The First Christmas: It Was Later Than You May Think!
Historians and theologians have for many years sought to link the birth of Jesus Christ with December 25th. The internal evidence from the Gospel accounts indicates a timing of the fall or autumn of the year for the birth of Jesus, so scholars have probed the literature written by the church fathers to establish the exact date and determine when it was first associated with December 25th. All efforts to find conclusive evidence linking His birth to that date have failed.
Of recent date, a classical scholar, who is the Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, has made an observation that transforms the understanding of the relationship of December 25 to Jesus Christ.
Timothy Barnes has studied the Patristic period, from the 2nd through 5th centuries, specializing in one individual in particular, Constantine the Great. Barnes is considered a foremost authority on Constantine and his accomplishments. He has noted that December 25th first appears as a Christian event in Rome linked to the events of 312, the year that Constantine fought his battle at Milvian Bridge, conquering the city and thus becoming supreme Emperor.
In his 2011 book, Constantine, Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire, Barnes writes: “In the winter of 312/313 Constantine began to grant fiscal privileges to Christian clergy and to raise the status of the Christian church within Roman society." Barnes notes that Constantine remained in Rome until January 6, 313, traditionally known as Epiphany day. By the end of his reign, Roman Christians were dating the nativity of Christ to December 25. So Christmas began in Rome with a newly ‘converted’ Roman emperor. Barnes questions whether it is “rash to suggest that it was Constantine who introduced this synchronism in 312, thereby in some way equating the traditional pagan god with his new Christian God” (Barnes 85).
It remained over half a century more before John Chrysostomas began to associate December 25th with the date of the birth of Jesus. But Chrysostom's misunderstanding of Scripture is a story for another day.