We are collectively about to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the spiritual Son of God and savior for more than a billion members of the human race. I grew up thinking that the baby Jesus was born on December 25th of the year “one”, and of course we all know that isn’t “exactly” true.
The date of December 25th coincides with the end of the one week Winter Solstice celebration in the Roman calendar . According to The History News Network “In ancient Rome, this festival was called the Saturnalia and ran from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24. During that week, no work was done, and the time was spent in parties, games, gift giving and decorating the houses with evergreens. (Sound familiar?) It was, needless to say, a very popular holiday.
In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, the Church calendar was centered on Easter, still by far the most important day in the Christian year. The Last Supper was a Seder, celebrating Passover, which falls on the day of the full moon in the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. So in A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring. That’s why Easter and its associated days, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are “moveable feasts,” moving about the calendar at the whim of the moon.
It is a mark of how late Christmas came to the Christian calendar that it is not a moveable feast, but a fixed one, determined by the solar calendar established by Julius Caesar and still in use today (although slightly tweaked in the 16th century).
By the time of the Council of Nicea, the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on Dec. 25. ”
Liberius called the Nativity “the Mass of Christ”, hence Christ-mas.
So, later in life it made sense to me that Christmas was a celebration of Jesus’ birth not a “date certain.” First, shepherds watched over their flocks at night. Shepherds among you know that only happens when the Ewes are pregnant, in the Spring! Secondly, Mary and Joseph were traveling, an act of “rebellion” under Roman rule (to keep the population from rising up). The exception was that Rome REQUIRED travel to one’s place of birth to be counted for the census. There was such a census in the late Spring of what we now call 2BC.
Still my curiosity about the exact date of Jesus’ birth persisted; that is until I ventured one day about 20 years ago to the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles ( see photo).
There an astronomical show was presented in a darkened auditorium by a star projector replicating the night sky. It’s subject was “The Star of Wonder” – The Christmas Star; and by searching for an event that would match the ancient tellings of the Christmas, the researchers at Griffith Park came up with the probable date of the birth of Jesus: THE 17TH OF JUNE IN THE YEAR 2 BC!
BELOW, REPRINTED FROM AN ARTICLE ON MSNBC.COM, IS THE STORY I HEARD ABOUT THE MIRACLE OF THE BIRTH OF CHRIST, THE MAGI, AND THE “STAR” THAT FOREVER MARKED IT IN HISTORY:
“Through the years, astronomers and others have proposed a variety of objects for the Christmas star — comets, an exploding star or a grouping of planets. Some suggest that the star was a miracle created especially by God. Such a suggestion cannot be proved or disproved, and it is entirely outside the realm of science. But there’s no need to resort to miracles, given the actual astronomical events of the time.
The first thing is to determine the approximate date of Jesus’ birth. Then we look into the sky of that period and try to identify the star. It doesn’t work the other way around: Since virtually any year can boast at least one reasonably interesting sky event, the astronomy must follow the history.
Ruling out prime suspects Let’s assume, as many historians have, that the most likely time frame for the birth of Jesus was between 3 B.C. and A.D. 1. Let’s also assume that the Star of Bethlehem could be observed by skywatchers elsewhere in the world, and not just by the Magi — who are known as “wise men” or “kings” but were actually priests who relied on astrology.
These assumptions would rule out some of the prime suspects in the mystery: comets, brightening stars known as novae, and exploding stars known as supernovae. The Chinese, who did a particularly good job of cataloging astronomical phenomena, recorded no such phenomena during the years in question.
Beyond the timing issue, there’s another consideration: A comet or supernova big enough to attract the wise men’s attention would have been widely noticed by royalty and commoners as well. But King Herod and his advisers seemed not to know or care about the star until the astrologers from the east came to visit.
However, if we suppose that the “star” actually referred to the planets, the situation is less problematic. The movements and groupings of planets in the night sky were of exceeding interest to astrologers and were closely tracked around the world. Historical records and modern-day computer simulations indicate that there was a rare series of planetary groupings, also known as conjunctions, during the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C.
The show started on the morning of June 12 in 3 B.C., when Venus could be sighted very close to Saturn in the eastern sky. Then there was a spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on Aug. 12 in the constellation Leo, which ancient astrologers associated with the destiny of the Jews.
Between September of 3 B.C. and June of 2 B.C., Jupiter passed by the star Regulus in Leo, reversed itself and passed it again, then turned back and passed the star a third time. This was another remarkable event, since astrologers considered Jupiter the kingly planet and regarded Regulus as the “king star.”
The crowning touch came on June 17, when Jupiter seemed to approach so close to Venus that, without binoculars, they would have looked like a single star.
Rewarding search The whole sequence of events could have been enough for at least three astrologers to go to Jerusalem and ask Herod: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that astrology works. We haven’t ruled out other possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem. And the mere existence of interesting celestial events does nothing to prove that the birth of Jesus was accompanied by a star, that the Magi existed, or even that the Nativity took place as described in the Bible.
But it does make our search more rewarding to find a truly interesting astronomical event that happened during the most likely time for the Nativity.
This article is based on John Mosley’s 1987 book, “The Christmas Star,” which is available from the Griffith Observatory. “The Christmas Star” addresses many other questions about the season, such as: When was Christ born? Who were the Magi? Why is Christmas observed on Dec. 25? ”
Whatever the actual date of Jesus’ birth, there is no doubt that the miracle of it for millions and millions is worth celebrating, with friends, family, presents and merriment of all sort. I share in wishing you that joyous celebration….Merry Christmas!