It happened today - December 25, 2015
On December 25th of the year 0 Jesus of Nazareth was almost certainly not born. Scholars have expended much ingenuity on the question when exactly he was born, using a very few specific dates in the Gospels and in non-Christian sources some of which are themselves maddeningly vague or unreliable. But it’s still Christmas today.
As to the year, the problem with 0 in brief is that Herod died in 4 B.C. and he’s pretty important to the story. So people have done various calculations about when the Temple rebuilding was begun and John the Baptist and Tiberius and so on and decided they were confused about when Jesus was born, when he died, and everything in between. (They’re also not entirely sure when Pilate stepped down; it’s not just Jesus or the Baptist shrouded in historical mist here.)
The argument respecting the date of Dec. 25 is primarily that shepherds wouldn’t have been grazing their sheep at that time of year. I’m no agronomist and I don’t know what you did with sheep in Roman Palestine in December since they had to eat something and there may have been no hay, which I don’t even know if sheep eat anyway. (The Internet says they do. But Freeman Dyson says hay was invented in the Dark Ages so it’s moot… unless he’s wrong; another source cites Pliny on how to cut hay.)
The secondary argument is that the Christians took over a pagan Winter solstice festival on a kind of “if you can’t beat them” piece of cunning appropriation. Which may contain a profound seed of truth.
December, you may have noticed, is cold and dark and just getting colder. But in a compelling promise of rebirth, the days start getting longer. It’s just one miraculous aspect of life on Earth that the cold and dark aren’t synchronized, and thank goodness. And of course you can explain why not using physics and be right. But still, being able to explain a phenomenon through science isn’t the same as explaining why the science works the way it does.
It could be more boring, predictable, empty and discouraging and equally logical. But it’s not. Life, for all its grimness, isn’t like that. And the essential message of Christmas is of a small, unlikely hope that warms our hearts and fills us with joy.
Easter is the big deal, the death and resurrection, the dramatic conclusion to the story. But Christmas is a small, hauntingly profound miracle that starts it off and sets the strange, wonderful, sublime tone.
The Christian story is remarkable among religions in that it features God not hurling thunderbolts or blasting cities but as a helpless baby. It says not just that there is virtue in kindness to the small but that there is holiness beyond measure in the humble and the weak. The “small still voice” Elijah hears in 1 Kings 11-12 prefigures it (“And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:/ And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”) But now it has become a baby’s coo and it turned the world upside down.
The gifts of the Magi signify that Christ is God (frankincense), King (gold) and Sacrifice (myrrh). But before all that, he’s a baby in his mother’s arms, as improbable and wonderful as anything in the whole Gospel.
I do not begrudge the scholars their work. Historical truth is important. But the deeper truth is that Christmas belongs on Dec. 25 where it has been for 1800 years.