By Barb Arland-Fye
“Mom, is it true that Jesus Christ was born on Dec. 25? Some people say that’s not correct,” said my 24-year-old son Colin, who has autism.
He’d visited a planetarium and said he was told Jesus was born on Jan. 6. “But that’s not correct,” Colin insists. Dates mark safe passages in his life; to think that the birth of Christ may not have occurred on Dec. 25 seems unsettling.
“It doesn’t fit into his scheme of things,” my husband Steve said.
So what to tell Colin? Coincidentally, I have been assigned as part of my graduate studies to prepare a day of reflection on the Christmas season. The actual day of reflection won’t happen until next Christmas, but the assignment is due long before then.
Christ’s birth date isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, as theologian Adolf Adam points out in his book “The Liturgical Year.”
The origin of the feast day “is still quite obscure,” he noted. One hypothesis suggests the celebration may have been adapted from a pagan festival honoring the Unconquered Sun-God. Roman emperor Aurelian apparently hoped the feast, established in 274, would unite his empire.
According to this same hypothesis, the Church of Rome in 336 established the feast of Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 “to immunize Christians against the attraction of this pagan feast,” Adam says.
Another hypothesis has to do with calculating Christ’s birth. If John the Baptist was born at the summer solstice and Christ was conceived six months after John, Christ would have been born on the winter solstice, Dec. 25, Adam says. Such a coincidence between the pagan and Christian feast days could have been seen as the work of divine providence because Christians believe that only Christ could give light and salvation to the world.
Adam notes that during this same era Christians were struggling with the Arian heresy (which held that Jesus was not fully divine, but was a creature somewhere between God and man).
“… [A] feast of Christ’s birth would give a suitable liturgical expression to the profession of faith drawn up at Nicea, the Council which condemned the Arian heresy in 325,” Adam said.
While the origin of the feast date is debatable, the Roman Catholic Church has been celebrating the birth of Christ on Dec. 25 for nearly 1,700 years. But I didn’t have this detailed information in front of me while my son waited for my response.
“It’s possible Jesus may have been born on another day, but what really matters is that we celebrate his birthday,” I told Colin. He seemed somewhat reassured, but the sliver of doubt means we’ll be discussing this issue for a long time to come.
The fact that Christmas matters to him brings me great joy. Before his younger brother, Patrick, was born 17 years ago, Colin seemed to fade into his own little world at Christmastime. Perhaps the stimulation of gift-giving, gathering with family, changes in routine and everything else that accompanies the holiday overwhelmed him. At age 7, on medication for the first time, Colin went through the Christmas season with a blank stare.
But just as the incarnation of Christ brought hope and continues to bring hope to the world, the birth of our second son the month before Christmas 1994 brought hope and joy to our family. Through the eyes of his baby brother, Colin discovered the wonder of the season and has never let go.