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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: What Is the Real Date of Christmas?

By January 7, 2010

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Every year, I receive questions from readers confused by the fact that the Eastern Orthodox celebrate Easter on a different day (in most years) from Catholics and Protestants. Now, a reader notes a similar situation regarding the date of Christmas:

A friend of mine—a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy—tells me that the real date of Christ's birth is not December 25 but January 7. Is this true? If so, why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25?

There's a bit of confusion here, either in the mind of the reader's friend or in the way that the reader's friend explained this to the reader. The fact is, all Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas on December 25; it just seems like some of them celebrate it on January 7.

No, that isn't a trick answer—well, not much of a trick, at least. If you've read any of my discussions of the reasons for the different dates of Easter in East and West, you'll know that one of the factors that comes into play is the difference between the Julian calendar (used in Europe up until 1582, and in England until 1752) and its replacement, the Gregorian calendar, which is still in use today as the standard global calendar.

Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar to correct astronomical inaccuracies in the Julian calendar, which had caused the Julian calendar to get out of sync with the solar year. In 1582, the Julian calendar was off by 10 days; by 1752, when England adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar was off by 11 days.

Until the turn of the 20th century, the Julian calendar was off by 12 days; currently, it is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, and will remain so until 2100, when the gap will grow to 14 days.

The Eastern Orthodox still use the Julian calendar to calculate the date of Easter, and some (though not all) use it to mark the date of Christmas. That's why I wrote that all Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas (or, rather, the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as as it is known in the East) on December 25. Some join Catholics and Protestants in celebrating Christmas on December 25 on the Gregorian calendar, while the rest celebrate Christmas on December 25 on the Julian calendar.

Add 13 days to December 25 (to make the adjustment from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one), and you arrive at January 7.

In other words, there is no dispute between Catholics and Orthodox over the date of Christ's birth. The difference is entirely the result of the use of different calendars.

If you have a question that you would like to be featured as part of our Reader Questions series, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

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Comments
January 8, 2010 at 4:18 pm
(1) Dan F. says:

It should also be mentioned that Christ’s birth is celebrated on December 25th. The actual date of his birth is not known exactly and likely was sometime in the early spring (judging by the existence of shepherds watching their flocks in a field by night vs. being in a some sort of enclosure).

January 8, 2010 at 4:56 pm
(2) Scott P. Richert says:

Actually, Dan, to say that “it should be mentioned” begs the question. It should only be mentioned if we know that Christ’s birth was not on December 25. And that, despite your mention of the shepherds, is by no means established.

As I note in my article on Christmas, many of the early Church Fathers believed December 25 to be the actual date of Christ’s birth. And while some theologians in local churches did place the date in April or May, Clement of Alexandria, around 200, makes reference to Epiphany being celebrated on January 6.

Originally, the Nativity, Epiphany, Theophany (the Baptism of Our Lord), and the Miracle at Cana were all celebrated as one feast. There was great resistance to celebrating Christ’s birth separately, because that was regarded as a pagan practice. But once the Nativity was separated out into its own feast in the third century, it quickly spread until it was celebrated universally by the mid-fourth century, and there was no debate over the date: It was celebrated on December 25.

It’s not until the 18th century that debate over the date of Christ’s birth arises, and then it comes largely from those who wish to undermine the Christian Faith.

At the time that Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25, the Church, of course, was still largely a Mediterranean institution, and so it’s odd to assume that we, 1,700 years later, on the basis of the story of the shepherds, know better than those who lived around the Mediterranean basin whether the shepherds might actually have been watching their flocks by night.

None of this, of course, is definitive; as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, it may well be possible that the date was chosen to replace Sol Invictus. But we should be very cautious about trying to second-guess the tradition, based on a few lines of Scripture that seem, to us today, to indicate that Christ’s birth took place at a warmer time.

January 8, 2010 at 6:34 pm
(3) Denise says:

Scott,

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, who is celebrating the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos today on January 8, 2010, I take offense to your response regarding Eastern Orthodox Christmas. Particularly your comment that “all Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas on December 25…”. I am unsure where you get your information, but you are obviously being misled. As an Orthodox Christian, I can attest to the fact that there are entire Orthodox communities who only celebrate Christmas on January 7 (i.e. Ukranian, Serbian, Russian).

It is unfortunate that those who celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on January 7 do not get the publicity that Catholics and Protestants get who celebrate on December 25. But for your readers, in particular the reader who posed the question, you have severely misinformed them.

January 8, 2010 at 7:09 pm
(4) Girma says:

Is there any thing you can say about Ethiopian calendar. It 2002 years since Jesus is born according to Ethiopian Calendar. Therefore, the difference is not only the ten days but also the 8 years.

January 8, 2010 at 7:40 pm
(5) Scott P. Richert says:

Denise, I think you must have missed most of the post. (Did you perhaps read only the first part on the homepage, and not click the “Read more…” link?) If you had read it all, you would know that there is no reason for you to “take offense,” I have not been “misled,” and I have not “severely misinformed anyone.”

All Orthodox, as I said, celebrate the Nativity on December 25. The difference depends on which calendar they use to mark the date. Some, as I explained, celebrate it along with Catholics and Protestants on December 25 Gregorian. Others, including those you mentioned, celebrate it on December 25 Julian.

Because there is currently a 13-day gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, those Orthodox who celebrate the Nativity on December 25 Julian celebrate it on January 7 Gregorian.

To those who do not understand the relationship between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, this can be confusing. But it is correct.

January 8, 2010 at 7:57 pm
(6) Scott P. Richert says:

Girma, I’m afraid I’ve never studied the history of the Ethiopian calendar. The Wikipedia entry looks fairly comprehensive. It notes: “A seven to eight year gap between the Ethiopian and Gregorian calendars results from alternate calculations in determining the date of the Annunciation of Jesus.” Later on, in the section on “Eras,” it gives a little more information about the “alternate calculations.”

January 13, 2010 at 6:45 pm
(7) Bruce says:

Hello Scott,

William Tighe of Touchstone had a piece called “Calculating Christmas” that might interest you:

http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v

He suggests the reason for Dec 25th and that the date was chosen by pagans to compete with Christmas.

January 15, 2010 at 11:57 am
(8) Dan F. says:

Hi Scott,

I in no way mean to doubt the tradition of when Christ’s birth is celebrated but my point is that the debate over the ‘date’ as a theological debate seems to miss the point. What’s important is that Christ’s birth is celebrated. And of course that in that celebration the Good News is declared to the world.

peace and grace,

Dan

January 15, 2010 at 11:58 am
(9) Dan F. says:

I’m going to have to learn how to use html phrasing properly so my whole posts don’t end up in italics.

January 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm
(10) Christian says:

Thank you for this article and peace be with you Scott,
It is good to see Western Christians who understand the situation resulting from the two calendars properly.
If it’s of any use to you at all, please visit our website for more information about the date of Christ’s birth:
http://bornonchristmasday.com/
If you have any information which would be useful to add please send me an email.

Peace be with you Dan,
Please visit our website as we address the issue of the shepherds being in the field at night in winter.
If it helps, to turn off italics, at the end of the section you want in italics type “/i” then replace the quotation marks with pointed brackets.

Peace be with you Girma,
The Ethiopian Calendar reckons the year to be different due to a miscalculation about what year Jesus Christ was born. It is only the year which is different though. Otherwise the Ethiopian Calendar follows the same pattern of days as the Coptic Calendar. Usually this is in step with the Julian Calendar however the Byzantine leap day is in February whereas the African leap day is in what we call September.
This leads to slight discrepancies and every four years it results in the Coptic/Ethiopian Calendar saying that the Nativity Feast should fall one day after it does on the Byzantine Julian Calendar. However, as the ancient Church used the Julian Calendar throughout the world, the Coptic and Ethiopian Churches observe this important Christmas Day according to the Julian Calendar so as to maintain unity throughout the Orthodox world. Ironically, some Eastern Orthodox Churches no longer follow this practice.

Peace be with you Denise,
Also being an Orthodox Christian who celebrates Christmas on the 7th of January according to the Gregorian Calendar, may I please assure you that Scott is completely correct when he says that this is the 25th of December on the Julian Calendar. Historically, all Christians have believed that Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December since the time the census records confirmed this to be the case. Some of the Church Fathers mentioned it before then.

December 31, 2010 at 11:22 am
(11) Albert says:

Hey all,
Happy new year everyone.
Well i was just searching on google in order to know what were the differences between the catholic christmas and the coptic one that to this gap. Up till now i’ve read many interesting articles but i’m sorry i disagree with the authour here.
Actually im an egyptian coptic eastern christian. And actually we do not celebrate christmas on December 25. only catholic here in Egypt celebrate the christmas on December 25 but as the majority of christians in Egypt are copt-orthodox so the majority celebrates the christmas on January 7.

Thank youu.
Albert

December 31, 2010 at 7:11 pm
(12) Scott P. Richert says:

Albert, please go back and read the entire article. Yes, Coptic Christians are among those who celebrate Christmas on January 7, according to the Gregorian calendar; but as I explained in both the article and the comments, January 7 Gregorian is December 25 Julian. Thus Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25; it just looks like January 7 to those who do not understand the difference between the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar.

April 25, 2011 at 12:58 am
(13) Christian Researcher says:

Actually Christmas is a lie, it has nothing to do with christ in the real sense. Do your research, it is a pegan holiday that was adopted to bring about more followers.

December 24, 2011 at 5:08 pm
(14) David says:

Hi everyone,

Actually, the real question is what’s a year and how much days in one year? lunar or solar … And why muslims refer till now to lunar year (355 or 355 days) to retrieve every year the same date for their sacred days (Ramadan…)!!!

January 8, 2013 at 3:44 pm
(15) Larry says:

The Christmas Date discussion….I think most folk today, maybe not, realize that Dec. 25 was a pagan holiday and the church sort of took the viewpoint….they didn’t want to fight them, so lets join them…that way everything worship is centered around Dec. 25th…that’s just an easy way to explain it…nothing official. The only official thing is …no one really knows when Jesus was actually born…one has to think…if he really wanted us to remember when he was actually born, would it really be this hard. That said, if the Dec. 25th date isn’t right…then what makes anyone sure that Jan. 7th the Eastern Orthodox celebrate is any more correct. No offense now…just throwing that out there.

January 8, 2013 at 4:04 pm
(16) Scott P. Richert says:

Larry, did you read the post before commenting? January 7 (Gregorian) is December 25 (Julian). The Eastern Orthodox and the rest of us celebrate Christmas on the same date.

January 8, 2013 at 4:40 pm
(17) John brewer says:

What do mean ‘warmer time of the year’? December is the warmest time of the year! We are going through an extreme heat wave here in Australia. It is hard for me to understand Christmas cards with snow around. Has it ever snowed in Bethlehem?
If we went back to the Julian calendar the Christmas would eventually be celebrated at the start of winter.

January 6, 2014 at 5:25 pm
(18) Abiy (Ethiopian) says:

The Julian calendar year has a length of 365.25 day long, where as the Gregorian Calendar year has a length of 365.2425 days.
The scientific year has a length of 365.242199 days. The Ethiopian Calendar year has a length of 365.2422 days. This accuracy comes from the location of Ethiopia, near to the Equator.
The seven to eight year difference between the Gregorian and Ethiopian Calendar comes from these year length variations and reference/base year for the calculation.
This difference in other words means, as per Catholic’s, Jesus was born Seven years Eight Months and 11 days earlier than what he expected to be born (I will come room save you after Five and half days). Which means God did not keep his word. Which is difficult/impossible to thick that God makes mistakes.
Even though, December 25 (Julian) is January 7 (Gregorian) (as per Scott P. Richert) it has error in meaning when you go back to beginning.
Thanks.

January 7, 2014 at 5:50 pm
(19) Carla t Pickett says:

I just started attending a monastery outside of Boston, Ma which is incredible. They just celebrated christmas last night at midnight which is 13 days from the 25th. Just saying. Thank You God Bless!

January 8, 2014 at 8:56 am
(20) Faith says:

I find the article and comments about the date that Christ’s birth was celebrated interesting. I’ve learned quite a bit more from Scott’s writings and from others who add additional thoughts in the comment area. I’m just glad that as Christians we can celebrate along with others who celebrate the “joy of giving” at Christmas. As I have grown older, I rather do something for others such as serve at Soup Kitchens, visit the elderly, etc., but many younger people and children enjoy the giving of materialistic gifts, which have their place in some households. I’m not criticizing anyone for giving of gifts that others will “ohh or awww” over, but just by celebrating that Christ was born givens me much more warmth and love than anything material ever will.

Thanks for the educational article surrounding the dates of Christ’s birth and the added thoughts via comments of readers.

Happy 2014 to everyone!

January 9, 2014 at 1:40 pm
(21) Ana says:

Oh my God! People can Scott post something about Christmas for the sake of God’s Holy Church!

To: Christian Researcher, Larry, & David:
You all are so ignorant. The reason why Dec 25th was chosen was it was a pagan sun god holiday, but that Christ is God of all gods, the Light of the world, He is Chanukkah/Hanukkah, He is considered the Sun the Brightest Star in some religions such as the Catholic Church. Because He gives us light and warmth in a dark and cold world. Can’t you all see what God the Father has given us are that blind?

Thank you Scott for telling God’s story of Salvation to us and to those brother and sisters that haven’t yet understood the message. God Bless.

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