Whether they call themselves "Christians" or not, most people who celebrate Christmas and exchange presents on that day think the day honors the birth of Jesus Christ and the giving of gifts to the Christ child by the three wise men. They think the holiday originates in the Bible and is taken directly from the scriptures. Many of us were reared with that belief, but some people might be quite surprised to find out the real truth of the matter.
The whole story
We need to ask ourselves what December 25 really pictures. Is it truly the anniversary of the birth of Christ as the world supposes or does it picture something else? Let’s go to God’s word to hear the truth. In order to understand the full story though, we need to go back to a time more than a year before Jesus’ birth as shown in the first chapter of the book of Luke.
We read, “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth” (Luke 1:5).
Zacharias was of the priestly line of the sons of Aaron. As a priest, he served in the temple during the year. There were so many priests, however, that there were too many to serve in the temple all the time. Because of that, King David split the priestly service assignments were into 24 groups or divisions (1 Chronicles 24:3-4).
The actual choosing of the divisions was made through an appeal to God by casting lots with the eighth lot assigned to Abijah (1 Chronicles 24:5, 1 Chronicles 24:10).
During the year, the priests comprising each division served in the temple for a period of two weeks: one week in the first half of the year and one week in the second half of the year. In addition, all priests served for one week at each of the three holy day times throughout the year.
While Zacharias was doing his priestly duties in the temple, he was visited by an angel with a message. In Luke 1:11-13, we read “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’”
Skipping down to Luke 1:23-24: “So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months…”
If you were to count off the weeks, you would find that there were three divisions of the sons of Aaron who served as priests during the three weeks of the first month, Abib; then there were four more who served during the second month, Iyar; then the eighth division of Abijah served during the first week of the third month of Sivan, which equates to our late May and June. So Zacharias would have returned to his home in probably early to mid-June and Elizabeth would have become pregnant shortly thereafter.
We saw that for five months Elizabeth hid herself. That would bring us up to about mid-November. The account continues in the next verse and tells us that in Elizabeth’s sixth month, or probably about early December, the angel Gabriel brought news. We read, “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!’ But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.…Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren.’…Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah,and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit….And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her house (Luke 1:26-33, Luke 1:36, Luke 1:39, Luke 1:56).
The birth of Christ
As we follow the clear chronology specified in the scriptures, it is very easy to see that John the Baptist was, most likely, born about the time of Passover in mid- to late March. We also read that Mary had stayed with Elizabeth for three months from the time of Gabriel's announcement of Mary's conception of Jesus. Therefore, if Mary had about six months left to go in her pregnancy, it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus was born roughly six months after John the Baptist.
Admittedly, we’ve made some assumptions in our chronology and might be off by a week or two but we cannot be off by much. It’s clear to see from the sequence of events that Jesus was not born in late December. But that is not the only evidence from scripture.
Let’s continue reading in the second chapter of Luke, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the entire world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:1-8).
The Book of Ezra gives us a report on what the weather was like in Israel in the ninth month, Chislev, which equates to late November/early December: “But there are many people; it is the season for heavy rain, and we are not able to stand outside…” (Ezra 10:13).
Even current weather data show that the month of December in Israel is during the rainy or even snowy season with average nighttime temperatures slightly below freezing. Remember that the emperor in Rome had called for a census to be taken of "the entire world" (which means throughout his whole empire) as we read in verse one. Remember also that the Roman Empire reached all the way from the British Isles in the west to Persia in the east and from northern Africa in the south to almost Germany in the north. It was an empire that went from sea level of the Mediterranean to the snow-capped mountains of northern Italy and France. Surely, if it was cold and rainy or possibly snowy in December in Bethlehem, there would be many parts of the empire where it would have been colder and snowier with travel even more impassable. Does it make sense that the emperor would call for an empire-wide census at a time of year when travel was so difficult? Don’t forget, Christ’s birth was at a time of year when the shepherds were still in the fields keeping watch over their sheep at night.
As we can see all the pieces to the puzzle don’t fit for a December birth of Christ? Let’s see what other authorities have to say on the subject. In Adam Clarke’s Commentary, we can read "as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary, note on Luke 2:8).
Yet, despite acknowledging that Christ was not born in December, some still see keeping Christmas as a way to celebrate His birth even if it wasn’t on that day. I encourage you to look into the pagan origins of December 25 as a holiday by requesting our free study aid Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe?
Is it pleasing to God to have old festivals celebrating worship of pagan gods renamed in honor of God or of His son, Jesus Christ? Jeremiah 10:2-4 shows us just what God thinks when we adopt the ways of the Gentiles in preference to His ways: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple.’”
Remember God’s second commandment and who we really should worship (Exodus 20:4-6). That is our duty – to show God that we love Him by doing His will by keeping His commandments daily.
So, the question for anyone who keeps Christmas is this: By your actions, who do you show God you are really worshipping on December 25?
To learn more about what holy days God has designed us to keep, read our free study aid God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.