Adoration of the Infant by Beato Angelico

Anywhere you go, if you are a Christian, people will tell you that Christ was not born at Christmas. Sometimes they claim that the Roman Catholic Church took over a pagan holiday, usually Saturnalia; however, Saturnalia always ended before December 23rd. Other times they will say that Christ was really born in spring, or that the choice of December 25th was a reaction against the Emperor Aurelian's choice of December 25th for the festival of "The Birth of the Unconquered Sun". Unfortunately for the critics, Aurelian's choice was probably a pagan reaction to the already-existing Christmas celebrations.

However, did you know that the date of Christ's birth is actually mentioned in the Bible? The problem is for these other folks, that it is not explicitly said in so many words, and so it takes some calculation.

This legend might have also come about because Pope Gregory the first, in 601 A.D., directed Augustine to "adopt and adapt native customs." Nevertheless, Christian writers, as early as the third century, had already fixed the date of Christ's birth to the end of December, and likely December 25th. Some of this was symbolical reasoning, but some of it was based simply on counting on one's fingers. The most important summary comes from St. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, and the essence of this is laid out below.

Albrecht Durer - The Penance of St John Chrysostom

Counting backwards


From Christmas, we count backwards nine months to the annunciation. This is when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and offered her the opportunity to bear Christ in her womb. This is narrated in Luke, Chapter 1, verses 26-38. We also note that Elizabeth is "in her sixth month" which is very important to this calculation. So we take date of Christ's birth, - 9 months, equals the date of the annunciation.

Step 2 - still further back


Elizabeth is in her sixth month at the date of the Annunciation. In Luke 1, Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist. Each of the 24 classes of Jewish priests served one week in the Temple, and Zechariah was in the eighth class. Rabbinical tradition fixed the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 and, calculating backward from that, Zechariah's class would have been serving Oct. 2-9 in 5 B.C.

Now, let's count on our fingers . . .


So from the first week in October, we add 24 weeks (4 weeks per month times six months), and we come to a date between March 20th and March 27th. Add nine months to that, and we have a date for Christ's birth between December 20th and December 27th. And there is your answer to the people who say that Christ could not have been born at Christmas!

But What about the Sheep in December?

Two things about the shepherds and their sheep are important. The first is to remember that sheep have wool coats, and that the month of December in Israel has good amounts of precipitation, and high temperatures for the month range in the 60s and 70s. Indeed, in Genesis, we find Jacob reminding Laban that he kept his sheep through "frost by night," thereby implying that at least some shepherds stayed with flocks outside in cold months.

The second thing to remember about the shepherds and their sheep is that some shepherds did not roam to graze sheep, because those sheep were kept nearby the Temple for sacrifices, and therefore stayed in approximately the same place all year. These were the Migdal Eder, and they were viewed as unclean; therefore, they might have been the most appropriate for the announcement of Christ's birth. 

Have a Merry Christmas!

The Temple- Its Ministry and Services
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The classic book in understanding references to the Temple, ritual, and sacrifice in both the Old and New Testaments. Edersheim's critical exegesis may be dry to some readers, but this scholarly work illuminates many Biblical passages with new shades of meaning.