Christmas is one of the most celebrated holidays around the world. For Christians, Christmas is a time to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, the central figure of the Christian faith. The Bible does not give an exact date for when Jesus was born, but provides some details that point to it likely being in the winter months. Here is an overview of what the Bible says about the birth of Jesus and the origins of celebrating Christmas.
The Birth of Jesus Foretold in Scripture
The Old Testament contains several prophecies about the coming of a Messiah, a savior for the people of Israel. Passages such as Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:6-7, and Micah 5:2 tell of a coming ruler who would be born in Bethlehem. These messianic prophecies point forward to Jesus, who fulfilled them. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide details of Jesus’ lineage tracing back to King David, indicating He was the foretold Messiah from the line of David (Matthew 1, Luke 3:23-38).
In the New Testament, the birth of Jesus is first announced by the angel Gabriel who tells Mary, a virgin, that she will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-38). This miraculous conception fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 which said, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel means “God with us” indicating that Jesus was God in human flesh.
Later, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and that the child she conceives is from the Holy Spirit. The angel says they are to name the child Jesus, meaning “The Lord saves,” because He would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:18-25). The name Jesus reflects the very purpose for which He came – to provide salvation through His death and resurrection.
Details of Jesus’ Birth in the Gospels
The Gospel accounts go on to record details leading up to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus issued a census requiring people to return to their hometown. Joseph’s lineage was in Bethlehem, so he and Mary traveled there even though Mary was heavily pregnant (Luke 2:1-5). Upon arriving in Bethlehem, there was no guest room available for them to stay prompting Mary to give birth to Jesus in a stable or cave and lay him in a manger (Luke 2:6-7). This fulfilled the prophecy of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem from Micah 5:2 which said, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
That night, an angel appeared to shepherds watching their flocks announcing the birth of the Savior and how they could find him lying in a manger. Then a multitude of angels appeared praising God singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:8-14). The shepherds visited where Jesus was born and spread the news, leaving glorifying and praising God (Luke 2:15-20). Eight days later, Jesus was circumcised and officially given the name Jesus just as the angel had told Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:21). Later Jesus was presented at the temple for the customary purification rites where prophets Simeon and Anna saw the infant Jesus and recognized Him as the Messiah (Luke 2:22-38).
The Gospel of Matthew includes the account of the wise men or magi who come looking for Jesus, the prophesied “King of the Jews” after seeing His star. They visit King Herod asking where to find this new king. Herod asks the religious leaders where the Messiah was to be born according to the prophecies; they told him in Bethlehem. Herod secretly plans to kill Jesus, but the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to him. They present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but do not go back to Herod (Matthew 2:1-12). An angel warns Joseph to take Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod. When Herod realizes the wise men did not come back, he orders all the infants in Bethlehem killed in rage (Matthew 2:13-18). The family eventually settles in Nazareth where Jesus grows up (Matthew 2:19-23).
Reasons and Origins of Celebrating Christmas
Based on biblical accounts, we know Jesus’ birth was a monumental event heralding the arrival of the Savior of the world. God became man and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The prophecies were fulfilled. But the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown. The Gospels do not state the exact date. However, based on the description of shepherds watching their flocks at night (Luke 2:8) and knowing shepherds did that primarily in spring, some speculate it was likely in spring rather than winter. Yet winter is not entirely ruled out.
In the early church, Christmas was not celebrated. The main Christian festivals observed were Easter and Pentecost. The first recorded instance of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336 AD during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine. This correlated with the Roman festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti or “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” honoring the sun god and marking the winter solstice. The pagan festival was linked with the Christian commemoration of Jesus’ birth in order to make Christianity more relatable to pagan converts. The precise origin of assigning December 25th as the birthdate is unclear, but adoption of dates related to pagan festivals was not uncommon due to the symbolism.
Later records from the mid-4th century AD show Christian leaders such as John Chrysostom advocating for commemorating the nativity on December 25th with a festival of worship and feasting. In time, the celebration spread throughout the Christian world. The December 25th date for Christmas was formally accepted during the reign of Charlemagne in the late 8th century. The combination of both Christian and pagan traditions have influenced many of the Christmas celebrations and practices that have endured to modern times, such as gift giving, Christmas trees, feasts, caroling, lighting candles, holly, mistletoe, and Yule logs. While rooted in some pagan traditions, the purpose remains centered on worshiping Christ on the anniversary of His birth.
The Meaning of Christmas – Celebrating Christ
Despite uncertainties about the exact date, Christmas is still a time believers commemorate the incarnation – God becoming flesh. The hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” summarizes it well:
Christ, by highest heav’n adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come
Offspring of a virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
The wonder and awe of the Son of God coming humbly as a baby to provide salvation should fill the Christmas season. As Philippians 2:5-11 describes, though Christ was God, He emptied Himself taking on human likeness, humbled Himself obedient to death on a cross, so that all would confess Him as Lord and bring glory to God. Christmas is a time to reflect on God’s love and grace to send Jesus for our deliverance.
While there are valid questions about the pagan connections to some Christmas traditions, Christians can focus on using this season to turn attention to Christ, celebrate Him sincerely from the heart, preach the gospel, and bring glory to God. Christmas remains a prime opportunity to celebrate the greatest gift of all time – the birth of the Savior, who came to redeem humankind, reconcile us to God, and establish His kingdom. Those are worthy reasons for celebrating Christmas.