As of the date of writing of this article (early December 2023), the Christmas decorations are up on Orchard Road, the malls are blasting “Christmas music” at high volume, and much of the world is getting ready to celebrate Christmas, which falls on December 25. Even in Singapore, where “Christians” form only about 20% of the population, almost everyone is aware that the celebration of Christmas has something to do with the presumed birth of Jesus Christ on December 25.
Was Jesus born on December 25? The Bible is silent as to the exact date on which Jesus was born. It does not specify whether it was December 25, January 7 (on which the Eastern Orthodox church celebrates the birth of Christ), or any other day in our 365-day calendar. That being said, the Bible does give us clues to indicate that Jesus was almost certainly not born in December, but more probably in the warmer months of April to September.
#1 – THE ROMAN CENSUS
The gospel account according to Luke records that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem of Judea. Although Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, was from Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:4), he had to travel miles southward to the town of Bethlehem, his ancestral hometown, to comply with the requirements of a Roman census (Luke 2:1-2).
Part of the reasons for the Romans to conduct such a census was to facilitate taxation. After all, you cannot make someone pay his taxes if you do not know he exists. The Roman government would likely want to ensure maximum participation in such a census, in order to maximise the pool of people that taxation could be imposed on. As such, the census would be unlikely be conducted in the wet, winter month of December, when the roads of Judea would have been filled with slush and mud. Such a situation would hinder the movement of travellers who were being compelled to return to their ancestral hometowns to be registered. It would have been counter-productive for the Roman authorities to do so, and therefore, more likely for the census to have been conducted in the warmer summer months when the roads would have been drier, making travel easier.
#2 – THE SHEPHERDS IN THE FIELD
Luke’s gospel account also records that when Jesus was born, there were “shepherds in the field by night” (Luke 2:8). An angel of the Lord appeared unto them, and told them that “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:9-11).
The month of December in Judea is cold and wet, with temperatures descending to below 10 degrees Celsius by night, and that is not even factoring in the wind chill. It was more common in the month of December for shepherds in Judea to keep their flocks under shelter at night. However, in the warmer months of April to September, daytime temperatures were scorching but nighttime temperatures were mild. During those times, it would have been common for Judean shepherds to let their flocks graze out in the fields at night, to take advantage of the favourable weather conditions. Hence, it is extremely unlikely that Jesus was born in December, as the shepherds would probably not have been out in the fields by night then, as Luke records.
Does it matter when Jesus was born? Even if we know that He was unlikely to be born in December, could we not select an arbitrary date to commemorate His birth, as the world does today on Christmas Day, December 25?
The apostle Paul reminds us that “whatsoever we do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). That is to say, we must ensure that we have the authority of Jesus in whatever we do. Do I have the authority to be thankful that Jesus was born into this world? Certainly I can, for on the night Jesus was born, the angel of the Lord told the shepherds that he brought “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). But what we do not have the authority to do is to arbitrarily select a date, proclaim it as the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, and observe it as a religious festival. That would be an example of “will-worship”, or “self-directed worship” (Colossians 2:23), which displeases God.
What then do we have the authority to do? We are commanded by the Lord Jesus Himself to observe the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29). It is a retrospective feast that looks back on the death of our Suffering Saviour (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), and it is also a prospective feast in that we will continue to observe this memorial feast until He comes again (1 Corinthians 11:26). The birth of Jesus was an important day, but the death of our Saviour was a much more important event that we are authorized and commanded to commemorate, because His death paid the blood sacrifice for our sins.
“For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)