Christians around the world celebrate December 25th as “Christmas.” We identify it with the time of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Songs are sung, carols are played, and stories are told about Mary and her baby boy. But what are the chances that Jesus was born on December 25th?
Well, to put a number to it. The chance that Jesus of Nazareth was born on December 25th is 1/365 or to be slightly more accurate 1/365.24. Obviously the calendar we use today didn’t exist then, and our calendar corresponds to the solar year not the lunar. Jesus had to be born on a day that corresponds to our calendar one way or another, but we can’t be certain of the day of his birth because there is no identifiable date recorded in the texts.
That may sound strange to us who celebrate birthdays every year and who have birth certificates. Often our birthdays identify us. Recently, I went to the doctor and before they wanted my name, they asked my birthday. When the receptionist keyed in my birthday, my name came up. So, for us living in the 21st century, our birthdays identify us. You’ve probably had a similar experience.
The fact is most human beings born thousands of years ago didn’t know their birthdays. They didn’t have a reliable and stable calendar as we do today. This was especially true of people of “lower class” or the “worker class.” I’m using the terms here sociologically not pejoratively. Joseph and Mary were ordinary people. Joseph was by trade a tekton. Some have translated the word “carpenter” but it may be better to translate it “stone mason” since most construction in those days in the land of Israel was of stone. But they weren’t well off. And there is no record of the day of Jesus’ birth.
I won’t go into the reasons why December 25th was chosen as the “day” we celebrate Christmas. Many people have written on that on the Internet. My point is more simple. As Christians we do not celebrate the “day” Jesus was born, we celebrate the fact he was born at all. December 25th just happens to be the day we celebrate it. In Jesus we see the coming of God into the world in a unique and powerful way. Theologians call it the Incarnation, literally the enfleshing of God or embodiment of God. For us Jesus is the embodiment of the God of Israel who has come into our world to save and to give us an example of how to live.
Let me illustrate this using a more recent example. I know a man, let’s call him Claude. Today, at the time of my writing, he is 92 years old. He was born in a little town in Mississippi in 1926. The exact date of his birth “day” is unknown. The country doctor who delivered him wrote down one date in the county register where Claude was born. But he recorded it several days later after he had delivered other babies. Then there is the record of Claude’s birthday in the family Bible, which 92 years ago was the family record of birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and death days of beloved family members. Then there is the day he was told by family members that he was born. Now the dates do not correspond, they are off by a significant amount. Which one is true and accurate? We don’t know, and in important ways it doesn’t matter.
Claude celebrates his birthday now on a day late in September. Essentially, because of American law, he had to choose one of those days and call it his birthday not knowing exactly the “day” he was born. He gets cards, presents and phone calls on that day congratulating him on making it another year. He has a social security card and a driver’s license that display his chosen day. So, that day was chosen to recognize the fact of his birth, not the day of his birth. Essentially we celebrate the person not the day. The same is true in ways for Jesus.
December 25th–Christmas, Navidad, Weinacht, whatever name by which you know it–is not a celebration of the day Jesus was born, it’s a celebrate of the fact he was born, that in him God became flesh and dwelt among us. It is a unique day in the Christian calendar to recognize a singular great event in history, the Incarnation. In Jesus of Nazareth we recognize that God has come into the world and that is worth stopping and thinking about.