Please read the short introduction first.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:8-11
Was Jesus born during the Spring Lambing?
When was Jesus born? Most people acknowledge that it is unlikely that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, as it is unlikely that the shepherds would have been out at night with their flocks in the depths of a chilly, northern hemisphere winter. [Contra: See Paul’s comment in the comments section below.]
Perhaps this clue in Luke chapter 1 is as obvious as it seems:
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. Luke 1:26-27 (NASB)
The sixth month of the Jewish calendar is Elul which roughly corresponds with August-September. If Mary conceived Jesus immediately after her visit from Gabriel in August-September, then Jesus would have been born in late Spring, nine months later. If Jesus was born in the Spring, the shepherds and the sheep could very well have been out in the fields at night time. Moreover, Jesus’ birth would have coincided with the lambing season which is when all the shepherds were on hand to guard the flocks day and night. The shortcoming of this idea is that Luke did not use the Jewish months of the year elsewhere in his narrative to identify the timing of certain events.
Bible Scholars typically believe that the “six month” in Luke 1:26 refers to Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The NIV 2011 even paraphrases this verse as “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy . . .” (Luke 1:26). Luke seems to take undue care in keeping track of the months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:24, 26, 36, 56), while not giving us any indication of the dates and times of Mary’s pregnancy. Unless, of course, Luke is plainly stating that the angel Gabriel visited Mary in the sixth month—Elul.
Was Jesus born during the Autumnal Feast of Tabernacles?
Some Jewish scholars have tried to use the time of Zacharias’ Temple service to calculate when Elizabeth became pregnant and, subsequently, when Mary became pregnant (Luke 1:5-9). They have used the roster of 1 Chronicles 24:10 and the information that Zacharias was of the family of Abijah to work out when he was in the Temple and visited by Gabriel. It is then assumed that Elizabeth became pregnant shortly after the completion of Zacharias’ Temple service, and Mary became pregnant six months after Elizabeth.
The roster of 1 Chronicles 24:10 was probably not used in the post-exilic, second Temple but, if the suppositions and calculations of these Jewish scholars are correct, then Jesus was born during the feast of Tabernacles.
Many significant New Testament events occurred during Jewish Feasts. Jesus died at the time of the Passover feast and was resurrected at the time of the feast of First Fruits. The Holy Spirit came on the feast day of Pentecost. With this in mind, it does seem plausible that Jesus, who became flesh and, literally, “tabernacled” (dwelt) with us, was born at the time of the feast of Tabernacles in October (John 1:14).
Was Jesus born at the Winter Solstice?
For the first three hundred years, Christians did not celebrate any kind of Christmas observance. In the early fourth century, church leaders decided that they needed a Christian alternative to the popular pagan winter solstice celebrations. They chose December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth and held the first recorded Feast of the Nativity in Rome in A.D. 336.
Church leaders may have had theological reasons for choosing the date of the 25th of December. The Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus had identified the 25th as Christ’s nativity more than a hundred years earlier. Biblical chronographers reckoned that the world was created on the spring equinox and four days later, on the 25th of March, light was created. Since the existence of Jesus signalled the beginning of a new era, or a new creation, the chronographers assumed Jesus’ conception would have also fallen on March 25th placing his birth, nine months later, on or around the time of the winter solstice in December. [This information from Susan Dowdey.]
Many Christmas cards incorporate elements of pagan winter solstice festivals, such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a week long feast of eating, drinking and gift giving, and homes were festively decorated. Holly was the official plant of the Roman God Saturn, and holly wreaths were distributed as presents and used as decorations during Saturnalia.
The Druids thought that holly was sacred, and they believed that holly and ivy entwined together could ward off the evil spirits that they imagined were especially prevalent in the cold winter winds. (Mistletoe was also regarded as sacred by the Druids.)
Holly is a common emblem on Christmas cards, as is the ubiquitous Christmas tree. The evergreen Christmas tree is thought to have originated from concepts of the “Sacred Oak” which appears in the folklore of several cultures.
When was Jesus’ Birthday?
What is puzzling is that we really don’t know when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born on earth. Why is this fact obscured to us? The coming of the promised Saviour and Messiah had been repeatedly prophesied about in the Old Testament, and when the day finally came, his birth was heralded and celebrated by glorious angels and a starry, cosmic sign. Yet we are ignorant of the day, or even the season, when this wonderful event occurred. Unless, as previously stated, Luke has told us that Gabriel visited Mary in the sixth month—Elul. Part 6 »
 See remarks about the Bethlehem flocks and the lambs bred for Temple sacrifices in Christmas Cardology 4: Was Jesus born in a barn?
© 16th of December 2010, Margaret Mowczko