“The Date of Christmas” by Father Panayiotis, Ph.D


The issue of the time of the birth of
Christ has been addressed by many people in our times … scholars, theologians, TV
personalities, actors, politicians, you name it, everyone that you can imagine has talked about it. Some people have even proposed that we should not
continue to hold Christmas as a legitimate feast because the date of
December 25 is not accurate. I don’t know if you’ve heard that but I’ve heard it.
What I intend to do here today is to present to you an overview of this
debate and come to some conclusions from the historical and biblical perspective
and the evidence that is there in an effort to bring about some clarity to
this topic for those who are really concerned that the 25th of December may
not be the correct time to celebrate Christmas, the birth of Christ. So let me
start by saying that there are two pieces of evidence which people present
in support of the position the Christ was not born in December. The first one
is the verse from the Gospel of Luke “and in that region there were Shepherds out
in the field keeping watch over their flock by night,” Luke chapter 2, verse 8.
The argument from this is that December is so cold, too cold
perhaps for shepherds to be in the field watching over their flocks.
Hence, the proponents of this theory claim that Jesus had to be born in the
spring. Recently, I read another article on an online website where the author
was claiming — based on the same reasoning and the same text from the Gospel of
Luke — that Jesus was probably born in the fall [because] it was more appropriate before it
got cold. I am sure that someone else out there must have also claimed that Jesus
was born in the summer instead and maybe we’re gonna have to celebrate Christmas
in July but I don’t know. At first sight any one of these times claimed by the
different theorists may seem reasonable. But without more historical evidence
they are just claims because you cannot rule out the possibility that some
shepherds could have been out there watching over their flocks by the night
in the area of Bethlehem even in December. Why not? What would they do with
their sheep? Shepherds had summer pens for their flocks and then in the winter
they would move their sheep into the caves of the area to protect them from
the cold. That’s a common practice in the Middle East, everywhere, even in Cyprus
and I remember as a child experiencing that. The sheep were not grazing in the
field by night obviously. The shepherds were just guarding their flocks perhaps
taking turns overnight as a sheep were in their pens in the nearby caves
protecting them from thieves. Although the weather in this part of the world
can be cold in December it can also be warm enough for the
Shepherds to still take their flocks out during the day but then bring them
back again inside the caves at night where it is much warmer than it would be
in their summer pens. This is a practice still prevalent in these parts of the Middle
East even until today. The second piece of evidence which the proponents of an
alternate time for Christmas present is the fact that the ancient pagans
celebrated on December 25 the birth of the god Sun. As a follow-up
syllogism they conclude the Christmas, that the Christians adopted December 25
to cover up the pagan feast, ignoring the historical date of his birth. It is in
fact true that many pagan feasts were Christianized during the 4th century and
subsequently even which makes this a reasonable claim. Still, this is no proof
but the birth of Christ did not take place at some time in December even if
it was not exactly on December 25 and even if the Christians intentionally
overlaid the birth of Christ over the pagan feast. So, looking for evidence
where do we go? As we look for more evidence we discover that the feast of
Christmas was first celebrated in the beginning of the fourth century, first in
Rome in the year 336 AD and subsequently in the eastern parts of the Empire by
the end of the fourth century where we find a sermon by Saint John Chrysostom
explaining why celebrating Christmas in December and especially on December 25
is perfectly appropriate. He presents historical evidence from the
events of the New Testament to support this position. St. Chrysostom
preaching at the end of the 4th century in Antioch about ten years after the
feast of Christmas was established in the east — as he himself informs us in this sermon — he offers a contemporary account of the
reasoning behind the choice of December 25 as the day for celebrating the birth
of Christ. He’s addressing people who disputed both
the necessity of the feast as an innovation as well as the time of its
celebration so this is most appropriate for our discussion here. In his comments
St. Chrysostom does not mention the effort by the Christians to remove from
the Roman calendar the pagan worship of the Sun but he lays out a very
distinctly biblical explanation. He starts with the time of the census as
mentioned in Luke Chapter 2, verses 1-7 and points out that this was the first
census which happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. He also points out
that whoever wants to know the exact time of the census can freely search the
ancient codices which are kept in the public libraries of Rome hinting
at the time of the birth of Christ is easily verifiable from the public
records. Chrysostom was himself a trained lawyer of that time with personal
knowledge of governmental records and he points exactly to the source of the
historical evidence. He then continues his argument from a biblical perspective
explaining the Jewish tradition of the censing of the Temple in
Jerusalem by the high priest who would enter the Holy of Holies only once a
year during the Feast of Tabernacles in September. He points to the Gospel of
Luke Chapter 1, verses 8-15 when Zacharias was selected to enter the
Holy of Holies to offer incense. This selection of Zacharias
perhaps happened because there was no high priest at the time during that year and the group of Levites who were on duty at that time
would select if there was no high priest — they were selected by lot according to
tradition — a priest who would make the offering in place of the high priest.
So Zacharias is chosen, he entered the Holy of Holies
and there he had a vision of an angel of the Lord who announced to him the birth
of his son whom he was to call John. Soon after that his wife Elizabeth
became pregnant. Continuing with a biblical narrative, Chrysostom points out
that six months later the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary and announces
to her that she would bear the Son of God
and also reveals to her that her cousin Elizabeth is already in her sixth month
of pregnancy. This is Luke Chapter 1 verses 30 -37. So, Elizabeth became
pregnant in September and the Virgin Mary becomes pregnant in March.
Chrysostom concludes that Elizabeth had become pregnant in the latter part
of September after the Feast of Tabernacles and the Virgin Mary became
pregnant six months later in the latter part of
March. If then we count nine months from that time we end up at the latter part
of December as simple as that. Which is the time when Jesus was born. Hence, he
concludes the celebration of Christmas on December 25 is fully justified.
Now that’s Chrysostom seventeen hundred years ago. The fact is that we do not
know the exact date of Christ’s birth but the Christians of the fourth century had
calculated the time of his birth using whatever evidence was available to them
and concluded with December as the month. They were much closer to the original
event and much closer to the people who had experienced it than any person of
today. Their decision was biblically and historically based and it might as
well be much closer to the real day than any modern guesses. It is possible,
however, that the decision to establish the celebration of Christmas of December
25 — and not on December 20th or the 24th or whatever date would have been
the real date of the birth of Christ — was indeed intentional. There is a chance
that this indeed intentional to be the 25th aiming at quashing the pagan feast
of the god Sun. Although Chrysostom is silent about this
in his homily — he never mentions anything about — it it is indeed possible
that the Christians sought to substitute the celebration of the birth of the
god Sun with the birth of the Son of God. This
seems to have become one more victory for them against the dwindling pagan
religion which worshiped the creation rather than the creator. They were
comfortable that the season of his birth was the right one and December 25 seemed
perfectly good to them. Hence for those of you who have been worried about it,
have been worried that they might be celebrating Christmas at the wrong time,
please enjoy the joyful feast and find comfort in the fact that the early
Christians knew what they were doing when they decided that December 25 would be the date.
Christmas is the only Christian feast that unites us all in the one
faith that the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, has become man in
the person of our Lord Jesus Christ who assumed our humanity so that He can
perfect it in Himself and save it. In him, humanity perfectly and unconfusedly
united to His divinity was preserved sinless and it was perfected in obedience to
God just as God intended for us from the very beginning. He then allowed His
sinless humanity to die on the cross so that He can raise it from the dead and
glorify it internally in Himself as He ascended to heaven and is seated at the
right hand of the Father … continuing to be the theanthropos, the
Godman through whom we find salvation. December 25 is a perfectly good day to
celebrate this amazing work of God for us. Merry Christmas
brothers and sisters. καλά Χριστούγεννα. Thank you!

13 thoughts on ““The Date of Christmas” by Father Panayiotis, Ph.D”

  1. Besides the historical evidence, there is nothing wrong with pointing out the symbolism of the winter solstice- which St Gregory of Nyssa actually does in his Homily on the feast of the Nativity.
    The winter solstice is recognized in many religions as the most beneficial time of the year, the moment when the descending movement of the Sun is halted and the ascending cycle begins- with a gradual victory for light over darkness. So the Son of God is born when darkness engulfed the world and seemed triumphant and through His Birth, the victory of the true Light of God begins.

    If we understand natural symbolism and we understand that certain significances of this symbolism were understood by pre-Christian peoples as well, then there is nothing surprising that the pagans also held this date in honor, although from a merely naturalistic reason.
    As always, Christianity transfigures both nature and the old law, raising them to an entirely new level.

  2. B a s i m a .
    1 marginal note, regarding the farming in historical times :
    even here at Finland, all husbandry animals were kept outdoors all around year.
    it was perhaps only 500 – 600 years ago, when people started to build first separate shelters also to their husbandry animals. – at least, in Finland's area.
    [ solid-housing-people started to move here from south, perhaps ~1000-1500 years ago? ]
    [[ at Scandinavia, we still have at least one live-proof about that outdoor-breeding :
    at Norway, there is still living a wild-sheep: middle of stormy snows! ]]

  3. Where can I read these writings of Saint John Chrysostom, particularly those around the 6 minute mark onwards? Do you have a link to this? Thank you.

  4. Is there anything that St John Chrysostom didn’t do?
    He is worth a video in himself.
    Thanks so much for this open and transparent review of the sources.

  5. I was born and raised roman catholic. I was losing faith due to the commercial impact on the Christian holidays. Mainly Christmas and Easter. I found out that satan is waiting for those weak in faith. Jehovah's witnesses started to come by my house after a few years of this I became one of them mostly due to lies like the one this video explains. I wasted 10 yrs of mine and my families life with this sect. My thought of keeping christ in Christmas and not focusing on commercial aspects was caught by satan and perverted my thoughts into Christmas is a complete lie. God forgive me I was only trying to keep God first and satan was devouring me. Thank God I was baptized this past pashca and am now Orthodox catholic! Glory to God and me and my family are lucky.

  6. Respected Sir, outstanding discourse! Superb conclusion, Christmas 25th Dec, if not many of us would probably have to buy 2x gifts… Thank you very much!

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