When was Jesus born in Bethlehem? The Bible tells us with certainty the fact of Jesus' birth and the place. But not the exact date. Although many Christians celebrate Christ's birthday on December 25th, it has not always been so. In fact, one of the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandria speculated that Christ was born on this day, November 17, 3 BC!
In the earliest church there seems to have been no celebration of Jesus' birth. Instead, each Sunday was a celebration of Christ's resurrection. The Jewish festivals of Passover and Pentecost continued to be celebrated by Jewish converts within the church for a time since they were closely associated with Christ's death and resurrection. In the third century, some churches in the east began to celebrate January 6 as the Epiphany, the time that Christ revealed himself to the people as the Messiah. Jesus' incarnation--when God became man--was also commemorated at this time.
Many speculated that since shepherds were in the field the night Christ was born, it must have been in spring or summer. Some said May 20; others fixed the date on April 19th or 20th. Still others thought March 25th most likely. No one really knew.
There is written evidence that by 354, the Bishop of Rome was observing December 25th as the date of Christ's birth. Four major Roman festivals were held in December, including Saturnalia which celebrated the returning Sun-god. Some thing these were adapted to the Christian celebration of the coming of the Son of God.
As Christianity expanded in Europe, the followers of Christ continued to celebrated December 25th as Christmas, and as each nationality converted to Christianity it brought its own customs to the celebration. But if Clement of Alexandria were still alive today he probably would be wishing us a "Merry Christmas" on this day.
"For the sake of each of us he laid down his life--worth no less than the universe. He demands of us in return our lives for the sake of each other."--Clement.
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Bonsall, Elizabeth Hubbard. Famous Hymns with Stories and Pictures. Philadelphia: Union Press, 1923.
- Finnegan, Jack. Handbook of Biblical Chronology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Henrickson Publishers, 1998, 1964.
- Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945