Did you know that not all Christians celebrate Christmas at the same time each year, or that Christmas wasn’t always celebrated in winter? Orthodox Christians celebrate according to a different calendar, so Orthodox Christmas and Easter, for example, rarely coincide with Protestant and Catholic dates. Before the monk Dionysius set Christmas at December 25th in 533 AD, some Christians had celebrated Christmas in springtime. That older tradition is supported by the biblical account of shepherds being out watching their sheep by night, as happened in springtime, not in the bitter winter months.
Dionysius’ date coincides with the winter solstice. This solstice was celebrated as the birthday of many deities in ancient civilizations including: Tammuz (Babylonian Queen of Heaven); Horus (Egyptian Queen of Heaven); Nimrod (son of Baal); Mithra (identified with Sol Invictus), and the Roman deity Saturnalia (celebrated with the exchange of gifts). Placing these deities on this solstice pointed to the equinox, when the days began to lengthen again, and the world sprang into life once more after the deep of winter. Perhaps these are holy echoes, indications of what was to come, an inkling of the true Light from Light, whose triumph over darkness is eternal.
Orthodox Christians celebrate on near January 7 in our Gregorian calendar, which works out to December 25th in the older, Julian calendar. But the decision of when to celebrate the nativity needn’t be a stumbling block, because it is theologically very correct to do so at the winter equinox. With the coming of the equinox, light triumphs over darkness. That’s what Jesus did, when He came into the world, Word made flesh. The bible is silent on the exact date of Jesus’ birth, and Christians rightly wanted to rejoice at the Savior’s birth, so Dionysius made a theologically and symbolically correct choice: December 25. It’s a wonderful thing, to celebrate Jesus’ birth, at Christmas.
Some researchers are not content with the symbolic or theological birthday, and would like to know more. One such researcher, astronomer Michael Molnar offers some compelling evidence pointing to April 17, 6 BCE as Jesus’ most likely actual birthday. The bible points out that Jesus was born under the first king Herod, which means it had to be before 4 BC. During Herod’s rule, there was a particular conjunction of the planets, so rare as to happen only once every sixty years, and so significant as to be recognizable by Zoroastrian magi, to set them on their way to the Jewish capital city, Jerusalem. It would not have been recognized by the Jewish priests, who did not practice astrology, which is why Herod did not recognize the “star,” but they could have advised the magi about the prophesy about Bethlehem. This “star” was so significant, it was printed on a coin from the time. Molnar quotes an astrologer from AD 344, Firmicus Maternus, who perceived the conditions for a “world ruler with a divine and immortal nature” and became a Jesus follower.
We do not have a time machine, so without a miracle we’ll never know with certainty whether Molnar is right about April 17th. What we can do, while still keeping Christmas at December 25th, is to consider embracing this day, April 17th , as well. It should be different than Christmas, which has come to mean so much to so many. It can be a celebration of Jesus’ life and His call to us as disciples. In the spirit of discipleship, we have coined the day “Followers’ Day,” because Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30).
Let’s agree to keep the spirit of Christmas on every day of the year, especially on December 25th. And let’s consider a new Spring holy day, Followers Day, to celebrate Jesus’ life, and the fact that we’re called to follow.
Blessings today and every day!
Molnar, Michael. Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi. pp. 101-109.