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Why Dec. 25th? Church settled on ‘Christ’s birth day’ centuries later

By Joseph Kelly

Catholic News Service

CLEVELAND, Ohio (CNS) – The gospel accounts of the Nativity (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2) do not say what day Jesus was born. There were attempts to calculate the day, but by the third century Christians realized this was impossible.

REFLECTION OF ST. PETER'S BASILICA SEEN ON ORNAMENT – St. Peter's Basilica is seen reflected on a Christmas ornament hanging on the Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican last December. (CNS/Reuters)
REFLECTION OF ST. PETER'S BASILICA SEEN ON ORNAMENT – St. Peter's Basilica is seen reflected on a Christmas ornament hanging on the Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican last December. (CNS/Reuters)

So they tried other ways to determine a date for Jesus' birth:

- Many people believed the world was re-created on the first day of spring (March 25 of the Julian calendar followed in ancient Rome). How appropriate, then, for the world's redeemer to become incarnate that day!

- Other scholars argued that Jesus became incarnate not at his birth but at his conception. If Jesus was conceived March 25, he would be born nine months later, Dec. 25.

This date didn't catch on immediately, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean region where people believed Jesus was born Jan. 6. But in the West Dec. 25 had much appeal. Why?

Many Romans venerated the sun, whose birthday was Dec. 25, or a virility god named Mithra with the same birthday. Also, the Romans observed a raucous celebration called Saturnalia Dec. 17-23. Thus, Dec. 25 offered a date with a good theological basis that also would counter several pagan holidays.

Although we don't know the final steps, in 336 the church at Rome officially observed the "birth day of Christ" Dec. 25. This tradition spread. But what about Jan. 6? The church decided to use that day for Jesus' manifestation to the whole world, symbolized by the Magi.

The Magi were three kings, Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, right? Not really. Matthew's Gospel speaks only of Magi; it doesn't call them kings, or say they rode camels or give their names.

The early Christians looked to the Old Testament for prophecies relating to Jesus. One prophecy in Isaiah said that foreigners traveling on camels would bring gold and frankincense to the Messiah, while a psalm spoke of kings coming.

Naturally the Christians interpreted the Messiah as Jesus, and the only foreigners who brought him gifts were the Magi. So by the third century we find Christians speaking of the Magi as kings riding camels.

How many Magi were there?

A great Egyptian scholar, Origen, found a Genesis passage in which three pagans honored the Hebrew patriarch Isaac. Origen said the three symbolized the Magi, but didn't say why.

Names for the Magi do not appear until the sixth century; all are fictional. "Balthasar" may be a corruption of Belteshazzar, a Babylonian king in the Book of Daniel. "Melchior" may be a combination of two Hebrew words for "king" and "light." And "Caspar" may derive from the name of an Indian king converted by early Christians.

These names first appear in the West in a sixth-century mosaic in the church of St. Apollinaris Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

The date for Christmas may have been settled by the fourth century, but legends of the Magi grew throughout the Middle Ages.

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Joseph Kelly, the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, is the author of The Origins of Christmas.

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Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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