An interesting thing happened after I was brought into the Christian faith – I began to view the Christmas holidays with a lot of skepticism. Instead of looking forward to presents, parties, skiing trips, obscenely large meals and festive holiday cheer, like I did when I was agnostic, I began to ask questions about what it is we are actually celebrating. Too many Christians cling onto cultural traditions without critically examining them and making the appropriate sacrifices when those traditions fall short of Christian ideals. We are steeped in the practices of this world and we are afraid of what other people will think about us if we take a few step backs from the world. Yet, as Christians, the only thing that should truly matter is how we appear before God and no one else.
Christmas is allegedly a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. However, there is absolutely nothing in scripture that suggests Jesus was born in Winter, let alone on December 25. Scripture does give us plenty of clues to suggest that Jesus was born in the Fall season, though, most likely during the month of September. Does that mean we should switch Christmas celebrations to a September date? No, not at all. Paul relates to us that Jesus told his disciples to honor his death through communion, signifying God’s new covenant with humanity, not his birth (1 Corinthians 11:23-27). It is important to know Jesus’ birthday in order to destroy the currently ingrained myth of Christmas. Here are some evidences for a September birth:
In a long section covering Luke 1:5 through 2:8, Luke writes of a specific series of events in chronological order. He begins by telling the story of Zacharias, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth, who were childless. While administering his priestly duties during the course of Abijah, Zacharias was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him that his prayers had been answered and that he and Elizabeth would have a son. They were to name him John.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel visited Mary and informed her, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a son, and shall call His name Jesus” (verse 31). Soon thereafter, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth and stayed with her until the latter’s ninth month, leaving just prior to John’s birth. Jesus, then, was born approximately six months after John.
What information do we have up to this point?
» Zacharias, a priest, performed his duties during the course of Abijah.
» After he returned home from Jerusalem, Elizabeth conceived.
» Mary conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
» John was born approximately six months before Jesus.
The Course of Abijah
To date Jesus’ birth, we need a starting point. Fortunately, Luke supplies one in mentioning “the course of Abijah” (Luke 1:5). Is it possible to know if this course existed then, when it fell during the year, and how long it lasted?
Indeed it is!
I Chronicles 24 lists the courses, divisions or shifts of the priesthood that served in the Temple throughout the year. Verse 1 states, “These are the divisions of the sons of Aaron.” Among the sons of Eleazar were sixteen heads of their father’s house, while among the sons of Ithamar were eight additional heads of house, making twenty-four courses (verse 4).
These courses of priests were divided by lot to be officials of the sanctuary and of the house of God (verse 5). Beginning on Nisan 1, these courses rotated throughout the year, serving in the Temple for one week apiece. The course of Abijah, the course during which Zacharias was responsible to work, was the eighth shift (verse 10).
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian—who was, by the way, of the priestly lineage of the course of Jehoiarib, the first course—supplies further information about the priestly courses.
“He [David] divided them also into courses: and when he had separated the priests from them, he found of these priests twenty-four courses, sixteen of the house of Eleazar and eight of that of Ithamar; and he ordained that one course should minister to God [during] eight days, from [noon] Sabbath to [noon on the following] Sabbath. And thus were the courses distributed by lot, in the presence of David, and Zadok and Abiathar the high priest, and of all the rulers: and that course which came up first was written down as the first, and accordingly the second, and so on to the twenty-fourth; and this partition hath remained to this day” (Antiquities of the Jews, 7:14.7).
These courses were strictly followed until the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.
The Talmud describes the details of the rotation of courses, beginning on Nisan 1. With only twenty-four courses, obviously each course was required to work twice a year, leaving three extra weeks. (The Hebrew year normally has fifty-one weeks. Intercalary, or leap, years have an additional four weeks.) The three holy day seasons, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, during which all the courses were required to serve, made up these three extra weeks. Thus, each of the courses worked five weeks out of the year: two in their specific courses and three during the holy day seasons.
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Messiah (Malachi 3:1; Luke 1:13-17). The gospel accounts make it very clear that he was born about half a year before Jesus was born. From historical details in Luke’s account especially, as well as the accuracy of the Seventy Weeks prophecy (see “Seventy Weeks Are Determined . . .,” p. 2), it is clear that Jesus was born sometime in 4 bc. This means, counting back the nine months of gestation and the six-month difference in age, John must have been conceived in the first half of 5 bc.
This fact forces us to choose the first shift of the course of Abijah as the time when Gabriel visited Zacharias in the Temple. Frederick R. Coulter, in his A Harmony of the Gospels (p. 9), computes it this way:
In the year 5 bc, the first day of the first month, the month of Nisan, according to the Hebrew Calendar, was a Sabbath. According to computer calculation synchronizing the Hebrew Calendar and the stylized Julian Calendar, it was April 8. Projecting forward, the assignments course by course, and week by week, were: Course 1, the first week; Course 2, the second week; all Courses for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, the third week; Course 3, the fourth week; Course 4, the fifth week; Course 5, the sixth week; Course 6, the seventh week; Course 7, the eighth week; Course 8, the ninth week; and all courses [sic] the tenth week, which was the week of Pentecost.
Zacharias of the course of Abijah worked the ninth week in his assigned course and the tenth week in the Pentecost course, and this period ran from Iyar 27 through Sivan 12 (Hebrew calendar) or June 3 through 17 (Julian calendar). He probably returned home immediately after his shifts were completed, and Elizabeth most likely conceived in the following two-week period, June 18 through July 1, 5 BC.
With this information we can calculate Elizabeth’s sixth month as December, during which Mary also conceived (Luke 1:26-38). It is probable, because of the circumstances shown in Luke 1, that Mary conceived during the last two weeks of Elizabeth’s sixth month. Thus, John was born in the spring of 4 BC, probably between March 18 and 31. By projecting forward another six months to Jesus’ birth, the most probable time for His birth occurred between September 16 and 29. It is an interesting sidelight that Tishri 1, the Feast of Trumpets, is one of the two middle days of this time period.
Flocks in the Fields
There is additional proof that Jesus was born in the fall of the year. The census of Quirinius that required Joseph to travel from Galilee to Bethlehem would most probably have taken place after the fall harvest when people were more able to return to their ancestral homes (Luke 2:1-5). Besides, it was customary in Judea to do their tax collecting during this period, as the bulk of a farmer’s income came at this time.
Another point is that Joseph and Mary had to find shelter in a barn or some other kind of animal shelter like a cave or grotto because the inns were full (verse 7). This indicates that the pilgrims from around the world had begun to arrive in Jerusalem and surrounding towns. Thus, the fall festival season had already commenced. There would have been no similar influx of pilgrims in December.
Also, as the shepherds were still in the fields with their flocks (verse 8), Jesus’ birth could not have occurred during the cold-weather months of winter. Sheep were normally brought into centrally located pens or corrals as the weather turned colder and the rainy season began, especially at night. If this were not significant, it begs the question, “Why would Luke have mentioned it in such detail if not to convey a time reference?”
Notice what commentator Adam Clarke writes regarding this:
It was a custom among the Jews to send out their sheep to the deserts [wilderness], about the passover [sic], and bring them home at the commencement of the first rain: during the time they were out, the shepherds watched them night and day. As the passover [sic] occurred in the spring, and the first rain began early in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to part of our October and November, we find that the sheep were kept out in the open country during the whole of the summer. And as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light on this disputed point. (Clarke’s Commentary, vol. V, p. 370)
So why do so many cultures around the world have such long-standing traditions of celebrating Jesus’ birth on and around December 25? The answer comes from pagan traditions that were absorbed by the Roman Catholic Church in order to keep the peace and pacify their diverse, subjugated populations. The Winter Solstice was celebrated by pagan cultures because it was thought to be the time when the Sun god was healing from previous sickness and returning to health. This time is also associated with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, when the god of seed and sowing, Saturnus, was honored with a festival. The arbiters of Roman Christianity wasted no time incorporating these traditions into the celebration of Christmas during the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.
The use of a Christmas tree also reflects pagan traditions that viewed evergreens as being sacred. These trees would remind them that the Sun god was always strong and would eventually return to make many more green plants. The Smithsonian traces the origin of mistletoe to rituals of the Celtic Druids and their legends of Norse gods. Even the burning of a yule log is something pagan cultures did to remind themselves of warmth and light in the dark of winter. Saint Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus, traces his origins to the Greek goddess of victory “Nike”, who primarily functioned as an evangelist for Zeus, and the Greek word “Laos”, meaning the people (Nike-Laos). The Nicolaitans were followers of Nike, and Jesus tells us that we should hate their deeds and doctrines (Revelation 2:6, 15).
Is it really so bad to celebrate Christ on some random day with pagan traditions, as long as our hearts are sincere about doing it in the name of Christ? Well, that’s the thing – the Christmas holidays have very little to do with worship of Christ. It’s true that the disposition of our hearts and minds is more important than our specific traditions, but our actions during the holidays clearly reflect a spiritual disposition that is devoid of Christ. Little children look forward to Christmas because it is a time when some imaginary god-like person will bring them a bunch of presents, and parents will indulge this fantasy of their children until their trust is callously broken. That is the exact opposite of the Gospel message which teaches we must worship Christ for unselfish reasons (not for material gifts) and maintain our faith in Him for the duration of our entire lives.
Christmas is the time when roads are jam-packed with holiday shoppers and people stuff themselves full of food and drink. It is not about worshiping Christ at all, but worshiping ourselves and our material possessions. These holidays are a time eerily similar to that of the Israelites, who were brought out of Egypt by God only to begin worshiping false gods associated with a golden calf, celebrating their freedom with song, dance, food and drink, instead of obeying God’s commandments and remaining faithful (Exodus 32). By participating in these traditions and indulgences, we are demonstrating a desire for convenience, comfort and luxury over faith and selfless devotion to Christ.
The only thing Christian about Christmas is the time spent worshiping in church, which is something that should be done all year round – every day should be a celebration of Christ. We don’t need elaborate parades and feasts and public displays of selfish materialism to show genuine devotion. In fact, those things are the opposite of what is needed. Besides the time spent in church, we have the candy cane, which apparently represents a shepherd’s crook (also a “J” for Jesus), painted with Christ’s red blood and his white purity. The church and the candy cane… just about the only two things that put the Christ in Christmas. Everything else about it is steeped in manipulation, dishonesty, ego stroking and idol worship, not at all worthy of His name.