T o make a new calendar which would commemorate the birth of Jesus, it would seem that technically we should have counted the first year as starting at the night of his birth, and counting up from there. But there are 6 days between the birth celebration (Christmas day) and the start of the new year.
No One Cared at the Time
So technically that would mean the year started on December 26. But no one cared at the time, and our present calendar did not start from that date forward, but several centuries later by backward reckoning.
The new calendar was organized so as to keep the December 25 - January 6 pattern which developed in the early centuries of Christianity.
These few days amount to only a technicality, however, even for our scientific and historistic mindset. The current focus on "factual" details is a later cultural development in the west, and would likely seem curious to people of those times.
The technicality of the dates is dealt with by the following four factors.
1. Christmas is not just one day, but a season. For most Christians and over most of our cultural history, The Christmas celebration season is 25 December to 6 January, the "Twelve Days of Christmas" plus Epiphany. This starts a "liturgical year" which commemorates the life of Christ and the Acts period of the Bible.
Thus 6 January celebrates Jesus' greeting from the wise men (Roman Catholicism and Western Christianity) or the baptism of Jesus (Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern communion). The latter is the original meaning of the 6 January holiday.
2. The calendar dating is arbitrary (being organized backwards several hundred years later, and specifically to note the birth of Jesus) and needs a single starting point, which was based on the inherited Roman calendar, already adjusted several times in Roman times and later.
3. The time of the Christmas celebration had already been set in antiquity to match previous pagan festivals in the Roman, and Celtic patterns, so this was kept in relation to the beginning of the month honoring Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looks both forward and backward. The time of the celebration, and the months already in place and the start of the new year were all kept as they were.
The first record of Christians celebrating the birth of Christ on 25 December is on a Roman calendar for AD 336.
4. The purpose of the holiday is not to commemorate the date but the event.
Does it Matter?
In the long run, all this makes no difference whatsoever in the meaning of life and the good news of the Christmas season about God's love and the redemption from lostness he offers. Or in the general course of human events, either.
On the other hand, correct historical and cultural information puts us on a track to understand where we are, and respect our inherited traditions, so we can know better how to celebrate or change them. If we do not know where we have come from, we cannot know where we are going.
Conclusion: The Meaning
In conclusion, I repeat point four above:
The purpose of the holiday is not to commemorate the date but the event. The meaning and purpose of the event of Jesus' birth is the reason the celebration began, and why the calendar was ultimately reorganized.
The Dates of Christmas: Why do We Celebrate the Birth of Jesus in December?
Holy Evening, Fall Festival and Celtic Celebrations, Some Thoughts
When Did the Millennium End?
Y2K and Christianity
First written in 1999
Page updated 1 January 2010
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1999, 2004
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
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