On our recent trip to the Holy Land, our guide told us, while we were visiting Shepherds’ Fields in Bethlehem, that the time of year when shepherds “watch their flocks by night” (to quote the Christmas carol), is in the spring when the ewes are birthing the lambs. This of course would mean that our celebration of Christmas ought to be in the spring, around the same time as we celebrate Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.
The earliest record of celebrations of Jesus’ birth are from “about 200 C.E.” where “According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar], (biblicaarcheology.org, Andrew McGowan, How December 25th Became Christmas, December 25, 2018).
McGowan concludes his article with the following paragraph.
The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated (ibid.).
Our celebration of Christmas, as the Nativity of the Lord, takes place on a date chosen by the Church to reflect not only the human reality mentioned above, but to convey a biblical meaning as well. In John’s gospel (3:30), John the Baptist says that he must decrease and he (Jesus) must increase. The mid-winter date for Christmas puts it close to the time f year when the days begin to get longer or the light increases. John the Baptist’s prophetic words are fulfilled in this way.