There are some Christmas traditions that are old and some that are new. Of the newer ones, the tradition of pointing out that Jesus was not likely born in December is one that is heard more and more frequently. It will often be noted that Christians just stole the Roman holiday of Saturnalia and Christianized it for their own evangelistic purposes. Critics of Christianity will often use this fact to suggest that the faith as a whole is a fabrication, a deliberate creation for some nefarious purpose.
There is a fair amount of scholarship to suggest that the Church did not simply steal the Saturnalia, but figured the date of Jesus’ birth built on the assumption that the date of Jesus’ conception was the same as the date of his crucifixion: March 25 (nine months before December 25). In spite of that, it is a fair comment to note that we have no real way of knowing the actual date of Jesus’ birth. But that doesn’t mean that the December 25 date is not true, even if it didn’t actually happen that way.
The Truth Behind December 25th
In the northern hemisphere, where the ancient church found itself, the third week in December also coincided with the winter solstice, and the accompanying Saturnalia celebration of the Romans and the Yule celebration of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. It is the time of the year when the days are shortest, the night is longest, and the darkness dominates. In the midst of this time comes the Light of the World. There is no nativity story in John’s gospel, but he starts off his gospel with a reflection entirely appropriate to Christmas: “…through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:4-5 CEB).
We know that Christmas is not about the buying of things or the giving and receiving of presents, but neither is it simply about the birth of a child. Christmas is about the Incarnation of the Word in the flesh. It is about the very self-communication of God taking on our life, our joys and our sorrows, our triumphs and our sufferings, even our death. It is about the radical declaration of God’s solidarity with us and with the creation. A declaration of solidarity so powerful that it is a light shining in the darkness.
For what the solidarity of God means is that there is no darkness into which we can go that God’s light does not come with us. There is no sorrow, no suffering, no injustice, no pain in which we are alone, in which we are removed from God. It is a light that shines in the darkness.
And lights shining in the darkness are powerful signs of hope. I once had a conversation with a rabbi who told me that he loved Christmas. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut where the winters can be long and dreary. But at Christmastime, the city came alive with lights: colorful, festive, lights illumining the dark days and long nights of winter. Bringing hope and joy into a dreary season. The Christmas festival itself, then, becomes a metaphor for Christ himself: the light shining in the darkness that brings hope.
And so, whatever might have been Jesus’ actual date of birth, whatever the associations might have been with early Christian theological calculations or with pagan celebrations, there is a truth to December 25th as the date we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world: that even in the darkest days, when the nights are longest and the sun’s light seems fleeting, we are not without the light. That here in the darkest time of the year, the coming of Christ lets us proclaim with the prophet Isaiah: “Arise! Shine! For your light has come.”