Dear Friendly: Was Jesus really born on Dec. 25? All these songs about snow and cold and shepherds sleeping outside in the fields in icy winter don’t make sense to me.
Not So Sure About This
Dear Not So Sure: I was just a child when I heard some radio preacher say that Jesus was probably not born on Dec. 25. I thought the floor had just been yanked from me. How dare that person question what surely is clear!
Except it is not clear.
First, the Bible does not indicate that the date on our calendar that we call Dec. 25 is the actual birth date. Did you know that our calendars have changed over time? We in the West use the Gregorian calendar, established in 1582. It replaced the Julian calendar, which had by then proved to be inaccurate by about 11 minutes per year — which does add up over the centuries!
Around the time of Jesus, a very different way of measuring times and dates was in place, and the world was also considerably less exact in its time measurements. Things you and I might accomplish in split seconds or just a few hours could then have spanned days, weeks and months or even longer. Those who lived in biblical times would be astonished at our contemporary precision measurements of time and date.
Second, the day of Jesus’ birth was not celebrated at all in early Christianity. From the earliest days of Christianity, the major feast day was Easter, followed by Pentecost. While you and I live in a world that makes Christmas the most important time to pay attention to faith issues, that’s a fairly recent development.
So, when the church did decide to incorporate this season into its calendar of feasts and fasts, it probably co-opted certain winter celebrations that were already part of popular culture.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice, when the sun is at its lowest point and the daylight the shortest, is Dec. 21. Starting Dec. 22, the days start to grow longer again until they reach their fullest length on June 21 and then begin to shorten once more.
Thank about it: What better time for us to celebrate the Light coming into the world — that is, Jesus — than the very time when the light itself is coming back, offering its renewed hope of sun, crops and the rebirth of land and animals?
I recently heard from a reader of my blog who lives in Australia. Many of our holiday songs, with huge percentage centering on snow and snowmen, sleighs and frosty noses, cold winter’s nights and inky black midnight visitations sound crazy to them.
Why? Because they are approaching their summer solstice, it is miserably hot Down Under, and nights are short. They don’t need candles and festive lights to push back the darkness. They’ve got all the light they need right now, thank you.
But we do. We need to bravely light our candles and hold them high, to recognize that frozen ground will eventually yield to plants and plowing once more, to embrace the mystery of the Incarnation, the divine taking on humanity, and the act of holiness joyfully embracing and transforming brokenness, sin and sorrow
Many of the songs you noted are written in the context of northern Europe’s cold, deep winter weather. While not necessarily biblical in historical climate matters, they are biblical in the sense of being in awe of what happened at the birth of the Savior.
Celebrating Christmas this time of the year reminds you and me of our physicalness, our connection with all of nature, and the rhythms of our bodies. Just when we are at our lowest ebb, the light enters again and gives us hope. So, Dec. 25 for the celebration day just makes a lot of sense.
Have a great Christmas!
Your Friendly Christmas Advice-Giver
THE REV. CHRISTY THOMAS is the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Krum. Reach her by calling 940-482-3482 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .