On December 25, more than two billion people across the globe celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s estimated that 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, including non-Christians.
Believers gather for the midnight mass at their local church, families travel long distances for large feasts and children eagerly await the arrival of gifts under the tree.
But despite all of the excitement and the focus on December 25, it is actually highly unlikely that Mary gave birth to Jesus on this day. If we’re talking percentages, historians might put the odds at 1 in 365. It’s also historically unlikely that Jesus’ birth coincides with the year 1 A.D.
What are the clues that indicate Jesus’ actual birthday? And why do we celebrate at the end of December?
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Based on the Biblical Story, It’s More Likely That Jesus Was Born During the Spring
The Bible tells the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem in order to participate in an empire-wide census. Mary was pregnant and there was no room at the inn. The innkeeper allowed them to stay in the barn with the animals. That is where Mary gave birth to Jesus and put him in the manger.
The next part of the story gives us a clue as to the time of year this may have happened. The Gospel of Luke, as written in the King James Bible, explains: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
2. King Herod, Who the Bible Identifies as Ordering the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ in an Attempt to Find & Kill Jesus, Is Believed to Have Died in 4 B.C.
Anyone who has ever attended Bible school or been told the Christmas story as a child knows the name King Herod the Great. He was the Jewish King of Judea, which was part of the Roman empire.
The Biblical account says that when the Magi were following the star to find Jesus, they visited Herod along the way. As explained in the Gospel of Matthew, they told Herod that a King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem. Herod instructed the Magi to return so as to inform him where he could also find the child. However, the Magi were told in a dream not to return to Herod, as the story goes.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod was less than pleased at this turn of events. History remembers Herod as a paranoid and brutal murder (he killed three of his own sons as well as his favorite wife). He did not want a rival King of the Jews. As Matthew writes:
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”
*It’s worth mentioning that the Massacre of the Innocents is reported only in the Bible. There is no other historical record of Herod ordering such a slaughter.
Regardless, the Bible places Jesus’ birth and the massive slaughter as happening during Herod’s reign. But King Herod died in 4 B.C. That leads to the conclusion that Jesus must have been born sometime near 6 B.C., not 1 A.D.
3. Pope Benedict XVI: The Monk Who Wrote the Christian Calendar Made a Mistake In His Calculations
Historians, as well as Pope Benedict XVI, have acknowledged glaring discrepancies in the early calendar. For starters, there is no Year Zero. It would make sense that after the year 1 B.C., there would be a zero before moving on to 1 A.D.
To compare to modern times: We had a year 2000. We did not skip from 1999 straight to 2001.
A monk named Dionysius Exiguus is said to have written the Christian calendar during the 6th century. Pope Benedict explained in his 2012 book “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives,” that the monk had “made a mistake in his calculations by several years. The actual date of Jesus’ birth was several years before.”
Pope Benedict also took care to explain in his book that the Gospels were not always necessarily historically accurate, especially in terms of dates, because that was not the point of the account. TIME magazine published an excerpt when the book was first released. Benedict explained, “The aim of the evangelists was not to produce an exhaustive account but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word. The infancy narratives are interpreted history, condensed and written down in accordance with the interpretation.”
4. Astronomers: The ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Does Not Help Pin Down the Month of Jesus’ Birth
The Biblical story explains that the Magi learned of the birth of a King of the Jews when they saw a star in the east. But the Star of Bethlehem was more than likely not a star at all. And the presence of a celestial object does not pinpoint an exact date of Jesus’ birth because it would have been visible in the sky for weeks.
Scientists say it’s possible that what was viewed in the sky could have been either a comet or a supernova. Both would have been bright enough to be visible from great distances. As explained in Space.com, a comet can be seen with the naked eye for several weeks at a time, so it is conceivable that the Magi could have followed it.
Astronomers say a supernova is the most likely scientific explanation. A supernova appears suddently and can be incredibly bright. But after it fades, it leaves behind no evidence that it was ever there. That would help explain why astronomers have struggled to find any tangible evidence of a “Star of Bethlehem.”
Another major issue to consider is that the Magi would have taken several months to travel to Bethlehem, assuming they started their journey from Babylon. (The Book of Daniel mentions King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon speaking to magicians or wise men).
5. December 25 Coincides With the Roman Pagan Festival of Saturnalia
It would seem that the primary reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is because it coincides with a Roman pagan holiday. The festival of Saturnalia was celebrated in mid-winter to honor the agricultural god Saturn. According to History.com, the final day of the festival fell on the winter solstice, which is December 25.
Romans decorated their homes with wreaths and other green ornaments. No one, including slaves, had to work during the festival. It was also customary to give gifts on the final day of the festival. It was a period of good will and throwing parties. (Sound familiar?)
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire in 323 AD. Church leaders began the practice of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. Sam Moorhead, an advisor at the British Museum, explained to the BBC that rulers converted Saturnalia into a Christian holiday because it would not have been advisable to cancel the popular festival. “If Christianity moves Christmas into December, at the Saturnalia and the birthday of Sol, you can then fade out these other festivals and incorporate elements into the Christian festival. You can attempt to move on as if nothing has happened.”
Celebrating Christmas on December 25 continues to have symbolic importance. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, with the smallest amount of daylight. The Bible describes Jesus as the “light of the world,” therefore it is fitting that the celebration of his birth would coincide with the earth coming out of darkness.