Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Date of Christmas

Via my friend Daren, I found this piece by Andrew McGowan advancing a theory about how Christians came to celebrate Christmas on December 25: Some theologians arrived at the date due to a belief that the conception of Jesus took place on March 25 in harmony with Easter, and therefore that he must have been born nine months later.

This kind of dating issue isn't something that has ever interested me either as a historian or as a Christian. However, without knowing anything about how it fits into scholarly discussion of the topic, I find this thesis interesting. The most common explanation, that December 25 was chosen to distract people from some festival around the time of the Winter Solstice, does fit practices of theological co-option common in the history of most religions. The fact it is weak at the level of finding the human agents and explaining their mindsets is probably not enough to undo it given my impression of the source material.

Evidence suggests, however, that Christians commemorated Christmas in December during the 3rd century, and perhaps even earlier. It was around 200 that Christians calculated a March 25 date for Good Friday. McGowan's earliest source for the connection between Jesus's conception and crucifixion, however, is from the 4th century, so I'm not sure it follows that calculating the date of the conception came first and led to the birth. That said, as liturgical dates seem to have come from calculation and those are the earliest calculations we have, I can definitely see it. This, in turn, let's us see a much more subtle form of religious influence, for once the date is in the calendar, it perhaps begs to become a Christian version of other late Roman winter celebrations, much like Hanukkah, though a lesser holiday within Judaism for centuries, has become a "Jewish Christmas" in majority-Christian societies.

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4 Comments:

Blogger ian said...

I have read that the Bible narratives suggest that the nativity happened at a different time of the year than late December. Specifically, in mid-winter in Israel-Palestine only the most foolish shepherd would have his flock out in a field. Or so the narrative I read said.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Yeah, but I didn't read this as saying that the December 25 date is accurate, just offering an opinion of how it came to be.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

Oh sure, I was just saying.

6:41 PM  
Blogger K said...

Also, I believe that they did the census in question in March or April. I don't remember where I heard that, though.

9:03 AM  

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