How did Christmas come to be celebrated on December 25th? Since Easter is the most important event of our salvation and was the primary focus of the first disciples who expected the Lord to return very quickly, the date of his birth was not important in the early church. It began to be discussed only in the 3rd century. In St. Luke’s account of the nativity, the shepherds were tending their flocks on the hillsides. This would not have been done during the winter but rather in the spring, so early church fathers like St. Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus placed the birth in the month of April. In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom based himself on records of the Jewish Temple and calculated that the priest Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father) would have been on duty there in the month of late October or November and Elizabeth would have conceived shortly thereafter. Since Mary visited her when Elizabeth was six months pregnant (according to St. Luke), that event would have occurred in March, which then would mean that Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the Incarnation would have occurred in that same month. Mary’s nine months of pregnancy would bring us to December as the likely time for Jesus’ birth by this calculation. Other scholars see a whole different rationale. The early Christians in Rome and elsewhere in Europe were constantly trying to counter pagan customs and religious festivals with the faith and often celebrated Christian feasts at the time when pagan feasts were going on. In Europe the winter solstice was celebrated in various ways. The Romans had religious celebrations to rejoice in the return of the sun back to the north and the increasing daylight. How fitting for Christians to proclaim the birth of Christ, the light of the world, at the same time. It is probably some combination of these reasons that resulted in the fixing of the date to December 25th.
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