Was Jesus really born on 25 December?

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1. Born on Christmas Day

Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December. However, early believers didn't mark the event as they considered it a pagan practice. They also expected their Messiah to return soon and bring about the end of the world as foretold in biblical prophecies.

But by the 3rd Century Christians had begun to organise their ministry and debate the merits of various feast days to mark Jesus’ birth. Suggestions for Christmas included 21 March and 20 May.

Yet by 336AD the Church of Rome, now accepted by the Roman Empire, had settled on 25 December. How they got there reveals much about the young religion.

2. How did they decide?

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke didn’t mention when Jesus' birth was. So why did the Roman Church adopt 25 December?

Pagan festival

Did they adopt Saturnalia, a Roman festival of gift-giving and feasting that was celebrated in December?

This is

Unlikely

Saturnalia was celebrated earlier in December and Christian writers don't mention adapting their calendar to fit in with it. Pagan revelry was adopted later.

Celebrating sun god

Did they adopt the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus, and simply replace Sol with Jesus as the 'light of the world'?

This

Probably helped

Debate about 25 December preceded Rome's adoption of Christianity, so it wasn't where the date came from. But it could be why Roman Christians then favoured it.

As good a date as any

Could it have been a random selection from the Roman Julian calendar?

This is

Unlikely

Early Christians were steeped in theology, using reason to increase their grasp of their religion. They would have had a rationale for picking 25 December.

Religious reason

Early Christians mined the scriptures for symbolic meaning as well as facts. Could this have influenced their choice for Christmas?

This is

Likely

Christian authors writing in the 3rd Century were exploring theological arguments for when Jesus might have been conceived and therefore born nine months later.

3. ANIMATION: Journey to 25 December

Christian scholars studied scriptures and symbolic meanings to decide when to celebrate Jesus' birthday. Watch the animation below to discover how they came to 25 December...

4. Christmas traditions

How well do you know the nativity story? Find out below what is tradition and what is written in the Bible.

Midnight birth

Jesus was born at midnight.

This came from

A tradition

The Gospels only say he was born at night. Midnight became popular in the 4th Century as a Bible passage (Wis.18: 14-15) said God's words leapt to Earth then.

Three wise men

Three wise men or kings – called Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior – visited Jesus.

This came from

A tradition

The Bible only describes Magi bearing three gifts for Jesus. The number of Magi was recorded by a 3rd Century Alexandrian and their names date from the 6th.

Toddlers killed

Herod didn't just kill newborns in Bethlehem.

This came from

The Bible

The Gospel of Matthew says King Herod ordered the murder of boys 'two years old and under'.

Hostile innkeeper

An innkeeper refused Mary and Joseph entrance to his dwelling.

This came from

A tradition

The Gospel of Luke simply says there was no room at the lodging place. No innkeeper is mentioned. The role was probably created for medieval nativity plays.