According to popular tradition, Christmas is celebrated on 25th December to honour the birth of Jesus. However, no records exist in the Bible or elsewhere to suggest that Jesus was actually born on this date, which raises the important question – why is Christmas celebrated on 25th December? In fact, the selection of this date has its root in both Persian and pagan traditions.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia admits “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth” (Catholic Encyclopaedia).
There are, however, a number of reasons to suggest that Jesus was probably not born in December. Firstly, Luke 2:8 states that on the night of Jesus’ birth “there were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.”
Many scholars agree that this would have been unlikely in December, as shepherds would have been keeping their flock under cover during the cold winter months.
Secondly, it is written in the Bible that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). However, such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition.
Since it appears unlikely that Jesus was born on 25th December, it raises the logical question of why Christmas is celebrated on this date. The answer points back to the Romans’ pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Two celebrations in particular took place around December 25 – the Saturnalia, and the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra (Catholic Encyclopedia).
The Saturnalia festival began on 17th December and later expanded with festivities through to the 25th December. It paid tribute to Saturn, the agricultural God of Sowing and Husbandry, and was associated with the renewal of light and the coming of the new year. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn, a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere
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