The last week of December to the first week of January is a time of festivity. It is when the people worldover are celebrating the Birth of Christ as Christmas and the arrival of a New Year.
Christmas is popularly celebrated on 25th December. The Christian Calendar which is also linked to the birth of Jesus starts from 1st January. The Greek orthodoxy, the Armenians, East Europeans and Russians celebrate Christmas on 6th January. It is intriguing, as to why we celebrate these different days as the birthday of Jesus Christ.
How did these 3 days come about?
To understand this, we need to look at the times of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Herod, The Great
The king who ruled when Jesus was born was ‘Herod, The Great’. Herod died in 4 BCE. This is uniformly accepted by both Jewish and Christian historians.
Herod, The Great
This implies that Jesus was probably not born in year 1 but was born before 4 BCE, when ‘Herod, the Great’ was alive.
This brings into question not only the date of December 25th, but also the year of birth.
Was Jesus Christ born in the year 0?
The number 0 was not known to the Romans until 1500 CE. In their calendar, -1 BCE transitioned into +1 CE.
Infact, the term Anno Domini (A.D., “in the year of our Lord”) as a universal reference point was coined by Christian historian, Dionysius Exiguous, a Roman monk in the year 532 CE.
Before Dionysius Exiguous, the terms BC and AD did not exist.
Council of Nicaea
Which year and date was Jesus born then?
When we dwell into this, we come across an interesting episode.
A council was formed, now popularly known as the Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD to arrive at Jesus Christ’s date of birth.
Council of Nicaea
A few dates were put up for consideration at the Council
- 25th December was suggested by the Romans
- 20th May was given by the Clement of Alexandria
- 28th March was given by De Pascha Computes
- 6th January was given by the Greeks as it was the birthday of their God Dionysus
- Egyptians suggested the birthday of their God Osiris
The Urn Method
To choose a day, as the story goes, they put the names into an urn and picked one of them. The date that was picked is not known, but it is better known that the date was not accepted by all.
An ancient Urn
This probably led to having multiple days for the birth of Jesus Christ.
Since then, the Greek orthodoxy celebrate January 6th as Christmas which is essentially the birthday of Greek God Dionysus who was the most popular divinity of the Greek then.
Greek God Dionysus
The Romans thought it fit to celebrate December 25th as the birthday of Jesus, for, their biggest festival then in Rome was ‘Natalis Solis Invicti’ , ‘Nativity of the unconquered Sun’, to celebrate the return of the sun, the beginning of the northward journey of the sun from the Tropic of Capricorn.
‘Natalis Solis Invicti’, the then biggest festival
Winter Solstice occurred on 25th December then. Now it occurs on 21st December.
This day, 25th December was a day of feasting for the Romans as the warmth of the sun was set to return. This popular festival day of the Romans was adopted by the Christians for the birthday of Jesus Christ.
Mario Righethi, a Roman Catholic writer, writes in his book, ‘Manual of Liturgical History’ 1955, Vol 2, p 67,
‘Manual of Liturgical History’
The Earliest Christ Mass
The earliest celebration of Christ Mass, which has now come to be called Christmas was first observed on 25th December 336 AD, in the Phliocalion Calendar.
The Phliocalion Calendar
The first Pope to address the Christ Mass – Christmas was Pope Liberius in the year 354 AD.
New Year on January 1st
If the date of birth of Jesus Christ is a tossup between December 25th and January 6th, then how did January 1st come to be celebrated as the first day of the Christian Calendar.
Should not December 25th have been the first day of the Roman Christian Calendar?
Should not January 6th have been the first day of Greek Christian Calendar?
Was January 1st then a compromise date between the two?
Issac Asimov, the famous scientist in his book, ‘Book of Facts’ says,
“In 534 AD, the first man who calculated the year of Jesus’ birth made a mistake and we’ve been stuck with it forever.”
Issac Asimov and his ‘Book of Facts’
All in all, we now have 3 dates, December 25th, January 1st and January 6th, celebrated in different parts of the world as the birth date of Jesus Christ.
Not arrived at from Bethlehem
It is interesting to note that all these 3 dates have not been arrived at in Bethlehem where Jesus Christ was born, but have been arrived at in other places from Niceae, to Rome to Greece.
Birth of Jesus at Bethlehem
What does modern science say?
Various scholars have tried to come out with a correct date for the birth of Jesus Christ using modern scientific tools.
One of these tools is Archaeo-Astronomy.
An Australian Astronomer, Dave Reneke, using sky charts, arrived at 17th June, 2 BCE, as the date of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Based on the sky chart, the researcher opined that there could have been “a beacon of light” visible across the eastern sky at dawn, as the planets Jupiter and Venus moved across the Leo constellation.
“While these two are planets, they could have been called the Star of Bethlehem” says Dave Reneke in support of his date.
Further researches however cast doubts on this date.
There have been other researchers like this who have looked at the date of birth of Jesus Christ in 5 BCE.
As science evolves, it would be wonderful, if we could find the exact date of Jesus Christ’s birth. Until then, let us celebrate all 3 days as the birthday of Jesus Christ.