The Advent Season is upon us once again. All who truly love the Lord wish to remember His birth, whether it be December 25th or some other preferred date. On September 29th 2007 I wrote an article in this series entitled “Michaelmas”, in which I suggested there was good reason to suppose it commemorated the birth of Christ. Today I would like to focus on the word “Christmas”, and see what can be learned from historical documents.
No one is certain just when December 25th was first celebrated as the birthday of Jesus. However, in AD 386 John Chrysostom preached a sermon on December 20th, in which he said that he looked forward to Christmas in five days time. The first actual reference to 25th December being the birthday of Jesus has been found in a Roman city calendar for the year AD 354. It was called Chronographos Anni CCCLIIII (i.e. the Chronograph of the year 354). In the calendar was the following entry – VIII Kal. Ian. Natus Christus in Betleem Iudaea – meaning that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea on the 8th day before the Kalends of January, which was December 25th.
In AD 274 the Romans designated December 25 as the birthday of the unconquered sun, that a festival should be kept at the winter solstice, and in Latin it was called DIES NATALIS INVICTI SOLIS and lasted seven days, known also as the Saturnalia and Brumalia festivals. In ancient Babylon and Egypt this festival was also kept, symbolised by a mother (the old year) bringing forth a manchild (the new year) as the Sun once again began to rise after the solstice. Constantine, being a great traditionalist, could well have had this in mind in promoting December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth. How convenient! The birth of the Unconquered Sun, and the birth of God’s Son. Why make a tidal wave throughout the empire by trying to establish some alternative date? Such is the reasoning of some, who think they have made an historical discovery. But the trouble is, there is no factual evidence to back this up.
William Brown Galloway makes this useful comment in his book, The Chain of Ages, (1881) page 574.
“Zachariah, the father of the Baptist, is described by St. Luke as a priest of the Course of Abijah; and it is recorded that it was his lot to burn incense in the order of his Course, at the time when the vision occurred to him in the Temple. He burned incense; therefore it has been affirmed (contrary to fact, however) by Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Theophylact and many others that he was the HIGH PRIEST, and that it was on the occasion on which the High Priest went alone into the Holy of Holies, which was only once a year, on the great Day of Atonement, in the month Tishri; which they determined to be on the 24th September. Consequently, they concluded, his wife Elizabeth’s conception of John the Baptist took place just after; [September 29th, perhaps?] and the Annunciation by the angel to the Virgin Mary was ‘in the sixth month’, so, taking an interval of six full months, instead of only a little over five (Luke 1:24-26) they thought it to be proved that the Annunciation to the Virgin was on the 25th March, and nine months afterwards, the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. The illustrious Scaliger has well demonstrated the transparent error and baselessness of their reasoning.”
Our present Calendar was set in motion by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th Century. Here is an interesting historical note about his study and proposal.
Dionysius Exiguus (Literally, Dennis the Lesser AD~470-~544) was a Roman Catholic Abbott from the Ukraine. He was a scholar of no mean attainment. It was because of this that Pope John I in 525 AD called upon Dionysius to draw up a table for computing the future dates of Easter. In 532 AD Dionysius produced his book Liber de Paschate. Right at the start of this book were the words “Anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi DXXXII” (Latin for “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 532,” or A.D. 532)
In a letter to Bishop Petronius, Dionysius explained his reasoning for the new way of numbering the years. Up until this time it had been custom to number the years according to the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) He said, “We have been unwilling to connect our cycle with the name of an impious persecutor [Diocletian], but have chosen rather to note the years from the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the end that the commencement of our hope might be better known to us and that the cause of man’s restoration, namely, our Redeemer’s passion, might appear with clearer evidence” (Migne, Vol. 67, 1865, p. 20, “Epistolae Duae De Ratione Paschae,” English translation of Latin text). He calculated that the 248th year of the Diocletian era corresponded with the 532nd year from Jesus’ birth.
In the early centuries AD the Eastern Church tended to treat September 1st as the day of Creation, whereas the Alexandrian Church used March 25th for this epochal date. Dionysius believed the Alexandrian computation to be the correct one, and as a result he looked upon that day as of extreme importance, and therefore settled for March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception, followed exactly nine months later by December 25th as the date of His birth. (Nevertheless, December 25th had been celebrated quite a while before this.) He also believed the date of the crucifixion to be March 25th. The result was that Jesus’ birthday was set as December 25th in the Roman year AUC 753, the year we designate BC 1. Dionysius made the following year, AUC 754, the beginning of his new system of dating, and called it Anno Domini 1. (“In the year of our Lord, One.”)
In England and much of Europe March 25th was regarded as the first day of the year for official purposes until the mid-18th century, which comes as a shock to many. We wonder what would have happened if Dionysius had chosen the September date for creation. Would he have made this the day of Christ’s birth instead of December 25th? Probably not, based on the fact that Christmas had been celebrated for many years prior to his computations. Much mystery is still attached to the origin of the Quarter Days, but we prefer to think of them as related to Jesus and John the Baptist, together with the Church, but out of phase with her understanding of it.
Finally, an additional word about the Quarter Days.
No one is quite sure how the Quarter Days came into being, but one thing is sure. From the earliest days the Church has quoted them in connection with John the Baptist and Jesus. It is therefore reasonable to assume that this could have been the true origin of the dates. And by the way, there is no synchronism between the Quarter Days and the Solsticial and Equinoctial dates. We may therefore rule out any connection with astronomy. Here are the dates for comparison.
It will be seen at a glance that if there was a connection between the two sets of dates, then Michaelmas Day would have been September 24th or 25th, and not 29th. This alone proves that the two sets of dates are independent of each other. The Vernal Equinox was always in the range of March 20th – 22nd.
Here is a table showing, I believe, how the original meaning of the Quarter Days was changed, possibly in the first three centuries AD.
|Birth of John the Baptist
|Birth of John the Baptist
|Conception of John the Baptist
|Conception of John the Baptist
|Birth of Jesus. (Michael and all angels)
|Birth of Jesus
|Annunciation to Mary
Everything ties in satisfactorily when the Quarter Days are restored. The angelic choir that sang to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth were none other than Michael and the heavenly host. There can be no other sensible explanation why September 29th should remember them.
But what effect should all this have on our Christmas celebrations this year? Here is a personal note. In the past our family has been through times of change in respect of celebrating our Lord’s birth. We became “purists” for a while and refused to have anything to do with Christmas, once we were convinced of the September 29th date and also due to the shocking commercialism attached to Christmas. But the children felt sad thinking of everyone else having a good time, whilst we had an ordinary day on the 25th. Initially we had a Family Day to try to remedy this. Then we took on board the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the eight day celebration called the “festival of lights,” which usually coincided more or less with Christmas. This became our custom for some years, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it and as the grandchildren came along they looked forward eagerly to lighting the candles every night for eight days. But now Rosalind and I are alone and we have decided to return to a traditional time of remembering Christ’s birth in December, even though we still acknowledge His true birth to be in September. The rest of the family now celebrate Christmas with their own children, and we join one of the families on the 25th. We all realise now that there is no spiritual compromise involved. After all, if December 25th is the day of the Annunciation to Mary, then it is the time when “the Word became flesh”, and that is of monumental importance to our faith.
Therefore, we wish all our friends and family great joy this Christmas season, and pray that very soon we shall have yet another supreme joy – of witnessing our Lord’s second coming, to set up His Kingdom, the time when “the kingdoms of this world shall become the Kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ,” as John received it in Revelation chapter 11.
God bless you all. With our love in the Lord Jesus,
Arthur & Rosalind.