“The first noel the angel did say Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay- In fields where they lay keeping their sheep, On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.” -The First Noel, English Carol 1833
Every December, in churches all over America we tell the story of how on a cold winter’s night in Bethlehem a very special baby was born. Children sing the “Happy Birthday Song” to him in Sunday School. Sometimes, there is even a cake for baby Jesus. We imagine the shepherds shivering in the cold night awaiting the angels good news, and if it snows on the big day, December 25th, the magic is complete. It is a tradition close to our hearts, heavy with memory, fraught with emotion.
But it is profoundly unlikely that Messiah was born on a cold winter’s night in December.
Our strongest evidence to the contrary is rooted in the time marker given to us by Luke in his well beloved account of the Christmas story. In Luke 2:2, he tells us that Jesus’ birth coincided with a Roman census for which every family would have to travel to register their land for taxation in the town where it was located. This meant that large numbers of Rome’s subjects would need to travel to complete this obligation. Travel during this time was predominantly by foot, even over long distances. If Rome wanted a successful census (more tax dollars for their coffers) they needed to consider the timing of the trip.
Travel in winter would have meant very difficult conditions. The cold would certainly have been a factor for the large numbers of people traveling but the rains would have posed an even greater challenge as roads became muddy and difficult to traverse.
Another factor Rome needed to consider if they wanted a good turnout for their census was which months had religious festivals or holidays which conflicted. There was no point in making an already resistant populace even less likely to comply with their edict.
Finally, the census needed to be planned around the agricultural calendar. The people needed to be in their fields, not on the road, during the planting and harvesting months for both the wheat and barley crops.
One final piece of evidence is found in the account of the angels announcement to the shepherds. While it may not have been a cold winter’s night, the shepherds were in the fields with their sheep. The sheep were only allowed in the fields to graze after the wheat harvest was completed to nibble down the remains of the crop and “fertilize” it for the coming year.
All of these factors together place the likely time of Christ’s birth in early July or August, most likely in the year AD 6.
I, like so many of the faithful, love Christmas in December. I love firelight, snowfall, and the candlelight service at my church on Christmas Eve. I believe that the truth of Jesus being a summer baby is a reminder to allow our traditions to unite instead of divide us. After all, what matters most is not whether it was winter or summer, but that it was the perfect time on God’s holy calendar.
“But when the fullness of the time had come,
God sent forth His Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
to redeem those who were under the law,
that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
Amen and amen.