Conflicting Views On The Birth Of Jesus
Jesus is not the reason for the season. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The same holds true with the other religious holidays celebrated in December.
No one knows what time of the year Jesus was born. A Jewish tradition states that the messiah would be born on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (July/August) — the date when the first and second temples in Jerusalem were destroyed — so perhaps Jesus was born then.
Complicating matters further, the four Christian gospels provide inconsistent details regarding the birth of Jesus: Was it Nazareth (Mark, John) or Bethlehem (Matthew, Luke)? In a house (Matthew) or manger (Luke)? Wise men (Matthew) or shepherds (Luke)?
Infanticide (Matthew) or census (Luke)? Star (Matthew) or angel (Luke)?
The birth of Jesus was not much of a concern in the earliest Christian writings, for example, in Paul’s letters or Mark’s Gospel. In fact, the first mention of a celebration of the birth of Christ did not occur until 200 years after Jesus died.
Simply put, the birth of Jesus did not matter; the crucifixion of Christ did. If there is no biblical document telling us the time of the year when Jesus was born, how did Dec. 25 get chosen?
There are two possible theories.
Tertullian — one of the early Christian apologists who lived in the 3rd century and is probably best known for his association with the trinity concept — calculated the date of the crucifixion of Christ as March 25, based on John’s Gospel (the other gospels have Jesus dying on a different day). In a number of religions there is the notion that salvation encompasses a cycle that connects the end with the beginning, e.g., death and birth, destruction and creation. Theravada Buddhists, for example, believe the Buddha was born, achieved enlightenment and died on the same day (albeit in different years).
As already mentioned, a Jewish tradition ties the destruction of the Jerusalem temple with the birth of the messiah. The salvation cycle was present in Christianity, too. Christians believed the crucifixion and conception of Christ occurred on the same day, March 25.
This explains why in the Christian calendar, March 25 celebrates Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to Christ. Dec. 25 and Christmas are simply nine months after March 25 and Annunciation.
A more popular theory takes into account Christianity’s penchant for incorporating non-Christian practices into its own (for example, think of Athletes for Christ — what sport did Jesus play? Or Stand Up Paddle Surf Ministry — actually offered at a local church). Winter solstice marks the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and occurs in late December.
For those in antiquity, the days leading up to winter solstice may have seemed to be a time when the forces of death and darkness threatened and could possibly overcome the powers of light and life. Certain symbols therefore — evergreen tree (Christmas tree), kadomatsu (Japanese bamboo, pine display), candles — were utilized in different cultures as hopeful expressions of the power of light in its struggle against darkness.
After winter solstice, darkness gradually begins to give way to light as the sun reasserts itself and the length of the day increases. The birth of the sun god was therefore associated with this time of the year and celebrated in Rome Dec. 25. This idea appealed to Christians celebrating the birth of God’s son, the light of the world. Thus the birth of the sun god became the birth of God’s son.
In other words, Christians incorporated a non-Christian festival into its faith. This explains why a small number of Christian groups do not celebrate Christmas: It was originally a pagan holiday.
There are universal themes in religion that do not belong solely to one group or another, but are shared across different traditions and by different people. The celebration of light over darkness during this time of the year is one such theme. Bodhi Day (Enlightenment Day) in Buddhism and Hanukkah (Festival of Lights) in Judaism are expressions of this. Christmas is, too.
This also is the time of the year when we think about giving and receiving gifts.
We are thankful for the presents from others, and for the presence of others. They light up our lives. And yet our lives are not only ours, but made up of the lives of others.
All of us have special ones who have loved us unconditionally — through countless sacrifices, acts of kindness, patience, and caring — and they have helped us become who we are. Some are here, some are far away, and some may no longer be in this world. Some may be sitting right next to you as you read this. They are the ones who care about us and want what is best for us in life. They may not have a holiday dedicated to them, but they light up our lives just the same. And, if we are lucky, we can only hope that we’ve added some light to theirs.
This, to me, is the real reason for the season. And as the favorite child of my parents, I know I light up their lives.
In fact, I’m so bright, my dad calls me “son.”