eighth course with the first service occurring at the beginning of June. It is then that the angel Gabriel told him that when he returned home his wife Elizabeth would become pregnant (Luke 1:11-13).4 Zechariah returned to his own house and Elizabeth became pregnant shortly thereafter (v 23,24). That course would have completed duties around June 9. Depending on her cycle, Elizabeth would have conceived somewhere between June 10 and July 10. Elizabeth would have started her miraculous cycle at that time, which would have resulted in John being conceived around the end of June. Six months later, the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and Jesus was conceived (v 26,36). This means that Jesus was conceived around the end of December.
This is a special time of the year. It marked the dedication of the Temple and the miracle of light. In 167 BC the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, stopped the regular ceremonies, offered swine’s flesh on the altar and sprinkled swine’s blood in the Most Holy Place. Three years later, in 164 BC, Judas Maccabeus, having won a stunning victory over the much larger Seleucid army, came to Jerusalem and re-consecrated the Temple. This occurred during the winter solstice. The darkest day of the year witnessed the beginning of the miracle of the light. When they went to light the Temple menorah, only one bottle of the consecrated lamp oil was found. This oil, which normally lasted only a single day, continued to burn for eight days until more oil could be produced and consecrated. Hence, the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, which means “to dedicate”, also became known as the Festival of Lights.
As Mary was celebrating the rededication of the Temple, which had occurred 160 years earlier, her body was dedicated to the Lord and literally became the temple of God. Jesus, the Light of the world, was conceived. Towards the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus went to the Temple during Hanukkah (John 8:12) and declared to everyone that He was the Christ—the Messiah, and the Light of the world (John 9:5)!
Celebrating the Advent of Jesus at this time of the year is both accurate and appropriate. It is the time when He was conceived and when the miracle of light occurred.
Since the Bible does not oblige us to celebrate Christ’s birth does that mean we cannot or should not celebrate it? The Bible does not tell us to celebrate Hanukkah and yet we have a record of Jesus going to the Temple then. He certainly did not shun a celebration on the grounds that it was not mandated by the Bible.
In our ever-increasing secular Western society, Christmas is that time of the year when non-believers are relatively open to hearing about the story of Jesus. This is why Christian author Ellen White insisted that Christmas “can serve a very good purpose”.5 And in her Christmas address she stated, “Although we do not know the exact day of Christ’s birth, we would honour the sacred event. May the Lord forbid that any one should be so narrow- minded as to overlook the event because there is an uncertainty in regard to the exact time.”6
As Christians we should use every opportunity to share the good news of Jesus in words and deeds. Ellen White put it best when she wrote, “God would be well pleased if on Christmas each church would have a Christmas tree on which shall be hung offerings, great and small, for these houses of worship.”7
It is good to see churches place food gifts for the poor under a Christmas tree. ADRA makes it easy to decorate trees at church and home with their Christmas gift ornaments. See adra.org.au/thrive for more details.
Jesus calls us to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). As we celebrate the first Advent of Jesus, let us keep it focused on Jesus by sharing His love with others, particularly the neglected. This is the best way to celebrate Jesus.
Emanuel Millen is pastor of Yarra Valley and assistant pastor of Warburton Seventh-day Adventist churches, Victoria.