Annual Holiday Message Has a Few New Twists

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

Annual Holiday Message Has a Few New Twists


Maybe the stores that begin decorating for Christmas in early September know something the rest of us don't.

After all, it's quite possible -- and even very likely -- that Jesus was born on Sept. 29, around 5 or 6 B.C.

That's the best guess that the Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia can make about Christ's birth date, based on research by Christmas historians in the past and what we know about the Christmas story.

Beckmann shared the history of Christmas "calendars, characters and the courts" in his annual holiday message to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club last week.

Beckmann estimates he has been delivering presentations about Christmas legend and lore for the past 30 years, mostly because "I am a sucker for Christmas books, and it's a fascinating holiday to study."

I've been fortunate to share the message each of the past eight years with readers, and here's the new and interesting things Beckmann shared in his 2012 presentation:

Researching the birth

Historians can look at several factors when trying to determine when the baby Jesus was actually born. It likely was not in late December, since both Luke and Matthew, in their versions of the Christmas story, mention shepherds were at work in their fields when an angel informed them of the birth.

"That means it had to be in the spring or at lambing time when lambs were newborns, because that would be the time shepherds would stay in the fields," Beckmann said. "It is too cold to be in the fields in late December."

In addition, using facts such as the reign of King Herod and the years in which Romans conducted a census for the purpose of levying taxes, it is reasonable to estimate that Jesus was born around 5 or 6 B.C. In the early days of Christianity, May 20 was the church's choice for celebrating the birth of Christ, Beckmann said. But that was after two centuries of not celebrating the birth at all, because the Easter celebration was more important, he added.

"The date of a birth was not as important to record, because so many infants died during child birth," Beckmann said. "The date of death was the key date that was recorded."

By the middle of the 4th century, Pope Julius I established Dec. 25 as the date of birth, partly because it would make it easy for those Romans who were still pagans to complete their rituals at that time of year and transition into Christianity, Beckmann noted.

We took our time

It took a long time for Christmas celebrations to take hold in this country, considering the Puritans of the 17th century banned Christmas celebrations. That prohibition spread to North America, where a Massachusetts court levied a fine of five shillings on anyone who celebrated, Beckmann said.

The Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620 passed a law banning both Christmas and Easter celebrations. It wasn't until Charles II gained power in England that the ban on Christmas was lifted, and the customs made their way to America. …

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