To many Americans, a day in late fall or winter begins with the scraping of frost or ice from the car windshield. After a long day at school or work, many of us drive, ride, or walk home in darkness because the sun has set earlier that afternoon. So, why do we celebrate Advent—the season of preparation for the joyous gift of Christ—during this coldest and darkest time of year? Do we know that Jesus was born on December 25? For that matter, why do we begin each new year on January 1? Wouldn’t we enjoy the holiday season more if it were in May?
Scripture says nothing about the time of year when Jesus was born, but the church has always recognized the Messiah’s birth in the darkest days of winter. The original date of Christmas was January 6. It was changed to December 25 in the fourth century.
We know a little more about New Year’s Day, which has been celebrated for millennia. The ancient Babylonians, who recognized the holiday as early as 2000 BC, celebrated the beginning of each new year on the first day of spring. In Roman times, emperors had the power to change the calendar and begin a new year whenever they felt like doing so. The Roman Senate in 153 BC decided that the new year would begin on January 1. Julius Caesar affirmed this change when he introduced his Julian Calendar in 46 BC. Unlike the Babylonian new year, the Roman new year had no seasonal or astronomical meaning.
Some ancient cultures, such as the Persians, chose to celebrate the birth of the sun at this time of year. The idea was that, on the shortest day of the year, the sun was in its infancy. From that point on, the sun would grow, lighting the sky for longer and longer periods each day until at last it began to fade. Through the late summer and fall, hours of sunlight would be replaced by hours of darkness. Then, toward the end of December, the sun would be born again.
It is interesting, then, that we celebrate Christmas during a season when some ancient peoples celebrated the birth of the light. Jesus is the “light of the world” (John 8:12), and when he came to earth, he illuminated a world overwhelmed by darkness. And in times of fear and sadness, when the light seems to be fading away, Christ can cut through the darkness and bring new light. It is also interesting that we begin each new year during this season. Even amid icy mornings and sunless afternoons, we can pause to reflect on the past year and look forward to the promises and opportunities of the year to come.
For much of the Advent season, the days will continually get shorter. Many youth will spend the weeks leading up to Christmas completing end-of-the-semester projects and papers and studying for final exams (though some have the misfortune of taking finals after Christmas). Teens who participate in winter sports will spend their afternoons in grueling practices or hard-fought competitions; youth who are involved in music and drama will likely be preparing school Christmas programs.
But students will be rewarded for their strife. That blessed time known at most schools as winter break is coming. During this two-week (give or take) vacation, teens will enjoy some much-needed rest, get some new stuff, and look forward to the promise of a new year. More importantly, they will be reminded of the ever-present hope that is theirs because God came to us so many years ago in the form of an infant child born in a stable.
The connection between the secular celebration of the new year, religiously-neutral winter breaks, and the sacred holiday of Christmas is not just a coincidence. Just as winter break provides relief from the burdens of schoolwork and after-school activities, Christ’s birth offers relief from the burdens of sin and fear. And as New Year’s Day signifies the promise and opportunity of a new year, Christmas signifies the promise and opportunity of a new age that began with the coming of the Messiah.
Advent is the time when we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ—both in the form of an infant two thousand years ago and in all of the ways Christ continues to work within our lives and our world. Preparing for Christ’s coming means telling the ancient stories of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and John the Baptist. We must also help our youth understand this season of cold, commercialism, and craziness in the context of the story of God’s salvation. One way to do so is to take a closer look at how the church marks each Sunday during Advent.
Josh Tinley is a curriculum editor for Abingdon Press and the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.