As Christmas and Hanukkah both draw near, I would like to take some time to contemplate these two winter festivals. We all know that neither of them is in Leviticus 23 – which means that neither of them is a biblical Festival, neither of them was commanded by God. So, why do we observe them? Next week, as we will still be celebrating Hanukkah, I will write about Hanukkah. Today, we will focus on Christmas.
The Legend and Beyond
It is very popular today to denounce Christmas as a “pagan” holiday that has nothing to do with the Bible – and we all know that indeed, nowhere does the New Testament indicate when Jesus was born. The gospel writers either did not know the time of Jesus’ birth or didn’t consider it important, therefore the time of year that Jesus was born is a matter for debate and guesswork. Thus, the origins of Christmas cannot be traced back to either the teachings or the practices of the first believers. Indeed, Christmas was not observed until about 300 years after Christ’s death—it is commonly believed that the Church chose the 25th of December in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. I don’t think many people today seriously believe that Jesus was born on December 25th, but for those who still do, I will list here only the most significant reasons for suggesting a different season.
First of all, referring to the Luke’s account, the shepherds could not stay overnight in the fields in December, since December in Judea is very cold and wet, as it’s in the middle of the rainy season. Even if it was not wet, the nights in December are always very cold. During the winter, the shepherds, along with their flocks, would be in some shelter at night. On the other hand, early fall would fit perfectly with Luke 2.
Secondly, we know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the time of a census, and December would not have been an appropriate time for a Roman census either: such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures sometimes dropped below freezing and roads were in a very poor condition – again, early fall would be a perfect time for traveling to Bethlehem.
The most convincing argument, however, is based on the timing of John the Baptist’s birth. John’s father, Zechariah, belonged to the “priestly division of Abijah”. He was taking his turn to serve in the Temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, would conceive a son. After Zechariah returned home, his wife conceived, just as the angel had said. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel visited Mary to announce the miraculous conception of Jesus.
The twenty-four courses of the temple priesthood are found in 1 Chronicles 24. Calculations show that the Abijah division served in June. After Zechariah completed his service and traveled home, Elizabeth conceived. Assuming John’s conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time of John’s birth. If we add another six months, we arrive at September as the likely time of Jesus’ birth.
Thus, based on the New Testament accounts, late summer or early fall seem to be the most likely time of Jesus’ birth. Is there any specific time during this “late summer or early fall” season that we can single out? I personally believe, as many do, that Jesus was born during Sukkot. I also believe that the Nativity story that we find in the gospels has clear allusions to this Festival. For instance, the words of angels proclaiming “great joy for all people” seem to be connecting that day with the biblical Festival of Joy, zman simchateynu, “the season of our joy”. We can also see an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles in the words of John: “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”. There is even a suggestion that Joseph and Mary planned their trip to Bethlehem to coincide with the Sukkot pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Traveling with a pilgrimage caravan from Galilee could have provided them safety on the journey. The busy time of pilgrimage might also account for the “no room at the inn” situation in Bethlehem – and in this sense, can be seen as additional proof of the Sukkot theory: Bethlehem, being close to Jerusalem, could have been extremely crowded due to the busy time of Sukkot pilgrimage.
Let’s address this “no room” situation as well. The traditional scenario – Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus in a stable, alone and abandoned – makes absolutely no sense against the social and cultural background of the story. If Bethlehem was Joseph’s place of ancestral origin, he would most likely have relatives there, and would definitely be welcomed in any home of these relatives. The very idea that Mary and Joseph would not be taken into a house but would be abandoned to fend for themselves, is culturally impossible. “Anyone who has lodged with Palestinian peasants knows that, notwithstanding their hospitality, the lack of privacy is unspeakably painful. One cannot have a room to oneself, and one is never alone by day or by night”. If the guest room in the house was occupied, Joseph and Mary would stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and they would be surrounded by people. In order to have some privacy at the time of childbirth, they would probably go to the only place in the house where there were no people: to a lower room where the animals were kept at night. After the baby was born, however, they would probably return to the main room. Traditional images of the Holy Family, bending over the baby all alone, though very sad and beautiful, are as improbable as shepherds spending the night in the open field at the end of December. The first ever Christmas happened here, in this Land, and we need to see it against the background of this Land, when we try to be “creative” with the scenery of our Christmas plays.
Light in the Darkness
So, if the traditional nativity story is just a legend, why do we celebrate Christmas – and why do we celebrate it on the 25th of December? Let’s try to answer this question with the profound words of prophet Isaiah: “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, “The morning comes, but also the night”. Also the night… In this world, we are surrounded by night – and we all long for morning: “Watchman, what of the night”. Human beings long for light – and the One Who created us, knows our longing. That’s why, I believe, December 25th is an amazing time—by holding Christmas at the same time as the traditional winter solstice festivals, the message of Christmas has been made crystal clear: in the world’s darkest hour, the “Light of the World” is born! Yes, this date was chosen be men and probably for the wrong reasons, but as often happens, through human weaknesses and mistakes, God still works out His plan. For millions of believers, Christmas is a celebration of the true Light coming into this dark world!
In this sense, one can’t miss the connection between Hanukkah and Christmas -because the message of Hanukkah, Festival of Lights, is the same: the Light of God shines in this dark world, and the darkness cannot overcome it! This is not a pagan message: The Divine Light overcomes even the darkest of darkness – and this is what we celebrate on both Hanukkah, on the 25th of Kislev, and Christmas, on the 25th of December!
Merry Christmas, my dear readers! Many blessings for this wonderful season!
 Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes
 Isa 21:11,12