Our ancestors in faith would be horrified to hear our silly talk of Christmas as the “birthday of Jesus” with celebrations in some places complete with a birthday cake! My pastoral self would always play along when such events took place in my presence, albeit not very enthusiastically. I’m sorry, “cute” doesn’t cut it with me when it comes to Christmas. But the triteness of a birthday party for Jesus is not my main worry. More serious are the problems we create for children by establishing a notion that is both historically inaccurate and theologically destructive.
Frequently one hears the assertion that Jesus could not have possibly been born on December 25 as if it should be an embarrassment to Christians to learn that. As if somebody way back got it wrong or had been duped. Hardly.
For the most part, nobody really intended anybody to believe Jesus was born on December 25. Nor did anybody pretend Jesus was born on January 6, the first date on which many Christians celebrated the nativity story of Jesus with a feast. That date was when other folk celebrated the Manifestation (epiphany) of the Egyptian god Aion. Christians felt they themselves should be instead celebrating the epiphany of Jesus. The nativity was one of the manifestation stories of Jesus (along with the Baptism of Jesus, the wedding at Cana, and the visit of the Magi) that these Christians used in celebrating this feast.
But for those Christians for whom Rome, not Alexandria (in Egypt), became the important center, a greater distraction than distraction than the Epiphany of Aion was the celebration of the birth of the Sun God on, naturally, the solstice, December 25. Hence, they borrowed Luke’s nativity story from Epiphany to assert their own celebration of the birth of Christ on the 25th. They left the other stories to be told on January 6, and let the 12 days from the 25th to Epiphany become the season of the Christmas feast. In most places there was a conflation of these two celebrations (I speak generally, I should note. This development was not uniform nor precise since there was not yet any all-powerful worship committee).
Most Christian in Egypt, Rome, or anywhere, did not really give a rip about when Jesus was actually born.* And that is important to recognize. Because (with good Jewish precedent) what they intended to celebrate was NOT the birthday of Jesus, but the birth of Jesus. There is a difference. A birthday acknowledges something that took place in the past. Christian holidays, as “remembrances” patterned on the the Hebrew celebrations, were meant to bring something into reality in the present. It’s all there in the songs, folks: “Oh little child of Bethlehem, be born in us today.”
Of course, a miracle in the past allows us to get all nostalgic and sentimental. While a miracle in the present invites us to get transformational. That can be scary. Someone might get cast from their throne.
*There is an alternative perspective on the origin of Christmas dates which indeed reeks of concern for speculation of the exact date. This theory depends on things like the notion that all great people die on the anniversary of their conception. The Christmas Curmudgeon sides with the scholars who aren’t impressed. Plus, this “computation” theory just doesn’t jive with so much of the early preaching like the solstice theory does. It’s just not as much fun. But if you want a less biased opinion, give Thomas Talley a google.