Those of us around here can’t imagine celebrating Christmas anytime but December 25. We want a Christmas with snow, and love the festive mood generated by a Christmas Eve snowfall. Our Christmas carols reflect it. One carol says Jesus was born in the bleak midwinter when it was snow on snow on snow. Another says good King Wenceslas went on his goodwill mission to deliver food and fuel to a poor peasant when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. America’s most famous secular Christmas song says, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” For many years Christmas cards have portrayed a New England countryside with snow-covered fields, evergreen woods, young people on skates on frozen ponds, people out on horse-drawn sleighs, and houses showing fireplace chimneys.
So what decided that we should celebrate the birth of Jesus December 25, seeing the New Testament Nativity stories don’t mention any date? And are we actually celebrating the birth of Jesus or our northern latitude winter?
Historians tell us the earliest Christians hadn’t settled on any particular date. Some, in fact, were opposed to any celebration of Jesus’ birth, because celebrations of the birth of gods were a pagan practice in the Greco-Roman world. When Christians of the patristic era did begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus they at first settled on January 6, Epiphany, one of the church’s earliest established feasts, because the birth of Jesus was a manifestation of God’s salvation. In Eastern churches January 6 is still a celebration of the visit of the wise men.
According to the magazine “Christianity Today,” it wasn’t long before some early church leaders did look for other dates. Clement of Alexandria favored May 20 but noted that others picked dates in April. Hippolytus preferred January 2. Others picked a date in November or March. Eventually the appeal of the winter solstice won out. The Roman world already had a celebration of the winter solstice, seen as a kind of rebirth of the sun.