December 25th was almost certainly not the day of Christ’s birth!  That date was not fixed on till the 5th century.  Would it affect your faith if you heard that Jesus was born in the middle of August, for instance, or at the end of February…?  Would it at least ruin your Christmas?  Would it shock you even more to know that scholars are not even sure of the year of his birth?  But one thing is sure: he was not born in the year 0, because there was no such year!  (1 B.C. was followed immediately by 1 A.D.)  His birth is usually put at 3 or 4 B.C. 
    December 25th is the winter solstice (more or less), the shortest day in the year.  Christmas festivals, generally observed by Christians since the 4th century, incorporate pagan customs, such as the use of holly, mistletoe, Yule logs, and so on.
    Many other things that we might have imagined deriving from Bethlehem itself are of much more recent origin.  The Christmas tree, an evergreen trimmed with lights and other decorations, is derived from the so-called paradise tree, symbolising Eden, of German mystery plays. The use of a Christmas tree began in the early 1600s, in Strasbourg, France, spreading from there through Germany and then into northern Europe.  In 1841 Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the Christmas tree custom to Britain, and presumably to Ireland, if there was any humour for Christmas trees in pre-Famine and Famine times here.  Emigrants from Britain carried the custom to America.
    Meanwhile, Dutch settlers in America had brought with them the custom of celebrating St. Nicholas' Day on December 6th, and especially St. Nicholas' Eve, when gifts were given to children, of whom the saint was patron.  British settlers there took over the tradition as part of their own Christmas eve celebration.  The English name of the legendary jolly, red-garbed man who delivers presents to good children at Christmas, Santa Claus, is derived from the name 'St Nicholas' (say it fast and it sounds like Santa Claus). 
     If any of that information disappoints you, let me assure you that our faith doesn’t rest on dates or customs or folklore, but on the simple accounts of the life and death of Jesus that the gospels give us.  It is true that St Luke takes care to show that the events he is recounting are precisely located in history: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar  -  when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” (3:1).  But it is enough to know that the Word became flesh in human history; we don’t need to put exact numbers on it. 

                Celebrating the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice has immense symbolic meaning, however, and that is why the date was chosen in the first place.  When the days are shortest and it looks as if the sun is abandoning the world to darkness… suddenly the sun begins to return, and the days lengthen!  The Sun is returning to us!  It is the surprise of Newgrange, experienced since 3,200 B.C.  But symbolically it is the surprise of the Incarnation: the Light has come into a dark world…. “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).


Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.