When was Christmas? Every year around this time the articles and memes start popping up, trying to convince us that our celebration of Christ’s Nativity is at best in error, and at worst, promoting paganism. The most common ones indicate that it’s actually Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, or, the most recent and ridiculous one I’ve seen, the birth of Nimrod/ Molech/ Baal. They’ll make claims that the birth of Christ was copied over from pagan gods such as Dionysus, Horus, Mithra, and so on, that they too had 12 disciples, a virgin birth, etc. - all of these are pretty demonstrably false, but folks don’t like to read for themselves. So what can we do when we see these (besides laugh?); we can educate ourselves and others (if you’re feeling particularly patient and charitable) about why we celebrate Christmas when we do.
Saturnalia was sort of like the original “Mardi Gras on Bourbon St. of the Roman world” and while celebrated in the latter half of December had no calendrical connection to December 25th. So too the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight due to the Earth’s poles being at their maximum tilt away from the Sun; this year (2022) it’s the 21st, and it hasn’t been on the 25th since before the Julian calendar was established. Sol Invictus “the Invincible Sun” wasn’t introduced until the 3rd century AD, and its connection to December 25th we trace to Julian the Apostate who specifically wanted to replace Christmas (which he hated) with something pagan. The Nimrod stuff is just pure fantasy from the bowels of the interwebz.
Alright, so turning to the Scriptures themselves, we see first in St. Luke, the father of St. John the Baptist, St. Zacharias the Prophet, was serving in the Temple “in the course of Abias (St. Luke 1:5).” Without getting too deep in the proverbial (prophetic?) weeds, let’s take a brief aside into the pre-Rabbinic Jewish year. There were 24 priestly courses (1st Chronicles 24:10), served for one week in the Temple, twice through each year, and Abias was the 8th of them (so it would be celebrated again during the 32nd cycle). Still with me? Cool. So St. Zacharias would have been doing this in the Jewish month of Tishri for the day of Atonement (modern day Rosh Hashanah - late September to early October). St. John was conceived after the course was served, so likely around the end of September, which dovetails nicely with our celebration of his nativity on June 24th. Recall that when the Theotokos conceived she went to see St. Elizabeth who was 6 months pregnant with St. John (who leapt for joy in the womb); if we add 6 months to St. John’s birthday, we arrive at December 24th-25th, the Nativity of Christ. Boom.
What about the Early Church Fathers? Writing at roughly the same time as St. Paul was addressing the Hebrews, St. Theophilos, bishop of Caesarea specifically cites the Nativity as December 25th. A few years later Clement of Alexandria (accounting for some rather tricky Egyptian solar-lunar calendar conversions) arrives at the same date. St. Hippolytus of Rome? Yep - you guessed it - gets very specific, notes Bethlehem, and says that December 25th fell on a Wednesday, when Emperor Augustus Caesar was 42! What all this should tell you is that no, Christ wasn’t born in the spring and through a massive conspiracy spanning the centuries moved to December. Some have even observed that because the shepherds were watching their fields by night it couldn’t have been winter… except that Bethlehem shares a latitude with Texas, and with a few exceptions these past few years, we know it’s still pretty nice out now!