Why is Christmas on December 25?

Answering those pesky Christmas questions

If you wonder why Christmas is on December 25, I’m here to answer that stupid question.

Hanging out on Facebook, I saw a post stating there’s nowhere in the bible saying December 25 is the date Jesus was born. Of course, there were a bunch of responses in agreement, but, just like Facebook, no one shared how and why December 25 came to be. 

Then there’s stupid me asking a co-worker if the 12 days of Christmas start before Christmas or after Christmas. To my surprise, he knew the answer right away. He was so nonchalant with his response, I felt like a complete idiot for asking the question. But, as we all know, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Right?

Here’s my attempt to help explain the 12 Days of Christmas and how December 25 came to become Christmas.

First, there actually is a bible reference about when Jesus was born. In Luke 2:8, it talks about how the shepherds are tending to their flocks when the news of His birth comes. This suggests a spring date, rather than the traditional one of December 25, because in December, one would think that the sheep would be corralled inside for the winter.

Probably not the answer we’re all looking for, but this helps justify that December 25 is a manmade date we’ll never understand.

It does help to understand how religious holidays like Christmas and Easter line up in the Christian calendar. They probably taught this stuff in Sunday School, but I don’t remember. It goes something like this.

The birth and the resurrection of Jesus are the two anchor events of the Christian liturgical calendar. Way back in the 3rd century somebody decided December 25th would be the day we’d observe the birth of Jesus. Some say it was a Roman thing to coincide with the time of year they were celebrating some pagan holiday, but that was so long ago, no one really knows. 

What we do know is Christmas can occur on any day of the week whereas Easter always falls on some random Sunday in the spring making folks wonder if Jesus really arose on a Sunday or if that’s manmade, too. 

Knowing how the Christian liturgical calendar is laid out helps us understand some of the logic between the dates for Christmas and Easter. 

The Christian liturgical calendar starts with Advent, which means ‘to go’ or ‘to come.’ In this case Jesus is coming to the earth. The Advent season can start on any date between November 27 and December 3.

Easter is connected to, and follows, the Jewish Passover. The Passover is connected to the vernal equinox in the Spring. Some early Christians literally celebrated it on the exact day of the vernal equinox but it ended up being celebrated on the Sunday that follows the vernal equinox because Christians like to celebrate on Sunday. 

So, Easter is observed on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. Because of that, Easter can take place as early as March 22 but no later than April 25. This full moon is normally the full moon which takes place on the 14th day of Nisan which is the first day of Passover. Therefore, in most years Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following Passover.

If you back that up 46 days, you come to the start of lent which we call Ash Wednesday. Lent goes for 40 days, not counting the Sundays, with the last Sunday of lent being Palm Sunday just 7 days before Easter. 

On the 7th Sunday after Easter, Christians celebrate Pentecost. Pentecost is the annual Christian festival commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus after his ascension from earth to heaven on Ascension Day. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter. Pentecost means "fiftieth day", as it is celebrated on Pentecost Sunday, the 50th day of the Easter season.

Next on the liturgical calendar is Ordinary Time. Nothing happens during Ordinary Time. That goes to about November 30 which is 4 weeks before Christmas and considered the beginning of Advent. Advent lasts for four Sundays. 

The Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day, December 25th. The twelfth day ends at midnight on January 5th. The Holy Day of the Epiphany when the Wise Men caught up with Jesus is on January 6. Tradition has it that all Christmas decorations should be left up until the Epiphany.

Following Epiphany, Ordinary Time starts again until Ash Wednesday. 

This could be a great conversation starter if it gets quiet at the holiday dinner table.

Read Chester Matters Issue 8 – “Religion” for more of this type of good news from the religions community.