We celebrate Christ’s birth in December. Why? Were the shepherds really watching their sheep out on the hills during the cold, rainy Judean winter? Did Caesar Agustus really require his subjects to travel to their hometowns to register in such a season?
Here’s the most likely story I’ve uncovered for celebrating at such an odd time: In the early centuries, when Christianity was spreading throughout the world via the Roman empire, a popular pagan harvest festival was held on Dec. 25 to worship Saturn, the god of sowing, and the return of the sun following the winter solstice. It was a holiday filled with feasting, singing, drinking, and, well, use your imagination. Supposedly, the leaders of the Christian sect opposed this rowdy celebration and, in an attempt to remake it, interjected the worship of the “Son” instead of the “sun.”
It seems quite likely to me that early Christians would randomly pick a day to celebrate Christ’s birth without consulting Jewish culture or tradition for a more accurate choice. Though Christianity grew out of Judaism, gentiles began to outnumber Jews, and leadership and doctrinal differences arose, particularly on matters of Jewish law. Christianity and Judaism grew apart further as each experienced changing legal statuses under differing Roman emperors.
But what if the Jewish believers had been consulted?
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve embarked on a study of the Jewish feasts because they have so much to teach about God and his plan. In fact, some startling events have happened during these feasts. For example, Christ was crucified on Passover; some say he died the very hour in which the lambs were being slaughtered. And the following Sunday just happened to be Sfirat HaOmer, the celebration of the Early First Fruits in which the harvest of wheat is “lifted up” and waved by the priests. Upon his resurrection, Christ became THE First Fruit. Then, the Holy Spirit was given on the feast of Shavuot, the Later First Fruits celebration. Also known as Pentecost, this resulted in the first “harvest” of Jews. So why wouldn’t something as monumental as the birth of the Messiah happen on one of God’s prescribed festivals?
In my reading I’ve come across some very interesting arguments made by a Messianic Jewish rabbi, Barney Kasdan, that Jesus might very well have arrived during the eight-day autumn festival of Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles, which celebrates the phenomenon that God would come dwell among men. Kasdan points out that in the first chapter of his gospel, the apostle John describes Christ’s arrival much in these terms.
He also argues that the huge crowds seeking housing at the time of the birth might point to the feast, one of three which required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In addition, Kasdan suggests that Caesar Agustus would have held to a Roman tradition of convenience for the citizens of occupied countries. The feast, after the harvest and before winter rains, when everyone was traveling anyway, would have provided a logical time to require registration for his census. Finally, Kasdan finds importance in the chronology of Jesus’ three-and-a-half-year ministry, suggesting it points to a fall birth. (To me, that only suggests he started his ministry in the fall. Culturally, would he start on his thirtieth birthday?)
Of course, this evidence isn’t conclusive, but it’s given me food for thought. And as much as I enjoy the traditions of Christmas, Sukkot makes a lot more sense than a random, pagan holiday.