(This article was published on September 30th, 2009 in my university's newspaper.)
We might commonly picture Christmas as the gathering of Christian families, singing carols around the fireplace, with snow on the windowsills as they celebrate the birth of Jesus. However, Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom Christians believe is the only begotten Son of God, and the promised Jewish messiah, was not born December 25, AD 1. In reality, most scholars agree that Jesus was most likely born in the year 3 BC, since King Herod, who had commanded the slaughter of all infants under the age of two years, died in the year 1 BC. Herod had ordered the slaughter as a result of hearing that the "Child King" of Israel had been born. Some 750 years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had said that the Messiah would be given to the world as a child, born of a young maiden, and who would be called "God among us", and "Mighty God, Everlasting Father". He also wrote that the Messiah would bear the punishment of the sins of many, just as Christians believe Jesus did when dying on the cross.
Luke, one of the writers of the Gospel accounts, gives 27 AD as the approximate year when Jesus is baptized and begins His public ministry, at the age of 30. This is worthy of note since the prophet Daniel had prophesied that within those very years, 483 years after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, the Messiah would appear. For this reason many Jews at the time were expecting the coming Messiah, and history shows that several people surfaced during that time claiming to be the Messiah and who were promptly put to death by the Romans for insurrection.
The reason many celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December is due to syncretism, whereby old pagan festivities were given a new face after the official conversion of the Roman Pagan Empire to Christianity. The conversion of the Roman Empire occurred some years after Christian worship was legalized in the 4th Century, as a result of Emperor Constantine's conversion. This melding of the Roman Pagan Church with Christian beliefs is what produced what we call today the Roman Catholic Church, even inheriting the title of "Pontifex Maximus" for the pope, a title which was held by the emperor and head of the Roman Pagan Church. One such tradition that was carried through was the celebration of the birthday of Sol Invictus, the "unconquered sun god", on the winter solstice, which occurred the 25th of December. This newly established church adopted this tradition, but reappointed it as the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
So, if not the 25th of December, then when was it that Jesus was born? We can quite accurately place the date of Jesus' birth by observing the Jewish festivals being celebrated during several key events as related in the story of Jesus' birth. Luke relates that John the Baptist was conceived some time in the two week period after his father Zechariah was serving at the Temple in Jerusalem. This is where Zechariah was told by an angel that his barren wife would give birth to a son who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah, quoting the prophet Micah. The conception of John the Baptist occurred some time after the third week of the Hebrew month of Sivan, 6 months before his cousin, Jesus, was conceived, placing Jesus' conception at the time of Hanukkah.
Some scholars calculate that John was born on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, meaning that Jesus would likely have been born on the 15th day of the month of Tishri, which marks the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles, or "Sukkot". This would explain why Joseph and Mary could not find proper lodging, as a great number of Jews would head to Jerusalem during this time, as required by their religious law. Interestingly, that would also place John's birth at the time of Passover, where, to this day, a typical Jewish celebration of the Passover "seder" celebrates the expectation of the coming of Elijah during precisely this time of year.
Now, if you have been keeping up with the dates of Jewish celebrations occurring during the year, you will have noticed that "Sukkot" is just about to occur, which means that the appropriate time to celebrate Jesus' birthday this year is also around the corner. This year the 15th of Tishri, the most likely date for Jesus' birthday, will land on Saturday, October 3rd, quite a far cry from December 25th. Perhaps now Christians can finally start celebrating the birth of Jesus at a more precise date than they have been for hundreds of years. But there is, of course, no reason to drop the December Christmas celebration, since, after all, Jesus was conceived during Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which was just one of the many Jewish festivals Jesus would celebrate as a Torah observant Jew. And after all, the New Testament does call Jesus "the Light of the World".