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12/21/2007 Archived Entry: "The Date of Christmas"
One of the vexed questions about Christmas is the precise date of the Birth of Christ. All manner of theories have been propounded, with some confidently stating he was actually born in 4BC, with September 25 being the relevant day and month. The truth is, however, that despite the importance of Christ, there is no record of his actual birth. Most of what we know has come to us through the gospels along with the verbal tradition of the Church.
A major problem is the number of different calendars and countries involved. One method of calculation, often quoted in learned volumes, uses AUC and so we learn that Christ might have been born in AUC 750. AUC comes from Anno Urbis Conditae, the years since the building of Rome. Thus AUC 750 is 750 years after the building of Rome.
St Matthew clearly states that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King." Herod died in AUC 750 and it is widely accepted that this period could accommodate the key events in the life of Christ as we know it, e.g. his birth, the visit of the Wise Men from the East, the retreat into Egypt, the Slaughter of the Innocents and the death of Herod.
For those who believe the Star of Bethlehem led the Wise Men to the stable at the inn where the infant Christ could be visited, it is known that there was a remarkable conjunction of two planets in May, October and November of the year AUC 747. This led local astrologers to conclude something very important was about to happen and this places the Birth somewhere between the middle of AUC 747 and the end of AUC 749. These dates correspond to our 7BC and 5BC.
There are other calculations, too many to expound in this diary, but if the actual year of Christís birth is open to interpretation, then so are the day and month. There is wide belief that it was the 25th day of a month, but which month is open to question. Five dates in three different Egyptian months have been suggested, and oddly one of them corresponds to December 25.
In the third century, however, it was long thought Christ was born today, December 21 and many nations agreed with this. However, it was pointed out that, in the accounts of his birth, there is mention of shepherds with their flocks in the fields. It is argued that this places His Birth between the end of July and the end of October.
Not surprisingly, the early Church did not celebrate Christmas as we know it, preferring to expend their energies on marking the resurrection at Easter. Exactly when the date of Christmas Day was determined at December 25 is also open to question.
It is known that it followed what became known as The Great Persecution that was around AD 310-320, with some experts identifying the date as AD 336. In that year, the Pope fixed the date as December 25 with the Epiphany (January 6) coming twelve days later. By the fifth century, those dates had been accepted universally.
Those dates closely coincided with a period that contained many heathen festivals, and for a time the symbolism of the new young Church was mingled with the practices of the heathens. For example, the Roman heathens held their Saturnalia between December 17 and 21, and then celebrated The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun when the days began to lengthen after today, ie the solstice. The date of their festival was December 25.
There was also a festival called Juvenilia that celebrated childhood and youth, when gifts were exchanged. That was on January 1. There is no doubt the new festival of Christmas brought together people of many religions and nationalities. Letís hope it will continue to do so.